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Neil Kinnock: Jeremy Corbyn may have to resign or face a leadership challenge if Labour fails to improve

Former leader says that it is "difficult to see" Corbyn as electable and that "conclusions must be drawn" if the party's performance does not improve. 

Jeremy Corbyn may have to resign or face a revolt from MPs if Labour's performance fails to improve, Neil Kinnock has warned. In an interview with the New Statesman, the former Labour leader said it was "difficult to see" Corbyn as electable and added: "If Jeremy is seen to be failing to connect to the electorate after a reasonable space of time then he may come to his own conclusions."

Asked whether MPs should challenge Corbyn if he refused to step down, the peer said: "There’s a fundamental question here and it is whether people want to secure power in the party or to win power for the party. Those people who want to win power, whether they’re left, right or centre, will be watching the evidence and will make their decision on the basis of that evidence. Not because of some spasm of emotion, or the fact that their candidate didn’t get elected, they’ll want to know that they have a party which is being led in its advance with the electorate. If that isn’t the case then conclusions must be drawn." Labour's current poll ratings are the worst of any opposition in post-1945 history and it is forecast to become the first to lose council seats in a non-general election year since 1985.

Kinnock, who led Labour from 1983-92, advised against an imminent challenge to Corbyn, saying that "I take the view that a lot of people, left, right and centre, in parliament and in the unions take, that Jeremy Corbyn won, he’s got to have some space and he must be judged on performance in terms of Labour’s advance or movement in the other direction. That’s the political reality that people must really grasp and work on, the idea of trying to take disruptive action in the short-term will simply be fruitless, that’s the reality."

But he added that Corbyn's record of rebellion made it hard for him to command loyalty. "Jeremy's commitment to the party has never been in doubt, his commitment to various party leaderships has frequently been in doubt. That comes up in every conversation ... It’s difficult for him and those closest to him in the circumstances to acquire loyalty and to uphold unity when there’s that record stretching back 30 years. It isn’t impossible provided that he can show evidence that Labour is making advances." Corbyn is currently seeking to reverse Labour's support for Trident, making unilateral nuclear disarmament the party's policy for the first time since Kinnock abandoned the stance in 1989. 

The former Labour leader was interviewed by the New Statesman as a part of a feature on whether Labour should split. Thirty five years ago this week, the Limehouse Declaration was issued by the "Gang of Four" (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams) and the Social Democratic Party was formed two months later. Kinnock, who became leader after Labour's 1983 landslide defeat, warned of a split: "Anybody advocating it has got to face the reality that they would be letting the Tories rule the 21st century just like they mainly ruled the 20th century. There can’t be any rational social democrat or democratic socialist who would want that but it is a historic inevitability if they pursue it." 

But Peter Hyman, Tony Blair's former strategist and speechwriter, wrote: "Politics today is far more fluid, and people are crying out for a fresh voice in British politics. If, but only if, the Labour Party does not get back on track in the next 18 months, then there will need to be serious consideration given to a new party emerging." Labour MP Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, argued that the parliamentary party should elect a separate leader. "Not having a leader in the country, which Jeremy is, is not our weakness. It is in having no alternative prime minister. That person will hopefully come from the 2010 intake who are not stigmatised by previous Labour regimes. Then, please God, Labour backbenchers will have the courage to act decisively."

Corbyn ally Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary, told the New Statesman that a split would be "a real betrayal of the millions of people in the country who need a Labour government and "a betrayal of the thousands of party members who are behind the Labour leadership." She added: "The bitter and rancorous split is amongst MPs and only amongst MPs. It’s awful that, months after winning the Labour party leadership with the biggest majority, people are still attacking the leadership." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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