Keeping politics going in government

As Labour meets in Brighton for its annual party conference, Tom Kelly’s been considering the difficulty in keeping the new Labour project moving, whilst staying in government. He also makes an interesting comparison between Labour and the trade union movement on one hand, and the UUP and the Orange Order on the other.By Tom Kelly

As Labour delegates gather in Brighton, it would seem that the burden of office is becoming too much for some of them. Somehow they have forgotten how hard it was to convince the public to trust them with the running of government.

Outside the conference centre every type of malcontent is gathering, placards in hand and chants at the ready. Tory fox hunter is shoulder to shoulder with Militant supporters and anti-war groupies are joined by fathers battling for justice.

Funny enough, one does not see angry masses of Northern Ireland citizens joining protesters calling for a return of devolution. I wonder why not? Could they share the sentiments of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind in that “Frankly they don’t give a damn”?

Looking at British politics it is bewildering to understand why Labour is not returned election after election. However, a closer look at Labour in government and it is not hard to understand at all. A bit like the north, protest comes easier than progressive politics.

Blair, Brown and Mandelson may have made Labour electable for government but they can not make it sustainable in government. Making Labour fit for government is akin to painting the Forth Bridge, no sooner have you finished one end, when it’s time to go back to the start.

Whatever the shortcomings of this government, we have had longest period of economic growth since the Second World War, the lowest inflation rates in 30 years, the lowest interest rates since the 1960s and the lowest unemployment levels since the 1970s. Education and health are two priorities of the government and public sector reform is well under way.

So what is going wrong and can we ever be pleased?

More of us are employed and we have more money in our pockets than at any time. So why are we grumbling and – if we are so unhappy – will any of the alternatives make us any happier?

Well for me, if the alternative is the Tories I don’t mind borrowing the totality of Ian Paisley’s vocabulary by saying ‘No!’ because Michael Howard is exploiting unfounded fears among the public about immigration and crime. As for his economic policies it is impossible to cut taxes and raise levels of public expenditure at the same time.

One has to ask if any of the public sector union leaders who have spent the past two years flexing their muscles, really feel that they will get a better a deal from the man who, with Thatcher, brought in anti-union legislation crushing their very membership?

If they continue to engage in strike action, freezing the country and bringing it to its knees how long will the public sympathy last? Much debate has taken place about the role of trade unions in the Labour Party.

To an outsider, trade union influence in the party seems about as useful to Labour as the Orange Order is to the Ulster Unionist Party. Too many trade union leaders are determined to undermine any Labour government.

It is a myth that only the Blair government is feeling the antipathy of union leaders. They kept Labour out of office during the 1930s. They undermined Attlee despite the widespread social reforms brought in by that government. They had Wilson on a string and brought Callaghan to book.

Any would-be pretender to the Labour throne would do well to accept the support of fair weather friends from the trade union movement or the serial protesters on the back benches with more than a dose of caution. Instead of bewaring the ‘Ides of March’, it will be better to remember the ‘winter of discontent’!

There is no doubt that Blair has damaged his relationship with the public and his party. Comparisons with Thatcher are not helpful. In policy terms, Blair is no Thatcher but his (and her) failure to understand the nature of the British parliamentary system undermines his authority.

Firstly, neither liked the Commons process of accountability and both adopted an autocratic leadership style – some would say presidential.
The British public don’t like presidential leaders, despite the fact that historically their strongest and most effective leaders were among the most autocratic.

The Liberal Democrats are the ‘Liquorice Allsorts’ of British politics. They are offering everything to everyone. Some call it an a la carte policy menu. Others say it is more of a political stew and one is better not asking for detail of the ingredients.

When it comes to the cut and thrust of a general election, Charles Kennedy is just not going to be at the races. So like it or lump it, it is Labour for another term.

Harper’s Weekly once wrote that President Lincoln was a ‘storyteller, despot, liar, braggart, scoundrel, perjurer, butcher, and tyrant’. So perhaps Blair can take comfort.

However, if integrity is missing from the political conference season, then there is an over-abundance of it in one part of Belfast.

At the weekend, former Presbyterian moderator John Dunlop called an end to his pastoral duties at Rosemary Presbyterian Church and he will be sorely missed. If ever a man can epitomise the living Word of God, then he comes close.

I am probably biased in favour of another Newry man, but the first time I encountered John was after he wrote an article in The Irish Times criticising Newry as a ‘cold house for local Protestants’.

I responded by saying he obviously had been away too long from his home place to know what he was talking about. Thus, he started a dialogue and a friendship lasting nearly 10 years.

John Dunlop has shown the type of leadership that unionism sorely lacks. Many commentators have said that the unionists needed a de Klerk – and no doubt some may think John fitted the job description.

To me, that would be an insulting comparison. John Dunlop is a unionist Mandela, and he used every day to emancipate his people from false allegations against them and false misrepresentation of them by unionist leaders.

John will be missed by his congregation but he was one man who “Frankly, did give a damn”. Let’s hope that, with more time on his hands, he will continue to do so.

First published in the Irish News.