John Smith had already been confirmed as the favourite by the media, which tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Smith was a relaxed figure, much in the mould of Jim Callaghan, who, as a traditional Labour right-winger, drew some respect from all wings of the Party. His leadership would reconcile the various shrunken components of the labour movement, and unite them as a consensual figure. He planned to continue along the lines of 1992, in widening Labour's appeal to the more affluent who wanted a compassionate government. He followed such theorists as JK Galbraith, who observed a "two-thirds rich, one-third poor" society, where altruism could be a means to win power and improve the position of the less wealthy. His phrases centred around "social justice," implying a social democratic perspective. In Parliament, Smith was a forensic debater capable of tearing the "stronger" Tories apart.
His challenger was Bryan Gould. Gould was a more interventionist politician, and an advocate of Keynesian-style economics. Whilst Smith emphasised re-distribution, Gould talked more of widespread wealth creation using regulated capital markets. Bryan Gould sometimes questioned the wisdom of the tax policies of 1992, which was a major source of contention between Smith and himself. This meant that they could not co-exist in a Shadow Cabinet. Gould was not a natural supporter of nuclear weapons or the EU and was opposed to the Maastricht Treaty which he perceived as institutional Thatcherism. Gould had acted as a mentor to Tony Blair and was an effective speaker. He was also efficient at attacking Conservatives.
In many ways Bryan Gould had interesting leftist ideas, but lacked a power base within the Labour hierarchy. He felt humiliated by his total of 9% of the votes and left Labour politics soon afterwards. This was a loss to the Party, but Smith was always likely to win the contest because of his stature and the rather cautious, conservative nature of the labour movement at this time. Margaret Beckett was confirmed as deputy, an achievement for the "soft-left," which felt calmer with the elevation of Neil Kinnock as EU Commissioner.
John Smith's leadership was criticised throughout 1992 and 1993, but it is important to see who was doing the criticism. Many of the old grouping surrounding Neil Kinnock felt excluded from Smith's "inner cabinet," which largely consisted of fellow Scots such as Donald Dewar and George Robertson. There was no room for cosmopolitan, media people such as Peter Mandelson, who were left on the backbenches in disdain. The old Left made some criticisms of Smith, tempered by recognition of his skill at destroying Major, which became an enjoyable weekly ritual.
Some good opposition campaigns were initiated. Labour fought against privatisation of the post office and, with the trade unions and some rebel Tories, won an important first victory, the first in a long time. The slim Conservative majority was narrowed dramatically by April 1994. Legislation was becoming harder to submit to Parliament.
However, the Major government abolished many protections for employees, such as the local Wage Councils, and whilst the Labour Party drew attention to this quite effectively, it was powerless to stop anything happening. On the whole, the Labour leadership sometimes seemed to lack energy and vitality. Whilst this may reflect a realistic view as to what was possible in the years following the 1992 election, there seemed to be little policy development to replace those jettisoned by the Policy Review.
The 1993 Railways Act broke up British Rail and prepared one of the last massive state industries for sell-off. Clare Short was Labour's transport spokesperson. Whilst opposing the sale, Short fell short of promising to re-nationalise without compensation. This effectively meant that investors went ahead with carving up the rail network. The effects of this were to be disastrous.
The Labour Party was still in after-defeat shock under the leadership of John Smith, but its condition had at least stabilised. Smith was a fairly easy man to deal with. But at the 1993 Conference he nearly ran into trouble in trying to eliminate the union block vote from Parliamentary selections. He was "rescued" by John Prescott who made a passionate last-minute speech in favour of the reforms. The reforms passed. The effects of this at the time were not known. In fact the process became more democratic, for a time. But since then, it has become obvious that this enabled more central control over the Parliamentary selection process.
The opposition of John Smith did a good job, but were given easy targets, as individual Conservative MPs came under increased scrutiny over corruption, many becoming mired in sex scandals and "cash for questions" issues involving corporate influences. Soon Labour built a large lead in the opinion polls.
On 12th May 1994 John Smith had a massive heart attack and died. He had given Labour a sense of consistency which it had lacked for many years. There was no obvious single successor. By 1994, very few Labour MPs had experience of government. Labour branches in the country were de-moralised and battle-weary, having fought one fight after another. This is not to say that there was no activity; in fact Labour now ran the vast majority of what was left of local government. With the Conservatives eliminated from Scotland and Wales, Labour had become the Party most representative of the UK.
