With continuing uncertainty about the outcome, if any, of the Brexit machinations, there has been speculation as to whether there may be an early General Election, and the results of the recent local government elections are being seen as a pointer to its likely outcome.
After those elections, all three main parties sought to claim success – up to a point. For Labour, Jeremy Corbyn cried “Plymouth” and pointed to gains made in wards that Labour had never fought or won in before, John McDonnell said Labour was “consolidating its gains”, and Emily Thornbury thought the result was “a draw”.
Nevertheless, the overall result was below Labour's expectations and the stark reality for the Party remains – it still has a mountain to climb if it is to have any hope of winning a majority at the next General Election.
Of course, there will be plenty of argument about that assertion, but that is the prospect I see after what Jeremy Corbyn has said was “a very effective campaign” sustained by its 300,000 new members (making it bigger than all the other parties’ combined membership), and facing a shambolic Government riven by divisions.
Doubtless we shall hear all sorts of reasons advanced for the failure of our Party to build the kind of ascendancy that gave us victory in 1997 and 2001. But before looking at the policies and issues on which it needs to persuade the voters, I believe the Party needs to take a hard look at itself. I write not to support any particular faction (I’m neither a Corbynite or a Blairite), but because I feel greatly concerned that certain recent developments within the Party will, if not changed, undermine any chance it might have of electoral success.
I take first the Party Leader’s inner circle, his political staff. The “New Statesman” recently published a detailed and impartial account of the political activities and past affiliations of most members of that staff (issue 5th March).
With all the restraint one is meant to exhibit these days, I shall call Corbyn’s team a “way-out entourage”, which is kindness itself given that I’m speaking of a collection of Stalinist apologists and others of the hard left. They are the ones whose Gods have fallen or have never got off the ground. The one thing they have in common is that none of them seems to have come from the centre of the Party, if indeed they have been Party members at all.
So one is bound to ask what on earth does Jeremy Corbyn think that bunch can possibly bring to the work of the party that is committed to the achievement of its social democratic aims by means of parliamentary elections, rather than the “social movement” favoured by Corbyn and McDonnell? What can they bring that shows an ability to win the support of voters in constituencies like Derby and Dudley, Walsall, Swindon and Peterborough, Redditch and Basildon, and all the other constituencies we must win or recover to have any chance of success?
I appreciate that even those with extreme views sometimes change them, and that, with the possible exception of Seamus Milne, the past allegiances of the inner circle are not likely to be known to the public, but who can doubt that they exert influence at the centre of the Party?
Voters do however come to know and form attitudes toward the members of Labour's Front Bench, thanks to their appearances on programmes like Question Time and Any Questions, Today and Newsnight, the Marr and Peston shows and “phone-ins”. Their opinions of the Front Bench members will have some influence on how they vote at the General Election. Voters, not the local Party management committee, elect a candidate - and the candidate has to take account of the interests of the constituents as well as the policies of the party.
Recognition of this is especially important, since the Party is likely to have been out of power for over ten years by the time of the next General Election.
At present, Corbyn has had to contend with the fact that most members of his first Front Bench team resigned from it. It is therefore vital, notwithstanding the good performance of most members of the present Front Bench, that the team in office in the run-up to the election embraces the experience and ability available across the whole Parliamentary Party.
The strength and appeal of the Party will rest largely on those from the centre, the candidates who are closest to the voters who have left the Party or need to be persuaded to vote for it for the first time.
For decades Jeremy Corbyn has been on the Left, but if he or any of his staff thinks the Party must move further left it is time they look to what happened in the 2015 General Election, when the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition ran on such a ticket and were utterly annihilated at the polls.
The second development in the Party that Corbyn needs to address is the growth of another “Party within the Party” marked by the activity of “Momentum”. Inasmuch as Corbyn rejected the candidature of Jon Lansman for the post of Party General Secretary, are we not entitled to ask him now to show the same courage and determination that Neil Kinnock showed when he took on and defeated Militant, and take steps to bring an end to the activities of Momentum?
Why shouldn’t Lansman and his followers do what the rest of us do as Party members and put all their efforts into building the unity of the party?
The great increase in the Party’s membership is as welcome as it is impressive, and those who have joined or re-joined the Party will have done so for a variety of reasons, and it is likely that many may not have joined Momentum. But to those who have joined it and become members of Momentum, and who may argue that there are issues on which they believe the Party must act, I suggest, first, that there is nothing in the Party’s existing machinery that makes it impossible to discuss and pursue all major political issues, and second, that there are enough major issues on which the Party is or can be united, that will enable it to gain voters’ support: the NHS and Social Care, mental health benefits and housing, education, the continuing cuts in public expenditure, terrorism and defence.
They are all major issues on which the Party can and must speak with a united voice, and on which there is no need for a Party within the Party creating divisions and pressurising other members.
