Newsnight Labour leadership debate: political heroes

A most unlikely set of political heroes was offered by the candidates last night. What does this tel

With the leadership candidates asked for a Labour political hero during the Newsnight debate, we were at least spared their tributes to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. But what an unlikely set of personal nominations we were offered. Each could be seen as somewhat dissonant with the candidate's past career or campaign message.

Most authentic may have been David Miliband's nomination of Tony Crosland, postwar Labour's greatest social-democratic intellectual voice. It was a good choice -- I think Crosland would be my (somewhat pointy-headed) choice, too -- though the shadow foreign secretary seemed irked with it and to want to withdraw it once the four other candidates had chosen actual as well as lost leaders of the party.

Yet Miliband's claim that Crosland's untimely death in 1977 robbed Labour of a great leader doesn't stand up. Crosland had his chance in 1976 and would surely not have been a candidate in 1980, nor surely could he ever have hoped to lead the party successfully by then if he had been elected. (See the end of the post for more.)

Perhaps least plausible was Ed Balls's choice of Tony Blair, citing his victory in three elections, though he was perhaps not Balls's first choice for leader in either 1997 or 2005. Balls has previously pitched for Nye Bevan.

Ed Miliband played it very safe indeed with Labour's secular saint Clement Attlee, citing the achievements of the 1945-51 government.

Yet surely the efficient managerialism of Attlee, beyond his collegiality in cabinet, provides quite the opposite model of political leadership from the inspirational "movement politics" to which Ed Miliband's campaign aspires. Attlee did not campaign in poetry; indeed, given his famously monosyllabic nature, he might even have questioned the need for any more prose than necessary when governing.

For all of the achievements of the Attlee administration's first term, he entirely failed to renew an exhausted government after 1948. Labour ran in 1950 and 1951 on an empty "consolidation" manifesto, pledging little beyond the nationalisation of sugar. The central point of Ed Miliband's campaign on values and vision is surely to make once again, after New Labour, precisely the critique put by Dick Crossman in New Fabian Essays in 1952: that Labour had "lost its way not only because it lacked maps of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers".

Diane Abbott's nomination of John Smith saw the Campaign Group candidate connect to the centre-right voice most associated with the "soul of the party". That is a smart strategy as part of Abbott's broad and mainstream Labour pitch. I suspect that she may have been less supportive of Smith's short leadership from the right of the party at the time.

By my calculation, Bryan Gould must have won votes from roughly 60 of Labour's 271 MPs in the 1992 leadership election (doing much better in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where he lost 4-1, than in the other voting sections in that most one-sided contest). Most of the left, such as Ken Livingstone, backed Gould over Smith. I don't have a record of which side Abbott was on. No doubt the newspapers could check.

Andy Burnham, too, cited John Smith having pledged also to give Labour back its soul, though he offered little reason for his choice. I suspect that Burnham, who was a researcher for Tessa Jowell from 1994-97, would have been instinctively sympathetic to the embryonic New Labour critique of Smith's cautious consolidation strategy, characterised as "one more heave".

So no mention of Keir Hardie or Ellen Wilkinson, Nye Bevan or Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle or Bernie Grant, Neil Kinnock or Robin Cook. The Labour premiers Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown are, for different reasons, very much outside candidates, though there must be less obvious contenders, too.

So, perhaps somebody should make a note to ask the leadership candidates again for their political heroes in October.

Crosland had his chance in 1976, when he received a paltry 17 votes (5 per cent) out of a Parliamentary Party of 314 Labour MPs, finishing sixth out of six candidates, albeit in Labour's most glittering field, with Denis Healey fifth (30 votes), Tony Benn fourth (with 37), Roy Jenkins third (56) and Callaghan second on the first ballot (84) behind Michael Foot (on 90), with Callaghan defeating Foot on the third ballot.

Crosland was famously displeased that he could not even persuade his ambitious acolyte Roy Hattersley to vote for him in the 1976 contest:

When Wilson unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister in 1976, it seemed natural that Hattersley would back Jenkins or Tony Crosland, his close friend and mentor, for the leadership. But he was told by Callaghan that neither of the two right-wingers could hold the party together. Moreover, Callaghan added, they were both going to lose. And those who wanted preferment under a Callaghan administration would have to vote for him (Callaghan).

Hattersley telephoned his friend Crosland to explain his predicament. He pledged eternal loyalty -- and then broke the news that he would be supporting Callaghan. He offered to explain why. Crosland, unsurprisingly, told him to "fuck off". When Callaghan won, he rewarded Hattersley with his first cabinet post, as secretary for prices and consumer protection.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.