Labour is still pre-occupied with the 1992 defeat of Neil Kinnock. Photo: GERRY PENNY/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Labour’s past spectres, bringing on the Brexit, and the wisdom of the shoeless guru

Labour’s abiding problem is that it doesn’t think it really belongs in office and must therefore apologise for occasions when it was.

Were the Conservatives still talking in 2000 about 1992, when the Tory chancellor Norman Lamont, in a vain attempt to keep Britain in the Exchange Rate Mechanism (a precursor to the euro), raised interest rates from 10 per cent to 12 per cent and then to 15 per cent and finally back to 10 per cent within barely 24 hours? Not that I recall. Were they talking in 1982 about 1974, when Edward Heath, in an equally vain attempt to see off a miners’ strike, put the country on a three-day working week? I think not.

Yet here is a Labour leadership contest in which the contenders have begun by discussing whether Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were guilty of overspending before the world financial crisis struck. The party should have buried this argument long ago. Lest we forget, public services were then so popular that the Tories promised to match Labour’s spending plans. And unlike Lamont and Heath, Labour ministers successfully dealt with the crisis that they confronted, not only rescuing British banking from collapse but persuading other countries to take similar action and then ­restoring economic growth by 2010.

It is, however, Labour’s fate always to be reliving the past: the “great betrayal” of 1931, the devaluations of 1949 and 1967, the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, the 1983 “suicide note”, Liam Byrne’s “no money left” note in 2010. The Tories treat their disasters as mere aberrations. The message of the departing Tory chancellor Reginald Maudling to his Labour successor in 1964 – “Good luck, old cock. Sorry to leave it in such a mess” – was forgotten within a year. To listen to the Tories, you would think that Heath had nothing to do with them. A highly intelligent and politically aware young man once told me that he was 30 before he realised that the three-day week didn’t happen under Labour.

Labour’s abiding problem is that it doesn’t think it really belongs in office and must therefore apologise for occasions when it was. Tony Blair’s ambition was to turn it into the “natural governing party”. The test of that was whether it could bounce back quickly from the defeat it would inevitably suffer eventually. This uninspiring leadership contest, combined with the defeat that prompted it, shows how badly he failed.

 

Mr Blue Sky

For examples of what prospective Labour leaders should talk about, turn to Steve Hilton. Yes, that Steve Hilton, the shaven-headed, bicycling former provider of “blue-sky thinking” to David Cameron. He ­supported £25bn in welfare cuts and an end to unfair dismissal laws before, frustrated by Whitehall, he fled to California in 2012. Now, in a Sunday Times interview alongside an extract from his new book, More Human, he says: “Our democracies are increasingly captured by a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privileges”; governments listen only to those who have money; and it is “outrageous that we should tolerate a situation where people work incredibly hard yet can’t earn enough to live on”. He argues that, in return for a cut in business taxes, companies should pay the living wage. (Why didn’t Labour propose that?) He says that supermarkets and other big companies (he seems to hate Tesco particularly) should pay for the social and environmental damage they cause. He rails against “vast corporate machines that treat people as an afterthought whether they work for them, supply them or buy from them”.

I don’t agree with everything he says or even most of it. But this is the territory that Labour’s prospective leaders should explore.

 

Dead man’s shoes

Some Labour insiders suggest that the winner of this year’s contest should face a new leadership election in three years’ time. This sounds like a desperate device to insert
David Miliband, the “right” brother but not currently an MP. It occurs to me, however, that, since 1945, Labour has twice changed its leader in the middle of a parliament while in opposition. On both occasions, 1963 and 1994, the incumbent leader died (Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith). In both cases, Labour had performed below pre-poll expectations in the previous election, then went on to win a majority in the next. This little history lesson may be a bit of a downer for current leadership hopefuls but, in these challenging times, we must cling to those straws we can find.

 

From free trade to free-for-all

I was planning to vote in favour of Britain’s continuing EU membership, as I did (when it wasn’t the EU) in 1975. But I now think that, if Cameron recommends staying in, I shall vote against. With his small majority, he will make a pro-EU case only if he is sure that his Eurosceptic backbenchers won’t rebel. They want a deregulated Europe, in which countries compete to cut wages and taxes, reduce employees’ and consumers’ rights and abolish health, safety and environmental safeguards. That is what they mean by a pure free-trade area with no “interference” from Brussels. If an EU like that is in prospect, we should leave immediately.

 

Mansions of menace

Released from the terrors of Red Ed’s mansion tax, London’s high-end property market booms again. The Qatari ruling family, it is reported, has snapped up a six-storey Victorian town house in Mayfair for £40m and is close to creating a “Qatari quarter” in the area. As thrilling as it is to welcome such distinguished guests, instead of having Labour spurn them with its inhospitable taxes, I am just a little worried. The press is exercised about Islamist militants possibly being smuggled into Europe on flimsy refugee boats crossing the Mediterranean. But Qatar has been criticised for tolerating jihadist fundraisers and providing support, including weapons, to Middle Eastern militant groups. I am sure that Qatar’s rulers mean us no more harm than do the many genuine refugees trying to reach safety but are we quite sure that there’s no danger of an Islamist terrorist finding a safe haven in some corner of a Mayfair basement? Just asking.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.