A month ago I wrote an article about a ghost that had re-emerged in Wales in the form of Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru’s misjudgement over the rainbow Alliance in 2007. Well, lo and behold, quite unexpectedly another spirit has come back to haunt politics, but this time it’s a ghost of Labour’s past...
Forty years ago there were powerful elements within Labour determined to tilt the party in a clear hard-left direction. Anyone under 45 years of age probably does not have much of a memory of what took place. Even as Harold Wilson was Prime Minister—but with only a majority of three—the Labour party was increasingly being taken over by left-wing militants with a strong agenda that included opposition to continued membership of the Common Market (as it was called in those days), against nuclear weapons and for unilateral disarmament etc. Tony Benn was the de facto leader of the left, at the time, and his influence was growing. Michael Foot, a great radical politician, was more of an old fashion Liberal and did not have Benn’s cutting edge.In March 1976 Wilson resigned unexpectedly and, of course, the right-wing press immediately ran stories that some potential scandals around him were about to be revealed—such as an affair with his long standing political secretary—and that MI5 had a dossier on him regarding connections with the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Everyone was taken aback since Harold was someone who was a master of his craft and loved being Prime Minister—and he was indeed very good at it! However, it later emerged that the actual reason for his standing down was because he was suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and that he had decided to finish before the symptoms started to reveal themselves more publicly. It must have been a very difficult time for Harold because he was noted for his memory and great attention to detail, fact and figures.
So Jim Callaghan took over, but he had a difficult period as Prime Minister—as did his Chancellor Denis Healey—from the left-wing Labour MPs and grass roots at party conferences. In fact, debates became quite acrimonious at times with the two struggling to hold back the leftward march. By March 1977, in order to remain in government, Callaghan had to rely initially on David Steel and the Liberals through the Lib/Lab pact which ended in September 1978. His remaining months in office, up to the general election of March 1979, relied on the support of the three Plaid MPs. During this period, Mrs Thatcher had displaced Heath as leader of the Tory party and the Labour Government was imposing pay restraint which subsequently led to the so called ‘winter of discontent’.There were widespread strikes by public sector workers in the winter of 1978/9—the largest stoppage of labour since the 1926 General Strike—which was over the Government’s imposition of a 5% ceiling to public sector wage increases. (Note the seemingly endless pay freeze of the current decade...) With such unrest, an inevitable election defeat in March 1979 ensued. It is worth recording that all the opinion poll evidence at the time showed that if Callaghan had gone to the country in the autumn of 1978 he might very well have won, but he was at heart a cautious man. Indeed, there might never have been a Prime Minister called Margaret Thatcher! So as is taking place now, the old grass roots of the party were on the march with the hard-left becoming ever stronger and Tony Benn in the ascendancy.
I have chronicled before how the Social Democratic Party (SDP) came about and how over two dozen Labour MPs left the Labour party and followed Roy Jenkins to create the SDP in 1981. Just before then, in November 1980, Foot defeated Healey to become Labour’s leader winning by a very small margin—51.9% to 48.1%. By the way, it was hinted many times that some MPs who went on to form the SDP voted for Foot instead of Healey! There is no need to explain why they took that tactical decision when their natural home would have been with Denis Healey...In November 1981, Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party despite every attempt being made to urge him not to stand—as the SDP had only been formed a few months previously. Benn came within a whisker of winning with the margin being 50.4% to 49.6%. It has also been chronicled that Neil Kinnock had been instrumental in persuading some 30 or so soft-left MPs not to back Benn. Given the closeness of the race, these MPs tipped the balance in stopping Benn. One can only contemplate what would have happened to Labour with a Foot/Benn leadership and many gave Kinnock credit, at the time, for saving the party from possible oblivion. But I have no doubt that Neil had a wider agenda in sight—he saw an opportunity on the horizon because Foot was always going to be a one election candidate. Therefore, stopping Benn was crucial for him.
