An interview with the Rl. Hon. William Rodgers, M.P

On August 1, 1980, three former Labour cabinet ministers, Shirley Williams, Dr. David Oven and William Rodgers, published an 'open letter’ to the Labour Party, in which they criticise the draft manifesto of the Labour Party's National Executive Committee and certain trends within the party. ‘There has been a sustained attempt to commit the party to inflexible policies based upon bureaucratic centralism and state control, policies that offer no improvement in the quality of life here in Britain and that appeal only to a minority of doctrinaire party supporters.’

John Elsom interviewed William Rodgers at the House of Commons on August 5

John Elsom: Mr. Rodgers, in the open letter you say that the Labour Party is facing ‘the gravest crisis in its history’: and yet several aspects of this crisis seem depressingly familiar. Why should you insist that this is currently the gravest crisis?

William Rodgers : The principal reason is not just Labour's defeat in the general election of May, 1979—although if you look at the figures for that election, they were serious enough, with only 28% of the electorate voting Labour, coupled with the fact that we did very badly among the young and that we are now in Parliament virtually a party of north of England, apart from Scotland and Wales, not of the south. But our vote has been suffering a steady erosion since the early 1970s: the results were not just caused by the winter of discontent. I believe that a significant body of opinion in this country, more than half, would prefer a left-of-centre government of conscience and reform; but that they have been losing faith in the Labour Pany's capacity to provide such a government. Tn that sense, it is the sort of crisis which the Labour Party has not faced since it became established, more than 50 years ago.

John Elsom: But it isn't just the decline of the vote, is it? In your letter, you mention various specific issues, about the quarrels withiri the Labour Party over the Atlantic Alliance, over an incomes policy and other matters: but aren't the current internal conStitutional questions of particular importance now? In the past there have been many such debates, about unilateral disarmament versus the multilateral approach, about Clause 4; but now do you think that there is reason to believe that a disaffected minority within the Labour Party is going to use its constitutional powers to get its own way? Isn't that the fear?

William Rodgers: Over many of fhese issues, it is true, there have been continuing debates. In another form, for example, the proposed withdrawal from NATO is a recurrence of a debate which we had in 1935, when pacifist George Lansbury had a standing ovation at the party conference, which then voted for Ernest Bevin and collective security.

But there are really two additional factors today. Firstly, there has been. despite the present high level of unemployment, a very significant change in the nature of the country. It has been transformed over the past 35 years. Standards of living are much higher, expectations are higher and there isn't the same sense of group loyalty, of solidarity. That is new, and it provides the backcloth against which the debate about the constitution is taking place.

There are two sorts of party that you can have. I am talking now of the British situation, because you can only relate the role of any political party to what has gone before, to its own traditions, and not to what has happened to the Swedes, the Germans or the French. There is the bi-polar party which means a parliamentary party with a large measure of independence (which is what we've had in the Labour Party since before the First World War) and a separate centre of policy-making, of power, in the National Executive Committee. The members of parliament represent the Labour voters: the National Executive represents the Labour activists.

That's one system, a bi-polar party, which works because each side recognizes the role of the other, because there is a high degree of tolerance, and a substantial overlapping of persons. The alternative is to have a much more centralised organisation, such as the Conservatives have, where the writ of the leader, in this case Mrs. Thatcher, runs strongly everywhere.

You don't seriously have another centre of policy-making, other than the leader and the parliamentary party of which she is part. But if you have a centralised party, then the centre must be representative of all its parts.

That's what much of the present debate is about. You can either have a bi-polar Labour party. with a balanced relationship of confidence between the poles, or you can have a much more centralised party.

What some people now want, however, is two poles. but with one very heavily weighted in favour of the extra-parliamentary pole, the National Executive Committee, representing the party activists.

That is a very serious development. It diminishes the role of MPs and thus the role of parliament itself; and it diminishes the relationship between the party and the public whichthe MPs are meant to serve. The Labour Party doesn't exist to satisfy the emotional aspirations of its activists. It exists to serve the people of this country. to improve their condition and to build a more egalitarian societybut one which is essentially free in the way we know.

John Elsom. Can you say whether thèse activists are small or large in number?

William Rodgers. It's very hard to tell. They're not easily characterised. There are many local Labour parties where the activists arc like our traditional party workers—schoolteachers of one kind or another, active trade unionists, people in the professions. Some are men and women of the legitimate left, but equally they are of the centre and right; and they accept that there is a role for MPs representing their constituencies

Some local parties haven't changed at all, but an increasing number are dominated by small groups of often quite new members, and they are not concerned with tolerance or any kind of compromise or general understanding. They are concerned only with their own power and with pushing the party farther to the left. They want the MPs to do what the activists tell them to do, rather than what they, the MPs, believe to be right, as the result their know1edge of the electorate.