Another development, and one of growing concern, is the allegations of anti-Semitism in some parts of the country. In all my years in the Party, I have never heard any anti-Semitic remarks or statements expressed in any of the countless meetings and conferences I've attended. So I find it astonishing, as well as deplorable, that there should be any reports of anti-Semitic statements and personal attacks being made by many members of the party. It is essential that those responsible should be dealt with more speedily than they have been dealt with so far, and I say that as someone who regards the present Israeli government as the worst, most reactionary, in the country's history.
The damage done to our Party by the reports of anti-Semitism can only have been worsened by the widely reported attacks by Len McCluskey, the Unite General Secretary (attacks which he has since repeated), on those Labour MPs who have expressed serious concern about the incidence of anti-Semitism. McCluskey seemed more concerned to attack these MPs for an implied “smear” on Jeremy Corbyn (which was not seen as such by Corbyn himself) than to condemn those Party members who had made anti-Semitic statements. McCluskey was supported by Chris Williamson, MP, who decided to lecture his fellow MPs on loyalty to the Leader, conveniently overlooking the fact that Corbyn himself has chosen to vote against, or fail to support, the Party on more than 500 occasions.
The damage done by these two, and the reports of anti-Semitism within the Party, was brought home in my borough of Barnet, which I am sure Labour would have won but failed to do so as a result of Jewish members of the Party not voting for its candidates.
I would suggest to Len McCluskey and his Unite members that the biggest service they can render to the Party is to mount a major and concerted campaign involving its grass roots members, especially in those areas where working class voters deserted Labour over Brexit. The ones who have been “left behind” have been those who have suffered the effects of the policies and actions of a Government whose cuts in public expenditure, its determination to “roll back the state” and undermine local services are what has left them behind.
They are all the result of our own government and Westminster-made legislation, and the attempt to suggest everything will change when we “bring back our law-making” is the biggest con-trick in years.
Nevertheless, it is a con-trick that worked with a substantial number of voters (and not all of them working class ones) and while it started with Brexit, the attitude it encourages will not be confined to membership of the EU. It is in part a manifestation of the emergence of the reactionary populism which is stoked by scapegoating of minority groups and which has to be combated vigorously, not just by slogans, but with a great deal of well-informed argument and evidence to expose the fraudulence of the populists. And this is a task on which the Party Leader must give a lead that has to be backed by all sections of our membership, because the destination of the votes of the “Left Behind” could prove to be a decisive factor in the next General Election.
Inevitably, and notwithstanding the threats of Mr McCluskey, one comes to “the elephant in the room” – in this instance the Leader of our Party. I didn’t vote for Corbyn but I said in one of my earlier blogs (“The Corbyn Identity”) that I thought he was as good a candidate as any of his opponents. But my overriding feeling was that none of them was of the calibre, political and governmental experience and public appeal to be a successful Leader.
I was impressed by the extent to which Corbyn has restored the Party’s fortunes in the past three years, and the impressive increase in the membership must, at least in part, be due to his appeal to young voters. However, as part of the hard look at itself which I feel the Party must take, it is surely inescapable that the quality of the Party’s leadership should be frankly discussed, not with a view to piling blame in any particular direction, but to satisfy all sections of the Party that it has secured the best possible leadership.
There have been suggestions following the local government elections that the “Corbyn effect”, or his novelty value, is declining, and it may be that Corbyn himself may not be keen to face the immense rigours of the Premiership when he is 71 or 72 if the present parliament runs its full course, or if his poll ratings fail to rise substantially over whoever the Tories choose as their Leader (fortunately they too could be facing the question of leadership before much longer).
Those of us whose memories of and involvement in the life of the Party go back to the days of Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and their successors, like to make comparisons with the likes of Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Tony Benn, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, John Smith and Neil Kinnock, but we don’t have the chance to vote for candidates like them nowadays, nor for those who have come from leading posts in local government, trade unions, business and the “arts”. We have to hope, in the changing circumstances of politics today, candidates comparable to those former stars will emerge.
The question we must then ask is does the leadership candidate look like, sound like and act like a Prime Minister in waiting in the eyes not of the enthusiastic crowds in places like Camden and Liverpool, but in the key marginals that normally decide the outcome of our General Elections?
On the basis of current polls and the local government election results, and the crucial importance of what will happen to the working class UKIP vote, and unless the concerns I have expressed are resolved, we face a return to settling scores by the Left and the Right, or far worse the risk of a chasm between the Party leadership and the Parliamentary party when we should be building the unity and fashioning the policies which will convince voters that the country desperately needs a change of government, and to elect one whose strength and appeal is not based solely on the Leader but one that possesses talent and strength at all levels with policies that will enable the country to overcome what will be the massive problems that will arise from Brexit.