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8 September 2021

Letter of the week: The myths of lost Labour

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

Harry Lambert resurrects the myth that all would have been different had Labour imposed the EU’s seven-year transition period in 2004 for people from new member states working in the UK (“The strange death of Labour Britain”, 3 September). It wouldn’t. There were already thousands of eastern Europeans who had arrived on tourist visas since the Nineties and found work in the UK’s re-regulated labour market. We didn’t even have ID cards, the bare minimum to know who was in the country. The decision was taken to legalise these workers.

The Treasury fought against providing help to British workers. It resisted the employment agency workers directive, the working time directive and the posted workers directive, leaving British workers without the protection enjoyed by their colleagues across the Channel. There were no apprenticeships. There were no workplace inspections, unions were not empowered, and the uber-liberal ideology inherited from Margaret Thatcher was sustained by the Treasury. The Office for National Statistics had no reliable figures on employment or EU workers arriving on which policy could be based. As Europe minister, together with David Blunkett, I created a registrar of EU workers, but Theresa May abolished it.

As an opponent of the anti-Europeanism that has marked UK discourse, I think it would have been wiser had the country gone ahead with the referendum on the EU constitutional treaty in 2005 or 2006. Voters would have said no to Europe, but without the consequences of being a weaker, poorer, more xenophobic nation under an anti-European government.

Denis MacShane, former Europe minister, London SW1V

Death of a party

Something was missing from Harry Lambert’s analysis of the decline of the Labour Party: female voices. Yes, we had comments from Gisela Stuart and Margaret Hodge, but other than that, this was a critique dominated by the male perspective, despite there being many female ex-cabinet and shadow cabinet members Lambert could have interviewed.

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I remember, as a young woman in 1997, the sheer elation of seeing a new swathe of female MPs and of women taking up cabinet positions, and then, more recently, of the possibility of a female leader of the party. In the last leadership election, the female candidates were largely treated by the media with indulgence, almost as joke figures, with Keir Starmer presented as the real deal. An analysis of the role of women within the party would be welcome.

Helen Ryan-Atkin, Saddleworth

As a Tory MP who thinks Keir Starmer’s instincts are good and decent, it has been impossible to work out what he wants. During Brexit he said he wanted a deal, and then set six almost impenetrable tests as a condition of Labour’s support. With Covid, he claims to want to get the UK back up and running, and then in the next breath argues for extended lockdowns. Being clever, Starmer can probably argue that his positions are consistent and compatible, but to many it all comes across as rather too complicated and contradictory.

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Charles Walker MP, London SW1V

At the heart of Labour’s woes over the past 20 years are two key issues: poor leadership and poor decision-making. For all his many faults, Tony Blair had the presence of a leader. Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn lacked leadership skills, from empathy with long-standing voters to a clear vision for would-be followers, to the skills to make the right call on big issues.

Right now, we have the worst possible Prime Minister at the worst possible time. Harry Lambert is right: Labour’s failure to address its 20-year decline leaves all of us looking at the future with deep concern.

John Adcock, Ashstead, Surrey

Harry Lambert’s clear analysis of the problems facing the Labour Party illustrates the range of self-inflicted setbacks. Among these was the failure between 2010 and 2015 to push back on the accusation that the deficit and the Tory austerity plans were the fault of the Brown government. However, there were other failures of collective leadership at that time, principally the lack of sustained opposition to either the Andrew Lansley health reforms or the changes to education mounted by Michael Gove. In both cases, more scrutiny was offered by Lib Dems such as Shirley Williams than by Labour’s shadow cabinet.

Roger Truelove, Sittingbourne, Kent

Lessons from Vietnam

Joe Haines must be corrected in his assertion that “since 1940 British foreign policy has been to draw ever closer to the White House” (Correspondence, 3 September). The US’s greatest military involvement prior to the debacle in Afghanistan was Vietnam, when the Australian government joined in the folly and the Labour government, under Harold Wilson, clearly did not. Even in 1956, when France and Britain tried to wrest the Suez Canal away from Nasser’s grasp, it was the US that said “hands off”.

Steph Harrison, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire

Long live the Lib Dems

For Philip Collins’s hatchet job on the Liberal Democrats (The Public Square, 3 September) to appear in the same issue as a considered article on the challenge facing Labour was baffling. When will progressives come to terms with the Lib Dems’ key role in beating the Tories? There are simply too many parliamentary seats where Labour is not in contention but where the Lib Dems could make a crucial difference. The Chesham and Amersham by-election perfectly illustrated this.

The binary choice of Labour versus Conservative in perpetuity is not a welcome prospect for many of us and does not reflect the pluralism of different views.

Mark Hunter, Lib Dem MP 2005-15, Cheadle

Reconstructing the Sixties

Peter Wilby, in his review of my book about Britain in 1962 On the Cusp, is puzzled about why it fails to mention the Cuban missile crisis (CMC) of late October (The Critics, 3 September). The answer is that my narrative deliberately ends a fortnight or so earlier, on Friday 5 October: the first Beatles single, the first Bond film, the start of the “real” Sixties. And I can promise him there will be no lack of the CMC in the next intended instalment of my postwar history.

David Kynaston, New Malden, Surrey

Peter Wilby’s review of David Kynaston’s On the Cusp concluded by contrasting the social progress made in Britain during the Sixties with the wreckage of Britain’s physical fabric. Those two changes were highly interactive. Michael Young and Peter Wilmott’s earlier sociological study “Family and Kinship in East London”(1957) seminally considered the deleterious impact that new built environments had on pre-existing working-class networks.

The timing of their study underlines another challenge facing postwar historians. The “swinging Sixties” might be neatly alliterative. But the histories of that decade’s disruptive change, with its protracted consequences – from the building of huge housing estates such as Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham (1966-70) to the lowering of the age of majority (1969) – demand more adroit periodisation.

Jack Barber, London SE24

The power players

In his lovely note on Charlie Watts (The Critics, 3 September), Bob Stanley states that the musician drew on “unflashy jazz drummers” such as Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Kenny Clarke. I would argue that none of the three was unflashy, and Blakey and Jones were powerhouse drummers. None was quiet, but drove the music along.

Martin Hayes, Manchester

Wellington-in-waiting

Philip Collins (The Public Square, 27 August) states that Wellington “became prime minister in 1834”. Indeed he did – for just 23 days, as caretaker without a cabinet, pending the return of Robert Peel from Italy. He held the office in the full sense between 1828 and 1830, passing Catholic emancipation and resisting parliamentary reform. He had no vanity. One of his supporters, Lord Dudley, wrote: “He goes to work just as if he had his fortune and his reputation still to make, just as if there had been no India, no Spain, no Waterloo.”

Lord Lexden, Conservative Party historian, London SW1V

Window on the world

Rosemary Slater (Correspondence, 3 September) rightly points out that most modern buildings in southern Europe have external rolling shutters. But if this system were adopted in Britain as she suggests, a lot of people would have to replace their windows. In Europe, windows open inwards, thus not obstructing the shutters. And you can half-close your shutters and open the windows at night, letting in air while maintaining privacy.

Incidentally, this is why the profession of domestic window cleaner doesn’t exist here. We can clean both sides from the inside.

Veronica Yuill, Languedoc, France

Kant’s big day out

I just wanted to point out that Immanuel Kant did actually travel outside of Königsberg (“Beyond the culture wars”, 3 September). Apparently it was just a one-off journey to the town of Gołdap, a godforsaken place, currently on Poland’s northern border.

Jacek Modrzejewski, Didcot, Oxfordshire

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire