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banner Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 14:02 GMT
Union view: Seeing through the smoke and mirrors

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB
John Edmonds: "Strong sense of responsibility to the party"


Labour's leaders are showing welcome signs of a change of direction, says John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB union - and that is good news for core supporters concerned about the party's future.


The Labour Party was born out of the desperate need for a working class voice in Parliament. As leader of one of the founding trade unions, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to the party.

The Labour Party grew up with the mission to create a sharing national community. This aspiration was based on a crusading determination to improve the lives of the worst off in our country by promoting equality and challenging privilege.


Often Labour has been half-hearted in promoting policies which appeal to its traditional supporters, while the Millbank publicity machine has been working hard to prove that Labour has changed
During the 20th century, Britain was transformed by Labour governments. Full employment became a reality, the welfare state was developed, the NHS was founded and legal aid was introduced.

For the first hundred years, the Labour Party relied heavily on working class support in the ballot box. Of course progressive individuals from all backgrounds voted Labour, but there was no doubt that Labour's core support was in Britain's industrial heartlands.

Tony Blair knows that election victories in the 21st century require Labour to broaden its appeal. The dilemma for New Labour is how to garner votes in the suburbs and market towns without antagonising traditional supporters.

Unfortunately, New Labour's solution has often been to avoid confronting the issue squarely and to rely on the smoke and mirrors of the spin doctors to pretend that the dilemma does not exist.

Often Labour has been half-hearted in promoting policies which appeal to its traditional supporters, while the Millbank publicity machine has been working hard to prove that Labour has changed.

For instance, the Working Family Tax Credit scheme is a magnificent policy for redistributing wealth, but the aim of redistribution has been underplayed.

Little credit

On the other hand, the spin doctors have trumpeted the claim of New Labour to be the party of business - a notion which makes many core supporters feel distinctly queasy.

The result is uncomfortable for everyone who cares about the Labour Party.

The Labour government has taken some commendable initiatives - increasing jobs, the New Deal, better rights at work, higher child benefits, and a substantial fuel allowance for pensioners.

Tony Blair at the CBI Making Labour party of business "makes supporters queasy"
Yet these policies have won the government precious little credit from its traditional supporters because they are presented as if the real concerns of the leadership are elsewhere.

We can see the tensions at any Labour Party gathering. New Labour speakers list government achievements with pride and the party faithful look unconvinced and manage no more than polite applause.

Change of direction

The anxiety in the Labour heartlands is beginning to have electoral consequences. The 1999 European elections were a mess and Labour voters stayed at home.


Cosying up to the employers is unhelpful because that looks as if Labour is siding with the privileged against ordinary people
Last year's council elections were also marked by very low polls in key Labour seats. During the Welsh Assembly elections Labour lost many votes in the south Wales valleys, and the latest by-election in mid-Wales left Labour in fourth place.

We are now moving into the last year before the general election and Labour's traditional supporters need to be encouraged. In particular the heartland voters need a Labour policy which they can boast about in the pubs and shopping centres and, more importantly, on the doorstep.

Fortunately, there are signs that the party leadership is beginning to change direction. John Prescott's speech to local councillors in Blackpool at the start of February was designed to reassure party supporters.

Then we saw the first draft of the party policy document on taxation which, heaven be praised, mentioned redistribution of wealth as a desirable objective.

Wave of relief


Most important of all, the party has changed direction and decided, after all, to increase the National Minimum Wage this year.

Party loyalists are feeling a wave of relief because a decision to freeze the minimum wage would have been extremely damaging.

After a difficult few weeks, the task of the party is now to move from damage limitation on to the offensive.

Tony Blair keeps reminding the Labour Party that one election victory is not enough. To transform society we need to win in 2001 and again in 2005. That means developing One Nation policies which appeal to the whole community, and do not alienate the party faithful.

We need to be more careful with our messages. Cosying up to the employers is unhelpful because that looks as if Labour is siding with the privileged against ordinary people.

If it is to succeed in the years ahead, the party must keep testing its policies and presentation against that key phrase in our constitution - "for the many, not the few".

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Background and analysis of 100 years of the Labour Party from BBC News Online
Links to other Labour centenary stories are at the foot of the page.


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Links to more Labour centenary stories