One pertinent point in relation to the 1981 Labour/SDP split which partly explains why there is increasing talk about whether Labour might split again. There were many Labour MPs—more than the two dozen or so who eventually left the party to form the SDP—extremely unhappy with the leftward march of the party and the policies it was espousing. When I was an MP the hard core ‘Jenkinsites’ as they were called numbered at least 60 MPs and there was another but smaller group of MPs who were followers of Tony Crosland. So there were some 100 MPs who were moderates in the Labour Party at the time, but only some two dozen of them moved to the SDP. I could name at least four Welsh MPs who pondered long and hard on whether they were going to join the SDP in addition to the three that did. Therefore, in reality, what happened in 1981 has remained until this day unfinished business.Labour lost the 1983 and 1987 elections badly with the SDP/Liberal Alliance almost pipping them for second place in the popular vote. Kinnock inevitably became leader and, like a political chameleon, turned himself from being what I termed back then ‘the original militant’ of the 70s into a middle of the road Labour leader—gone was his opposition to the Common Market, the House of Lords, nuclear weapons, multi-lateral disarmament etc. But whatever one’s view is of his magical transformation and whether it was a genuine conversion or just expeditious to fend off the advance of the SDP and Mrs Thatcher, he did prove to be a good leader despite losing two elections! Neil’s problem was the same as Ed Miliband’s—both were never perceived to be Prime Ministerial material by the majority of the electorate. However, in fairness, he did pave the way for the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, although John Smith who died prematurely would have been as good a leader as Blair.
Grassroots Labour members were so desperate to be in power once again that the left and their allies retreated into their shell. Blair eventually became dominant and together with Brown they governed like an SDP Mark 2—although, of course, titled ‘New Labour’. I have no doubt whatsoever that throughout the period 1997–2010 the real beating heart of Labour remained unhappy but felt helpless to argue against the man who was now delivering them power and electoral success. Consequently, the left-wing accepted that they had to go along with this ‘winning formula’ and were willing to bide their time, waiting for their opportunity—as it always presents eventually in politics. Indeed, this came in the guise of the Iraq war and the machinations of Brown to remove Blair from office. Also, quite unexpectedly, two years before the general election of 2010 the financial crash occurred. Like Callaghan before him in 1978, Gordon Brown delayed calling the general election for some months when an earlier election—with the opinion polls in a somewhat more favourable position—might have been won. Brown, like Callaghan, was a cautious individual by nature and both ultimately paid the price.Ed Miliband’s election as leader was mired in controversy as a result of his unexpected victory over his brother David. All the attention was on the differences between the two brothers when it should really have been on the struggle for the Labour Party—David the ‘New Labour’ Blairite and Ed, at heart, still the traditional ‘old Labour’ politician and in position only by the grace of the Union barons.
What everyone missed all along was that the Labour left had not gone away, they were merely biding their time. In fact they are in a better position now within the party than the period before the 1980s. It is indeed ironic that the man at the centre of the current leadership campaign is none other than Jeremy Corbyn. Who is he? Oh, back in the late 1970s/early 80s he was with the Militants, becoming the MP for Islington North in 1983. It isn’t only the ‘Lord that moves in mysterious ways’ but seemingly politics does too!Observing the leadership election from a distance, it has to be said that none of the contenders begin to match up to the charisma and personalities of Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown let alone the defeated Foot, Benn, Kinnock and the Miliband brothers. This is the first problem for the Labour Party—none of the four candidates look Prime Ministerial material. Labour’s current weaknesses should worry party strategists. It has had the effect in Parliament of Cameron and Osborne behaving as if they have won a 100-seat majority.
The two most experienced candidates are not making much of an impact nor are they discussing real policy issues. Andy Burnham looks far too much like a career politician, ducking and weaving—seemingly expressing opinions that suit the circumstances of the time. Yvette Cooper has a personal dilemma in talking about the Brown and Miliband era and conveying her true opinions. The fact that her husband Ed Balls was a prominent figure under the two leaders seemingly makes it awkward for her. In my opinion, it’s best that she ignores all that and starts behaving openly as her own person, telling Ed outright ‘look this is my election and this is how I view matters’. So as things stand, the two experienced contenders are not making much of an impact, look too much like ‘same old same old’ and lamentably failing to motivate the Labour membership. They are giving no indication as to how they would change policies and where they truly stand on issues that matter to people today. Instead it’s safety first—being careful not to slip up—so as not to give the other candidate an advantage or accidently offend their core vote. What they actually think about, for example, proportional representation, the governance of the UK, EVEL, Welfare reform, HS2 and replacing Trident is not clear...
So we are left with the two candidates who, at least, are endeavouring to talk about what they believe in. Liz Kendall, often referred to as a ‘Blairite’, seems to use little of the rhetoric that brought Labour to power nearly 20 years ago now. She has much of the political style and policy platforms that made Labour electable in 1997, but I doubt whether the Labour membership is in the mood to listen to that anymore. Moreover, as someone said the other day, when Blair was campaigning to become Prime Minister he offered a vision of a Britain in which ‘your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed and helpless is my friend, your neighbour, my neighbour.’ Liz Kendall needs to pick up on that sort of message because so much of real politics and the responsibilities of public office is about hope, care and understanding.
Jeremy Corbyn has been making most of the running during the campaign and is receiving the majority of the media’s attention. It is ironic that Corbyn owes his presence on the ballot paper to the generous help given him by Andy Burnham’s supporters to achieve the necessary number of MP nominations to allow him to stand for the leadership. His nomination, it was argued, would ensure a wider choice for the Labour membership between the differing wings of the party—left/soft left/centre-right. Maybe my description is a crude one, but it is not too far off reality.
The fact that he has made an impact is in no doubt. Corbyn’s supporters argue that he is the only one offering an alternative, the one who is against austerity and, more tellingly, that he is ‘the only true Labour candidate’. Hitherto most opinion polls and social media comment etc certainly bear all that out. In fact, I have seen surveys that show Corbyn is more in tune with public opinion on some ten major areas of policy including the renationalisation of the railways and the welfare cuts agenda than the other three candidates. His two potential weak points concern his role in Militant at the end of the 1970s/early 80s and his unclear remarks as to how he would vote in the forthcoming referendum on the European Union. Along with quite a few of the left of the Labour Party, he probably still remains broadly an anti-European Union political figure.
Furthermore YouGov and Guardian polls have revealed interesting results that are quite favourable to Corbyn. Unsurprisingly, they have resulted in quite frenzied and, at times, highly personal press and party comments in a manner that suggests the end of the Labour party is nigh! Even Blair has been pushed into entering the fray whilst others on the soft-left are urging Lord Kinnock to make the anti-Corbyn case as well. So Corbyn is having quite an unexpected impact on the leadership election. The polls referred to are included as links at the end of this article.
Whichever gloss is put on Labour’s present weak and ineffective state of play the evidence of decline is real. Recently, a report from the Labour-leaning Smith Institute concluded that if the decline was to continue then Labour’s prospects of competing as a party of government will steadily diminish (see link below). Throughout its history there is a belief within the party that it will always bounce back. Even in 1910 Keir Hardie concluded that ‘the Labour party had ceased to count’ but in 1924, Labour formed its first government. Then after the formation of the SDP and the poor election results of 1983 there were other purveyors of doom and gloom, but yet there existed optimism over the future. This was based upon relief in the fact that the election result had not been worse and that the SDP had failed to finish Labour off. There was also relief that the vast majority of moderate Labour MPs had stayed within the fold. Again, after the 1992 election there were predictions of Labour’s demise but within five years, in 1997, it won one of its largest ever electoral victories and the coalition of differing strands within the party were holding together.So what will be the fall-out following the 2015 general election defeat? Will the 35 year coalition and compromise that is the modern Labour Party hold? Some will argue that maybe, just maybe, that the left-wing have had enough and they now want the real Labour Party back after all this time. The very real prospect of Corbyn becoming the next leader poses a profound moment of choice for the Labour party, signalling that the period of compromise politics years is coming to an end. Maybe the left are not going to buy into any more arrangements and dumbing down of policies just to build alliances within the party in order to win an election and form a government in 2020.
Furthermore, the way the party is behaving and performing over recent times will inevitably lead people to increasingly ask ‘what indeed is the point of Labour?’ So questions as to Labour’s future are surfacing again and these arguments are becoming personal—are we indeed on the verge of another re-alignment in the centre ground of UK politics? In a year or so time, will it be a case of 1981 revisited? Indeed, as I conclude this blog, two articles have appeared this morning that lend credence to my question.