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Go fourth

John Prescott, Alastair Campbell, Richard Caborn and Glenys Kinnock call for the party and its suppo

EXCLUSIVEIf the polls and pundits are to be believed, within two years or so, David Cameron will be prime minister and the Conservatives back in power.

People should cast their minds back to the mid-Nineties, when the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock held commanding poll leads and won great by-election victories. The same lesson is there for both parties in the subsequent re-election of the Tories in 1992. For the Tories: not to assume that poll leads automatically translate to seats. For Labour: never to give up, never to bow down before fatalism or the self-serving hope of opponents in a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The only real answer to the pollsters' question, "If there were a general election tomorrow, how would you vote?", is: "There isn't one." A lot can happen between now and then.

There is, however, one enormous difference between 1992 and now, and it is this difference to which Labour has to be particularly alert. In that election, and the one which followed in 1997, the big issue was the opposition party, Labour.

Were we fit to govern? Had we changed sufficiently to win back the trust of the people? Had we really thought through the policies, and did the sums add up?

A combination of a highly effective political organisation, and a media that largely followed its strategic lead, ensured that the only party under real intense scrutiny was ours.

Yet now, with the Tories well ahead in the polls, when it comes to real scrutiny, it is as though they didn't really exist.

Labour needs to rediscover the passion that gave us victory in the first place, to defend our record with pride

If most of us were to stop people at random in the street, and ask them to name three things that David Cameron would do as prime minister, it is not an insult to the public to suggest most would struggle to answer.

Likewise, most people would struggle to name more than two or three current members of the shadow cabinet. The people who would run our schools, hospitals, roads, armed forces are virtual unknowns outside the Westminster village.

This is not merely the result of a media bored with the story of Labour in power and keen for a new set of characters to populate the soap opera that passes for media debate on policy. It is also the result of a deliberate Conservative strategy to avoid policy, avoid facing the difficult decisions that politics ultimately requires you to make, and go along with the media game of making Gordon Brown the only story in town, preferably with as negative a slant as can be found.

There is no point in moaning, however. We have to do something about it. Not just the Prime Minister, not just the cabinet or the MPs, this includes anyone who understands that Britain is best served by a fourth-term Labour government, not a return to a Conservative Party scared to bring forward policies of substance because its MPs and members have not changed sufficiently to embrace anything other than the style and froth Mr Cameron is very good at.

That is why we are urging people to sign up to a new campaigning organisation, Go Fourth - Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term - a campaign dedicated to supporting the fight for the re-election of a Labour government and committed to the same principles and values that have won us an unprecedented three consecutive victories.

We passionately believe this party needs to get off the back foot, out of its despondency, and start campaigning on our proud record of government so we can take the fight to the Tories.

It's not going to be easy - we need to work harder than we've ever worked, campaign better than we've ever campaigned and reach out wider than we ever have.

To this end, the campaign's main aims will be to:

Proudly defend the record of the Labour government since 1997;

Actively support the government in promoting policies that will build on our successes;

Encourage greater participation in the Labour Party;

Highlight the damage a Conservative government will do to Britain.

Anyone who supports these four aims, and who believes Britain's best interests will be maintained by a Labour not a Tory government, is welcome to join our Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term. We are looking beyond politicians, or those who are normally active in the political debate, to a wider support. When we launch in six weeks' time, we'll spell out just how we can all come together to take on the Conservatives.

There were those who believed, when Labour lost the 1992 election - having been so far ahead in the polls, only to see that lead erode - that we would never get power again. Five years later, we were elected in a landslide.

Our opponents then pointed out that Labour had never secured two full successive terms in power.

When we won another landslide, some felt it would not be possible to win a third term. Yet, even after all the difficulties raised in the debate over Iraq, Labour did win a third term.

A fourth term, once unthinkable, remains a real prospect. More than that, it is vital to the future of Britain.

The Tory party has had to accept many of the changes Labour has made for the country. But while Britain has changed for the better, we should never forget that the Tories opposed the changes needed to make those improvements. And any analysis of their policy prospectus shows an unchanged party that has little understanding of the role of government in helping people face the challenges of modern life.

"Time for a change" is their only cry. But change to what? That is a question that the Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term will help the country answer.

The change would be to an outmoded, old-fashioned, elitist party determined to take Britain back to the days when the country was run by and for a privileged few, not for the many.

We are proud of what Labour has achieved for Britain. And we are determined to do what we can to stop the country going back to the Conservatives.

Rightly in politics, there is an enormous focus on the party leaders. But the fight cannot be won by them alone. Labour needs to rediscover the passion that gave us victory in the first place, to defend our record with pride, promote our policy agenda with confidence, knowing that we are alone in having thought through policies to meet the great challenges of our time.

Now is the time to get back on the campaign trail. So let's get knocking on the doors, fighting on the web and tackling the Conservatives through the media.

The Tories are still the same old Tories; offering the same quack prescriptions and easy options. We've beaten them three times already, so let's go for a fourth and stop them gaining a victory they have done absolutely nothing to deserve.

So, if you believe in fairness, equality and social justice, it's time to stand up and be counted.

It's time for you to join us in our Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term.

John Prescott is the former deputy prime minister; Alastair Campbell is the former director of communications and strategy for the Prime Minister's Office; Richard Caborn is MP for Sheffield Central; Glenys Kinnock MEP represents Wales in the European Parliament

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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