It’s time, I think, for some reflections on Labour Party Conference other than talking about my fringe meeting Blogging for Labour. As I’m now back in Brussels wrestling with the harrowing and appalling subject of child pornography on the internet as well and judging a European journalism prize, now seemed as good as any to put my thoughts on paper.
First and foremost, we must unite behind Ed Miliband. I say this as a committed David supporter, and I would not be telling the whole truth if I said I wasn’t upset that David didn’t make it. David is, in my opinion, one of the most able, most intellectually capable and most sincere of our MPs. He was one of the best Foreign Secretaries this country has ever had with a deep understanding of foreign affairs and the international stage. (Since I am posting this blog before David has made a statement on his future, I won’t say any more at present).
Yet, we all have to move on. The overriding task now is to fight the coalition and win the general election. It’s not a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, it’s a Tory Government. This should be our message. Those who voted Clegg got Cameron while those who voted Cameron got exactly what it said on the tin.
Having attended almost every Labour Party Conference since 1978, I am far from being one of the new generation. However, I completely agree with Ed that Labour must now look forward. There’s nothing to be gained in harking back to the past, and I for one now hope that all references to the Iraq war are well and truly laid to rest. Yes, I opposed the war publicly as an MEP. But now, I truly believe it is not only unhelpful but utterly damaging to rake this one over any more. Both Labour and Great Britain have to move on.
The Conference was more than aware of the awesome nature of the events as they unfolded. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, a subdued and expectant atmosphere amid the thronging delegates and myriad exhibition stands.
In my conference lifetime, I have been a Party member under seven leaders, including Miliband E – James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Of these, Callaghan and Foot were chosen before the electoral college was introduced and were elected only by MPs. Kinnock, Smith and Blair faced little serious opposition and Brown was crowned without a contest. Step up Ed Miliband who won by just over one percent.
It’s been a long 30 years and much has changed.
From the election of the left wing Michael Foot as Labour Leader in 1980 there was a battle royal between the Left, represented initially by Foot but later metamorphosing into the Militant Tendency and other Trotskyite factions (the Hard Left), and the Labour Party’s right wing, ironically during this period led by a number of influential trade unions. The exception among the trade unions was the then largest, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, who held a more left wing position.
Neil Kinnock, himself from the left stable, to his credit moved decisively away from the Foot legacy as did John Smith his short period as Leader of the Opposition.
Crucially, however, it was not until Tony Blair and New Labour arrived, subsequently winning the 1997 general election, that the Hard Left was seen off as a force to be reckoned with. Although no longer influential, the Left as such never went away. Moreover, there remained a significant number of Labour Party members who felt New Labour had sold out.
Yet this was nothing compared to the trade unions, who are by and large now to the left of the Party. The affiliated trade unions, now mainly representing public sector workers, were never really on side with New Labour, and their evolution from right to left is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the 2010 Leadership contest.
So where does this leave us? I have to say, I have difficulty with a system whereby victory can be gained without either a majority of MEPs and MPs or of local Party members. The electoral college was, ironically, set up in the 1980s to give the right wing unions power on the basis their vote would marginalise the Hard Left. Since we no longer have a Hard Left, merely a Left, the time has, I believe, come to reform the way the ballot is held. One member one vote would obviously be more democratic. Even the Tory Party has OMOV for the two candidates selected by the 1922 Committee.
The new generation have to prove themselves. What better way than reforming the way our Leader is elected to bring our outdated system into line with today’s Labour Party? To take this bold step would be to send a strong signal that things really had changed and that Labour is continuing its modernising agenda.