The sight of Bryan Gould commenting on the steel crisis is a reminder of one of the great lost Labour leaders (of whom there have been many). The following piece about the Labour leadership election of 1992 is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s:
There was never much doubt about who was going to succeed Neil Kinnock. Even before nominations for the leadership closed, the leaders of the three biggest trade unions – the AEU, the TGWU and the GMBW – had all endorsed the claim of shadow chancellor John Smith, and the result was a foregone conclusion. Even so, Tony Blair tried to persuade his closest colleague Gordon Brown to enter the race, not in the hope of winning but with the intention of putting down a marker on behalf of the impatient young faction who were already becoming known as the ‘modernisers’.
But Smith was far too experienced an operator to allow himself to be outmanoeuvred by the likes of Blair and had already squared Brown before the election, offering him the shadow chancellorship as a consolation prize on condition that he didn’t stand. ‘Gordon had not seized the moment,’ wrote Blair reprovingly in his memoirs, though his comment at the time was more forthright: ‘He chickened out.’
Brown’s own account was somewhat different. ‘I felt I had to be loyal,’ he claimed afterwards. ‘I never thought for a minute of standing against John Smith.’ Blair himself, who Major said was the person he most feared on the Labour front bench, considered running for the deputy leadership, but allowed himself to be talked out of it.
There was one other potential candidate for the top job who didn’t materialise. From the left, Ken Livingstone, the former leader of the Greater London Council, announced his intention of standing. He had the support of the Sun, the paper that had once described him as ‘the most odious man in Britain’ and for whom he now wrote a column, but that was about as deep as his backing went. Under the rules then operating, a candidate needed to secure the nominations of a fifth of the parliamentary party, which in 1992 meant fifty-five MPs; Livingstone managed just thirteen.
The absence of Brown and Livingstone meant that the only challenge Smith faced was from Bryan Gould, and it was touch-and-go whether even he could secure enough nominations.
Gould had long carved out an alternative viewpoint to that of Kinnock and Smith, putting forward arguments that were to look much wiser in retrospect than many were prepared to credit at the time. He opposed British membership of the ERM and suggested that, rather than simply pushing up interest rates to deal with the effects of a credit boom, a responsible government would ‘look at restricting the general level of lending by banks and other institutions in conditions where that lending threatened to become excessive’.
He further insisted that the British political establishment was mistaken in its ‘belief that monetary measures matter more than the real economy in which ordinary people live and work and that one can take a shortcut, through fiscal policy and the mere assertion that we have a strong currency, to the economic success which we see others enjoying’.
But Gould’s position of a modernising, Eurosceptic left enjoyed little support within the party. Labour had become so demoralised by its failure to defeat the Tories over what was now four elections that it had effectively ceded the economic ground and was looking hopefully towards Europe to deliver some sort of alternative on social policy.
Furthermore Gould was not a great faction-builder, lacking a power base within either the parliamentary party or – as was still important at the time – the union movement. Indeed his own expertise in economic matters sometimes had the effect of alienating his colleagues, who were aware of their own limitations and felt that he displayed ‘arrogance’. If that were the case, he was far from apologetic. ‘It always amazed me that so few MPs knew anything about economics,’ he later reflected. ‘Almost none found it possible to reach their own independent conclusions.’
Ultimately the leadership election, insofar as there was a debate to be had, came down to something more straightforward than economics and Britain’s relationship with Europe. It was a question of comfort. Smith was the steady-as-she-goes candidate, reassuring the party that there would be no more great upheavals on policy, that it was in prime position to take the next election, and that its traditions would be fully respected, for Smith was nothing if not a man of the Labour movement.
Opposing that heartening message was the outsider Gould, the New Zealand-born academic who had gone on to work in broadcast journalism, and who insisted that the party was not yet properly prepared for government. ‘A “safety first” approach and waiting for the Tories to lose won’t produce election victory. We’ll have to reach out to those voters who felt unable to trust us,’ he argued, adding that in the election: ‘Our policies appeared to set a cap on the aspirations of the voters we need to win.’
The need to improve the party’s position in the South was not apparent to all. John Smith was born, educated and worked in Scotland; he represented a Scottish constituency and, from his vantage point north of the border, there seemed far less pressure for radical reform of the party. In Scotland Labour had been comfortably the most successful party in the 1992 general election, with a lead over the Conservatives of thirteen percentage points, and it seemed less important to win over Essex man than to avoid being outflanked on the left by the Scottish National Party. There was little sense of urgency in Scotland, just a belief that one last push would be sufficient.
Gould was the obvious answer to Labour’s southern weakness. Sufficiently cosmopolitan and forward looking that he could hardly be painted as an eccentric, extremist Eurosceptic, he was also an adept television performer. Although he was to the left of John Smith, he lacked the taint of union backing, projecting a less obviously aligned image that could have reached out beyond the party’s heartlands.
But in the final analysis, none of this counted. Smith took just over 90 per cent of the votes available, winning an overwhelming majority in all three sections of the Labour Party’s electoral college: among the MPs, the trade unions and the constituency parties.