MPs are, as we all know, in the middle of Shadow Cabinet elections. I am most certainly not going to make any predictions about the outcome or encourage support for any particular candidates. I do, however, think this is an appropriate time to consider the issue of leadership in political parties, particularly the Labour Party.
I hope and trust that by electing Ed Miliband we have avoided the worst of the mistakes of the past. Our real problem following Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 was, of course, to lurch to the left in opposition. Michael Foot, elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1980 was a wonderful man and a great orator, but far too left-wing and without any real leadership ability. Neil Kinnock proved to be in the same mould, though a far better leader. It was not until the Labour Party woke up and chose the charismatic and centrist Tony Blair that we stood any chance of becoming the government of the country.
A similar “lurch to the left” also occurred in the years following election defeats in 1931, 1951 and 1970.
The Conservative story after 1997 is uncannily similar to that of the Labour Party: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and finally some kind of power with David Cameron. The Tories’ big difficulty was not being able to find a Tony Blair equivalent who could detoxify the brand sufficiently to bring about a Conservative victory in 2009. The Tories still have their equivalent of the Militant Tendency in their off the wall Eurosceptics, many of whom I see every day in the European Parliament.
Some of my fears that Labour will, now that we are in opposition, move leftwards to the point of unelectability were eased when I read Luke Akehurst’s blog last Friday. Only 7.3% of the votes were cast for Diane Abbott, the only candidate explicitly on the left of the Party. We would assume that some of Ed Miliband’s 29.8% first preferences were from the left, but obviously not the Diane Abbott wing.
Yet, maybe all this shows is that at present there is no real hard left active in the Labour Party.
While I am strongly of the view that we must all unite behind our new Leader, I also believe we should absolutely resist the temptation to move leftwards. The genius of Tony Blair was to make Labour electable. He did this by steering a middle course, by quite simply being a Leader people could and would vote for.
Ed Miliband should do the same in his own way. This does not mean giving up on Labour values. It does not mean giving up our belief in a better world, equality of opportunity, the very best health care and education for all, equality between men and women and an end to racial discrimination. We can still believe in all these things, and more, and win a general election. Never forget that we need to win to implement our policies.
And there is one final consideration. The idea of coalition governments in the UK will not, I believe, go away. The increase in minority party MPs make some form of joint working between the leading parties ever more likely. Any move leftwards by the Labour Party may make a coalition agreement with us more difficult and possibly less likely.
If Labour does not achieve government it is nothing, a fringe party putting forward its own sectarian agenda. It often felt like this during the 1980s when I was very active, being a councillor and a parliamentary candidate on two occasions. I don’t want to go back to that and I am sure the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members agree with me wholeheartedly.