John Elsom. These new activists, therefore, would regard the MP as a delegate, expressing their point of view; whereas representative democracy, to use your phrase, implies that the MP is a representative of a wider electorate than the party activists and therefore has to be given a considerable degree of independence.

William Rodgers: That's right. The traditional, and in my view absolutely justified, position is that the MP's duty is to represent all his constituents and he's got to have a feel for what they want. He isn't simply the creature of a relatively small number of people, who may be very unrepresentative even of Labour voters.

John Elsom: Do you think that the new activists' case is strengthened by what I would believe to be a widespread disaffection with parliamentary democracy, as it stands? Do you think, firstly, that there is this disaffection and, secondly, that the activists can make capital from it?

William Rodgers: I don't think that there is disaffection with parliamentary democracy. What I think is true is that successive governments have failed to solve this country’s economic and industrial problems. We had five years of austerity after the war, then 10 years of boom during the 1950s. Then. all of a sudden, the chickens came home to roost. We realise now (but wc didn't then) that we were seeing the symptoms of an industrial decline which had begun before 1914. There is not disillusion with the system, but a knowledge that successive governments have bæn unable to give the people what they broadly want, which means significantlyrising standards of living and an improvement in their community services.

Other governments with mixed economies have managed to do this, the Germans, the French, even the Italians. But in Britain governments have not found the answer, which has not disillusioned people with parliament itself, but made them more sceptical about their MPs and much more discontented.

Unemployment is a classic example. Young people who are out of work when they want to be in work, don't blame themselves—and why should they?—and not the system, but the established political parties, the established politicians.

John Elsom. In canvassing, I have found many who feel that their points of view on various matters are just not represented in parliament in any way. They may feel strongly about the nature of the Atlantic Alliance, about the Brandt Commission, about ecology, all thèse separate issues which somehow rarely surface because the broad 19th century coaliüons of power are still surviving. Do you think that a feeling that the parliamentary procedure is getting out of touch with the issues with which many are concerned, could contribute to this disaffection?

William Rodgers: I don't think so. Parliament is more open and receptive nowadays—and MPs more independent of mind. When I came into parliament, nearly 20 years ago, there were a number of rather older trade unionists who were, quite frankly, the ballast of the ship of parliament. They didn't contribute very much to the parliamentary process—nor did the knights of the shire on the Tory side.

Nowadays, you have more MPs with talent and energy, and far more hardworking. You find more Labour MPs who are more unwilling to let their govemment get away with anything, even when that government is in power with only a tiny majority. And although Mrs. Thatcher is in a very dominant position in parliament, you will find that her own backbenchers are prepared either to vote against her government's policies (except on censuremotions) or to abstain.

The quality of our select committees has been an extraordinary development. I have been in favour of them from the beginning, because they mean that MPs can exercise power against the government of the day, and can call witnesses from the public, either individuals.or groups. and not only commercial interests, but ecological views too, Friends of the Earth or whoever they may be. There's more access to Ministers and certainly to MPs.

John Elsom: Yon don't think that proportional representation would be any sort of answer?

William Rodgers. There may be a case for proportional representation, but I don't think that that would necessarily mean that you would have a large number of MPs representative of minority interests. You wouldn't get that under any tolerable PR system.

Under the present system. most minorities will find their spokesmen, within the parties, who are prepared to try to manipulate the party system to the advantage of the groups on whose behalf they are speaking. or will stand out against the party. If you were to argue, of the Labour Party, that we should widen democracy by bringing every party member into an enlarged role, there is a great deal to be said for that.

Let us say that we have a quarter of a million party members, I'd A very surprised if more than 1 in 10 of thèse members has a sîgnificantly active role with the party on a committee of any kind. If you are going to change tèe constitution of the Labour Party (bearing in mind that I am in favour of the bi-polar system), then the désirable thing would be to bring all thèse people into the decision-making process.

It is quite ridiculous that in a constituency where there may be, say, 30,000 Labour voters, and, say, 3,000 Labour party members (although that would be quite exceptional ), the parliamentary candidate should be chosen by, say, only 30 of them, or less than 100.

John Elsom: In the Labour Party, you have on many issues several quite separate, aad in some cases, quite opposite, points of view. They may be valid in themselves or there may be a certain amount of gussswork as to which is right; and yet the force of the nature of politics is that you have to vote aa a block, or try to maintain an uneasy compromise between what are essentially opposite points of view.

Defence would be an example. There is a case which supports a common defence pact with the US and other Western nations; and one which supports unilateral disarmament; or another which seeks a different kind of arrangement with non-aligned countries..

Thèse views are completely opposed and they can’t really be contained within one party without imposing very severe strains. If you believe that, by expressing your point of view on a basic issue like that, you are splitting your party, or that you may be bringing the Tories into power for another ten years, aren't you in danger of burying these issues down so deep that they never get properly discussed at all?

