SHORTLY after the 1992 General Election I was invited, in my official

capacity, to a two-day meeting of leading Scots Labour activists,

convened to figure out what had gone wrong and what could be done to

make sure things went right next time.

Over the course of the weekend some very illuminating attitudes on

their part were revealed, although sadly few of those present understood

the significance of much of what had transpired.

Using the time-honoured tradition of splitting into workshops between

plenary sessions, discussions based on various closely related themes

were initiated. By far the most useful -- and misunderstood by those

taking part -- was entitled Aspirations.

The idea was simple enough: imagine yourself not as a party activist

but as an ordinary member of the public in four or five years' time.

What would you be hoping for in the subsequent five years, for yourself

and your family? The aim was to put oneself in the shoes of Joe and

Josephine Public, to understand their basic aspirations and hence get on

their wavelength before approaching campaigning and composing election


At a later point in the weekend, one astute soul hit the nail on the

head when he pointed out that activists of any political party are weird

animals. They spend time in meetings which would bore most folk to

tears, they talk about subjects of no or only minimal interest to voters

at large, and they tend to spend time socially with people who, by and

large, have exactly the same political outlook as themselves.

It should not, therefore, have been all that surprising when, back at

the Aspirations workshop, activist after activist failed spectacularly

to make the intellectual transition from party hack to ordinary voter.

Phrases like ''I don't want to talk about myself, but for other people I

would like to see . . .'' and ''I'm pretty well off compared with a lot

of others, so I want to see improvement for those who have suffered in

the past few years . . .'' were used copiously.

In the bar later that evening, the value of such a workshop was

repeatedly questioned by those who took part. The sound of a lost idea

or notion flying a good few feet over the gathered heads was almost


And therein lies one of Labour's biggest problems. Those who have

watched with admiration the recent ITV documentary series on Neil

Kinnock will have appreciated just how much change he managed to bring

about in his party during the nine years of his leadership.

But, at grass roots level, too many activists have failed to grasp

either the reality of Thatcher's triumph in the 80s or the sincerity and

permanence of Kinnock's consequent reforms to party and policy.

Too often the Kinnock policy changes were accepted grudgingly by local

party members, many of whom were secretly convinced that once the party

was back in power, unilateralism, nationalisation, and unfettered trade

union power would be the order of the day. Such hopes were not only

unfounded but contemptuous of Kinnock and the honesty with which he

pursued party reform.

The current debate over the trade union block vote is a case in point.

Whatever the suspicion with which opinion polls are now viewed, it is

pretty obvious that a substantial majority of the ordinary public are

utterly bemused by some trade unionists' defence of the status quo in

selecting local candidates and the party leader. Yet there are still

many activists who not only support the current system of candidate

selection whereby trade unions can have up to 40% of the vote but who

have only come to accept that system because the old system -- selection

of candidates by an exclusive minority of activists on the local party's

general management committee -- was no longer on the agenda.

Internal party procedure is as dull as dishwater to most ''normal''

people, but they are still mystified when activists on their doorsteps

or union leaders on their TV screens seek to justify a system where

trade unions have more of a say in selecting the party leader and

potential Prime Minister than the leader's own parliamentary peers.

As those of us who actually speak to ''real'' people now and again

will testify, the general public is far less concerned with the details

of the current debate than with a proper resolution to it, based not on

left or right-wing principles but on common sense.

Our friends who couldn't quite grasp the idea that in future voters'

aspirations might be for their own families rather than other people's,

are the same people who reckon Labour can win votes by maintaining an

incomprensible and unfair selection system under the implausible and

unconvincing guise of ''maintaining the union link.''

The introduction of nominal membership fees and any consequent

increase in Labour Party membership should be welcomed by local members

but, even here, such moves are regarded with suspicion. There was

unguarded delight in some quarters when the drive for mass membership,

coupled with the centralising of membership records, failed to produce

the expected benefits in the late 80s.

Elitism is very much alive and well among Labour activists, who

believe they know better than ordinary voters how to vote on policy and

on candidate selections. The fact that this culture is still dominant,

or at least highly vocal, among local members may yet come to be

regarded as one of Kinnock's greatest failures. Of course, electors pay

more attention to the views of any political party's generals, but many

a Tony Blair or Gordon Brown argument on TV can be so easily undone by a

doorstep visit from a cynical and sceptical foot soldier from the same


Canvassers, door-knockers, and leafleters, sincere though they

undoubtedly are, continue to walk out of step and out of touch with the

voters they claim to represent.

While Labour continues to be seen by the electorate exclusively as a

party of the poor, the weak, and the dispossessed, much of its

membership is unable -- or unwilling -- to accept that it must be able

to relate and appeal to the have and not just the have-nots if electoral

victory is to become a reality.

* Tom Harris is a former press officer for the Labour Party in