In the vaccuum after John Smith's death, Peter Mandelson once again rose to pre-eminence as unofficial media spokesman. Tony Blair was announced as "clear favourite" and the "people's choice." He was relatively young, spoke with an upper-class English accent. He was also tall and had few enemies in Parliament. He was known to be an avid "moderniser" (in a Kinnock sense) and was already quite a forceful speaker, able to project as a morally decent person, whilst not being too judgemental regarding greed and prejudice. He promised further radical reform to the Labour Party, implicitly marking a split with the Smith years.
His opponents were Margaret Beckett and John Prescott. Beckett was a good politician, capable of totally mastering her brief. Whilst considered able and loyal, there was little that marked her as a future leader, and was considered too left-wing by some. John Prescott rose to prominence on the basis of his good relations with the trade unions, as a leftist figure. He was capable of emotional rhetoric and was an effective transport spokesman. However he could be incoherent and was not the brightest politician. As the acceptable and compliant representative of the Labour's "soft-left," Prescott was to become deputy leader, a role that he diminished with consummate ease.
The elections were relatively close, Blair finishing with just 57% of the electoral college. Arguably, there was little alternative presented to the members. The Labour backbenches were not awash with talented MPs. The Kinnock era had left a sad lack of talented men and women in Parliament.
Therefore, elements of the late-Kinnock-era coterie returned, with a more forceful reforming agenda. They were determined to pick a fight with what remained of the Left, for the benefit of public consumption. They were determined to further narrow the Labour Party's executives and officers to exclude free-thinking or radical people from power and influence. Often the tactics used to enforce this were bullying and unnecessary threats.
The big civil protests of the mid-1990s didn't involve the Labour Party at all. Starting from the Twyford Down protests of 1994, through to the Newbury bypass protests, a new generation of activists had emerged. Often environmentalist or anarchist, these activists didn't participate within the centralised structures of political parties. Their response to the Major government's huge road-building schemes was clear and effective, making road-building uneconomic and politically costly. Many of the forces that had gathered in opposition to the poll tax were to contribute to other protests in the 1990s, eventually leading to what is described as the anti-capitalist movement today. Whilst not overtly socialist, these movements for social justice drew support from trade unions and organisations which were aligned or sympathetic to often forgotten labour movement goals.
The group around Blair picked people from students groups and young labour organisations to enforce the leadership's total command of the Labour machine. These groups and organisations were used as nurseries to "breed" compliant and passive MPs. Labour politics had become a "career vehicle" for the power-hungry, much as the Church operated in the Middle Ages. Those who were "off-message" were excluded through various means, but rarely through the process of open debate.
Often figures emerged in Blair's inner circle who had been associated with the SDP. Some of his advisers emerged from the Conservatives. In Blair, they saw somebody who could provide power, influence and money as part of the "radical centre," which was effectively a Thatcherite epilogue with a more paternalist or managerial slant. Though "big ideas" were flirted with, and then dropped, the main appeal was purely managerial.
Obviously many people were desperate to get rid of the Conservatives at this time. Protest was muted and the movement remained generally dormant. The 1990s were not a generally idealistic period, and the diminution of politics under Blair and Major caused no great public or media concern.
It is not true that most Labour Party were unhappy about losing effective control of the Party. They looked forward to being associated with victory and power after a long spell without either. Both the Conservative and Labour parties were now comprised of ageing, mainly middle-class members and were barely representative of Britain's increasingly diverse demographics. Arguably all-women shortlists increased the middle-class dominance within Labour.
We finish this history in the Special Conference of 1995, where Labour voted to amend Clause IV of its constitution. Whilst the promise to "secure for the workers the full fruits of their industry" was not taken as a millstone for previous Labour governments, the removal was symbolic. The Labour Party remains an important core component of the tightly-controlled alliance "New Labour." Perhaps Labour can only be truly comprised of those who identify, to some degree, with the old constitution.
Or maybe Labour can only now be gauged in Parliament by numbering those MPs who actively support their union's policy. In assessing this, we see the potential of a new Labour Representation Committee. It remains true that the unions still have the decisive influence on the future. Whether Labour eventually emerges from its politically successful yet suffocating embrace with the "radical centre" is now almost entirely up to the organisations that provide the overwhelming majority of the funding.