A Lurch to the Left would be disastrous for Labour

Labour Party

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.

We should change the way we elect the Labour Leader

Labour Party

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.

Michael Foot, 1913 – 2010

Labour Party

I am very saddened by the news that Michael Foot has passed away today.  He was the leader of the Labour Party during the early part of my political career and I was once fortunate enough to share a platform with him during my time as a Councillor in Barnet in the early 1980s.

Though Michael Foot was our leader during what was the most turbulent period in Labour Party history, he has always been a popular and well-regarded member of the party, as the tributes from across the political divide today have shown.  Throughout his long political career he remained true to his convictions and was an outstanding parliamentarian.  His speeches in the chamber during his time as leader are revered as some of the best in post-war British Politics, even by Conservatives and his political enemies.  Michael Foot was also a journalist and prolific writer, who had managed to rise to the heady heights of editor of the Evening Standard at the age of twenty-eight.  This was before he began his political career which started when he was first elected to the House of Commons in 1945 and lasted until his stepping down as an MP in 1992.  During this time he served as a member of both the Wilson and Callaghan governments, as Employment Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons, and Deputy Prime Minister, before becoming party leader in 1980.

He was an intelligent, thoughtful and charming individual, who cared passionately about the Labour party and British people.  He will be sorely missed.