It was 1988. The Tories, post-1979 victory and pre-1989 poll tax disaster, were enjoying their strength. The Labour Party was licking its wounds and beginning a huge policy review and modernisation operation.
On 14 January that year, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, secretary of the Campaign Group of MPs, told the Guardian that they were “considering putting up a candidate against Neil Kinnock for the party leadership” and “taking soundings among CLPs and trade unions”.
By 14 April, Mr Jon Lansman (now a leading figure in the pro-Corbyn group Momentum), was telling the same paper that there is “no difficulty justifying the campaign to the party…by having an election, we will force a debate about the direction of the party in which it will be much more difficult for Kinnock to make everything an issue of loyalty to him”.
Tony Benn received nominations from 29 MPs, exceeding the 5 per cent threshold required by the party constitution. He said: “I don’t think you can say (I’m using the language of the other side) that socialism is about choice and then, when a choice is opened up, criticise the fact that it has been done”. In as fine a bit of Orwellian Newspeak as can be found outside heavy satire, Tony echoed his maxim from a previous occasion, saying “division can be healing”.
So the “healing” began. I asked Robin Cook (my campaign manager in the 1983 leadership election) to do the same job again. He instantly agreed. When we met to discuss practicalities, the question was raised whether I, as existing leader, needed to obtain MPs’ nominations. The decision was made in seconds: “That’s the rules, and anyway, I’m not going to hide behind incumbency.”
To us, it was vital that the leader of a party commited by constitution, history, and conviction to the parliamentary road to socialism was able to prove wide support among the elected Labour MPs as well as the broader movement. Indeed, anything else was unthinkable. And that was not because of the prevailing electoral college system at the time. It was because of the plain realities of electoral politics and of Labour’s credibility as a serious contestant for parliamentary power.
Robin, together with Charles Clarke, head of my office, and activists in CLPs, unions and affiliated societies got on with the tasks of the campaign. Among other activities they quickly gathered 130 MP nominations for me – just over half of the 230 total strength – and then, “not to be excessive”, they moved on to other priorities.
I was, of course, furious with what I called the “division and distraction”. “It is futile and selfish. When the priority of the huge majority of the Labour movement is to combat the Tory offensive against the health service and the poor and to secure support for our campaigns for jobs and justice, these people have chosen to turn inwards. Only our foes will be pleased and everyone with any sense knows it.”
The Labour movement agreed. Affiliated unions and CLPs rapidly nominated me. Jo Richardson, Margaret Beckett, Clare Short, Alan Roberts, Joan Ruddock and others resigned from the Campaign Group .But the political cost of the contest soon became evident. April opinion polls gave us 42 per cent support, by June we were on 38 per cent and falling.
We stabilised after the party re-elected me as leader in October with 88.6 per cent of the vote to Tony Benn’s 11.4 per cent.Interestingly, my margin of victory among the CLPs was over 4-1, a reverse of the 1981 deputy leadership election where Tony had 80 per cent of the constituency vote. We still took until March 1989 to be 2.5 per cent ahead of the Tories and more months until we built regular double-digit leads.
Superficially, a similar case could now be made against “division and distraction”. But when Mr Lansman tweeted last Sunday that “Democracy gives power to people, ‘winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves” I realised that he has a different concept of the purpose of democratic politics from me. Indeed, he differs from the great British socialists (Bevan, Foot, Tawney and Jack Jones included), and – even more important – from all who know that without “winning” Labour has no real chance of serving the interests of the least secure, least powerful, most exploited, and worst housed people, let alone the wider national and international causes.
There are, in any case, crucial differences between 1988 and now.
First, politics is different. Labour, for too long dependent on the complacent illusion that anti-Tories had “nowhere else to go”, is confronted with Greens, the remnant Liberals and an assortment of nationalist populists in Scotland, Wales and Little England. Earning the trust and votes of many “haves” and “haven’t got enough” as well as “have-nots” is, therefore, not some “centre-left” desirable. It is fundamental to any possibility of advance. That does not require dilution or desertion of conviction, it needs relevance and credibility of policy and political stance so that our practical devotion to security, care, opportunity, justice and liberty is convincingly expressed and then understood across the breadth of society. That is not happening. When even long-term stalwart Labour voters are continually saying on doorsteps and workplaces and supermarkets that they “can’t vote for Corbyn” it is increasingly clear that the battle for support is being lost.
MPs and many others have wrestled with that reality for months. Most had been grumblingly inclined to give Jeremy Corbyn more time to prove or disprove his leadership quality. But when Cameron threw his toys out of the Downing Street pram on 24 June he produced the probability of an early general election. MPs then decided that – with the sobering Labour local election analysis to hand, and after a referendum campaign in which the leader was, to be restrained, languid and unconvincing – action had to be taken. The risks of division are all too familiar to all who recall the schisms of the early 1980s. But, convinced that the alternative is drift and abysmal decline, MPs felt – feel – that the risk must be taken to try to avoid a Labour slide to the political margins.
Second, they and many others perceive that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is now widely seen as a perpetual protest movement, not a potential government. Of course, they believe that in the face of Tory injustice and incompetence, protest is vital and justified. That’s why they are actively part of it. But they also recognise that it can never be enough to win elected power to turn principles into the law of the land. Accepting that reality is not a new challenge to the whole Labour movement. At the 1987 conference I asked “whether this party wants to achieve victory or to settle for offering the British people nothing but sympathy? A party that will do little more than attend the funerals of hopes and communities and industries, a party of permanent condolence senders”. The answer then was rousing and positive. In the 1988 leadership election result it was given tangible form. The Labour Party had become too seriously outraged to accept gestures and postures from people who treated politics as a hobby for ideologues and myopic sectarians.
Those who say now that “the rules are different from ’88 and do not require a leader to gain nominations from 20 per cent of the PLP””are wrong. That wasn’t always the case. As recently as March this year, Corbyn’s supporters were saying to the press: “The current Labour Party rules do not clearly spell out that an incumbent leader is automatically on the ballot paper for leader in the event of a challenger securing the requisite nominations”. If the leader’s automatic inclusion on the ballot paper wasn’t clear to them three months ago, how is it so plain now?
The most straightforward perception of those rules is that the words “any nomination” means that all candidates, including the leader, must be supported by 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs.
Even apart from the constitutional formalities, however, the most salient and compelling truth remains: It is not credible, not serious, not even practical for anyone to lead the Labour Party without at least substantial support from MPs. A no confidence vote of 172-40 showed beyond doubt that such support does not exist for Jeremy Corbyn. That is not because of the resistance of obtuse parliamentarians or remote inhabitants of the Westminster Bubble. It is certainly not because they think, in Dennis Skinner’s phrase, that they are “more important than the rest of the party”. On the contrary, it is the action of dedicated Labour people who know from the repeated evidence of countless public contacts that the PARTY is too important to be left to corrosion and collapse.
Neil Kinnock was Labour leader from 1983 to 1992