William Rodgers: Well, you have 268 Labour MPa and you have probably got 268 separate potential parties there. because they are individuals. I doubt indeed, if you put David Steel and Cyril Smith together, they would have a great deal in common, but nonetheless they find it desirable to share a political identity as Liberals.

John Elsom: We are not talking about differences of opinion, but about very major policy issues!

William Rodgers: Well, wc arc talking about where you draw the line. Of course, among the 268 Labour MPs you can begin to classify and put into groups But you are bound to bring together some groups which would have a lot in common. but also a lot pulling them apart. What is true of the Labour Party is also true of the Conservatives. Is it better that this country should haVe two or three majœ established partieS, or a dozen? It may bc true that the Labour Party is a coaliüon which one day will break up. It may be better for British politics that this should happen. but I don't think that you can make any presumptiœi in advance about how many parties there should be.

John Elsom: How many Labour MPs would support, do you think?, the three major constituents in your open letter - to the mixed economy, to the support of ‘truly international socialism’ and the ‘unshakeable commitment to representative democracy’?

William Rodgers: If we had taken our open letter around the Parliamentary Labour Party as a kind of manifesto, I do not think that we would have had much difficulty in getting the support of three-quarters of Labour MPs - two thirds, at most.

John Elsom: But suppose that the National Executive at the party conference succeeded in getting its own way on the draft manifesto (which would be so opposed to yours), this would mean, according to what you have just said, that two-thirds of the parliamentary Labour Party would be opposed to it. What would be the next step?

William Rodgers: That’s extremely hard to tell. The constitutional ways of the Labour Party are labyrinthine. It would depend a great deal on whether the rules had actually been changed, because you can pass a motion in favour of change, but that is not in itself a change. It would depend upon other factors as well.

If you take a series of issues - which conference might or might not carry - then if ten were carried one way and ten were carried another, then the matters would be far from clear-cut. You would have to find a balance, and the difficulty would then be in judging who’s won and who’s lost.

And even if the question of the manifesto were to be, as it were, ‘lost’, it would depend a very great deal upon how that was interpreted, in terms of how the manifesto were to be drawn up by the National Executive, in consultation with the Parliamentary Labour Party.

If the crunch came, the Parliamentary Labour Party would simply say that the manifesto was unacceptable. If the manifesto were crazy, a lot of MPs would say, ‘I’m not going to fight under that manifesto’ and simply disown it. They might fight as Labour MPsw but say that the manifesto was nonsense; or they might decide not to fight as Labour MPs at all.

John Elsom:You have said that there are labyrinthine ways to block a manifesto with which the majority of MPs might disagree; but doesn’t this also mean that these labyrinthine ways can be used to block any change? In your statement you talk about the way in which ‘our institutions’ are ‘resistant to change’, but you also say that a new party would have no roots.

William Rodgers: A new Centre Party…

John Elsom: A new Centre Party would have no roots or no political philosophy! It seems to me that here you have a political party which is resistant to change because there are so many ways of blocking change - and yet an alternative party in your view would have neither roots nor a philosophy. Change, in other words, can come neither from within nor without!

William Rodgers: No, I don’t say that. We say that a new Centre Party would have no roots or philosophy, one that takes its position some way from Labour and some way from the Tories. Such a party would not have enough genuine coherence.

John Elsom: What about the Liberal Party?

William Rodgers: The Libéral Party is very much a case in point. The Liberal Party stands there, it does provide a convenient vehicle for a proportion of people who like to vote Liberal…

John Elsom: Would you say that thèse people are without roots or a philosophy?

Williams Rodgers: No, not necessarily. There is a limited number of people who come into that category. and a lot of people who vote Liberal are, of course, protest voters. The Liberal Party has not been in power for donkey's years and is not going to get into power for donkey's years. Therefore if you are a Liberal, you can be protesting against other political parties. You can have the satisfaction of adopting an attitude without the responsibility of carrying it through.

Now I think that it is a good thing that the Liberal Party exists: æd there are people in it of deep personal conviction. But there is a great deal of difference between having deep personal convictions and translating these into the reality of a political party with a philosophy.

The Liberal Party provides a vehicle and I'm pleased that it dœs. But chat doesn't mean that you can build it up into a credible alternative to, if you like, a rump Labour Party which has gone so far to the left that nobody supports it anymore, or to a Conservative Party.

What you have got to do is to build a new pillar which stands very much in the position that the Labour Party has always stood. That doesn't mean, as wc say in our statement, a party of monopolised nationalised industries; ner a party more preoccupied in gazing at its own navel than in looking at the problems overseas and particularly of the Third World.

There is room for a new radicalism, which nevertheless represents a coherent position in a Labour tradition, a Democratic Socialist tradition. If the Labour Party abandoned its traditional ground, it wou1dn't be an old-fashioned party which took its place, but a new radical party, looking towards the future.

September 1980