27th April 2016
Labour: The Firing Squad Circle Years
By Keith Nieland
We may barely be beyond the halfway point of the decade but it already looks as if political historians will be far from kind when it comes to commentating on the Labour years 2010 to 2020. They are years to which words & phrases such as missed opportunities, avoidance behaviour, delusion, poor analysis and rank bad judgement will aptly apply. It could turn out to be the worse decade in the long, tumultuous history of the Party.
It could have been so different. Labour had the misfortune to be holding the reins when the world economic collapse occurred in 2008. It could not have been forecast and it was no more the fault of the government than it was of any other government in the western world. Those blessed with the wisdom of hindsight saw it all, of course, and pointed the finger. There should have been stronger bank regulation and unfettered capitalism was blamed by those on the left, while those on right chose spending on welfare and immigrants. I do not recall David Cameron rising at Prime Minister’s Questions time after time to demand of Gordon Brown tighter bank regulation – in fact quite the opposite. The longest period of economic growth since World War II (which happened under a Labour government) was quickly forgotten.
At the 2010 general election Labour paid the price and was turfed from office. The outgoing Chancellor had a plan for dealing with the deficit created by the bank bailout which the incoming Chancellor rubbished but subsequently adopted then extended. The slings and arrows of outrageous daily political fortune. All was not lost for Labour, however. Despite so much being in their favour the Tories could not secure a Parliamentary majority and although Labour had suffered one of its worse election defeats it had enough seats to be in there fighting. To govern, the Tories had to cobble together an unlikely coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the first peacetime Coalition government since the 1920s took office, and what an inexperienced one it was. Apart from Kenneth Clarke, the incoming Prime Minister had little experience of Cabinet life to call upon.
What should Labour’s response have been? The Party had plenty of experience of government and knew its way around Whitehall. Surely what was called for was a refreshing of the Labour front bench team so it looked more youthful and up for the challenges of government whilst keeping much of experience in place. Labour needed a new leader who was young, popular, articulate and experienced in government. Somebody with gravitas who looked like a PM in waiting who would openly admit where Labour had gone wrong but sternly defend its record when called for. Such folk are difficult to come by but Labour had such a candidate: David Miliband. Party members of the day knew this and wanted him as their Leader but sadly Labour Party leadership elections are about so much more. Some of the powerful unions wanted a Leader who they perceived as being sympathetic to them. The fact that you could be aligned with whoever you liked, but if you could not win a General Election it would not make an iota of difference, did not occur to anyone.
So on a September day in Manchester the votes were counted and Ed Miliband won by the smallest of margins. The 2015 General Election was lost in the moment Ed hugged his brother, no doubt seeking to ensure the knife was well and truly placed between his shoulder blades. The Unions who had engineered this outcome were delighted and the death of New Labour and a new era of stronger Union influence was ushered in.
This is not the place to rehearse the disastrous 5 years that followed. Suffice to say the Coalition government was allowed unchallenged to rubbish 13 years of Labour government and create a misleading narrative and Ed hardly lifted a finger to stop it. It hardly mattered, as the principal objective of stopping David becoming Leader and killing off New Labour had been achieved. Eventually the voters got to have a say and awarded Labour with its worse defeat since 1918.
Ed Miliband abandoned ship as quickly as he could, went on holiday and grew a beard. Before he left he gave a parting gift to the Party. Now the notion that ordinary Labour voters should have a say in who should be Party leader was welcome. After all they would be more likely to vote for somebody they supported. The £3 socialist was born! The problem was ordinary Labour voters were never going to cough up £3 to put a cross on a piece of paper but political activists were more than willing. Did nobody tap Ed on the shoulder to remind him of all the damage entryism by extremist groups from the far left had done to the Party in the 1980s? What should have happened was that MPs and local parties should have canvassed known Labour voters and held votes on stalls in shopping centres to get a sense of where voters were and followed that lead. If my memory serves me correct The Independent published a poll during the 2015 Leadership campaign saying voters still preferred David Miliband to be Leader. Although he was no longer in Parliament the poll gave an indication of the sort of person voters were looking for.
So Labour had another chance to select a Leader who could win. Surely the right thing to do tactically, if the Party was serious about being a Party of power again, was to select a Leader who was perhaps inexperienced (but would have 5 years to grow into the job), articulate, popular with voters, easy with the media and could take on the daunting task of dealing with a resurgent David Cameron in the House of Commons. Somebody who could appeal across the political divide. Somebody who looked like they belonged in the second decade of the 21st century and understood its challenges. Labour had a number of potential candidates who fitted this bill of which Chukka Umunna was the most prominent. Sadly press intrusion into his private life frightened him away.
All the best practice from the world of succession planning was ignored and Labour ended up with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. He deserves credit for an astute campaign. He used the £3 socialist innovation to get supporters into the Party and offered a good old hard left manifesto – a bit of nationalisation there and a touch of tax collecting from the rich here. Throw in ending austerity (even though voters had endorsed austerity barely 4 months previously) and free tuition fees for his young supporters and he was home and dry. It is hardly credible that Labour had elected as Leader a man who had achieved little in over 30 years as an MP, had been a serial rebel against every Party leader, had shown no ambition for responsibility or leadership and had not even been the most junior of ministers. He was now Leader of a Party with over 9 million voters.
A number of independent analyses had drawn attention to the reasons for Labour’s successive General Election defeats: leaders who were not credible Prime Minister material, lack of trust on managing the economy, weak on immigration control and too generous with welfare. In an early interview Corbyn was asked about these and his response was he could not see a problem with Labour’s stance on immigration and welfare and appeared to offer reversing many of the Government’s welfare changes. He would end austerity (leaving voters to worry about how the deficit would be eradicated) and reinstate all cuts planned for the 2010-20 Parliament.
Corbyn said little to settle voters’ nerves about their concerns on welfare, immigration and economic competence. He then made things worse by throwing national defence and security into the toxic mix of issues on which Labour could not be trusted by committing to abandon Trident and appearing to take a far from clear line on police handling of armed terrorists. The outcome of all this has been poor poll ratings despite the Tory Party being in meltdown over Europe, the NHS, taxation policy and a bodged Budget. Labour should be somewhere between 10 and 20 points ahead at this point in the election cycle but instead still languishes behind the Tories in many polls and only ahead by the narrowest of margins in the most favourable.
Meanwhile the Corbyn car crash careers on from the longest shadow cabinet reshuffle in history, to sackings for disloyalty (oh! the irony), via Trident missiles without war heads, poor PMQs performances and banning McDonald’s from having a stall at Party Conference! Most recently the Party has aligned itself with picket lines and street demonstrations without condition – sure fire winners with floating voters!
Corbyn supporters say he had a big mandate from the Party membership which, of course, he does. Historians may well argue what is the benefit of a mandate if you are unelectable? There is little evidence to suggest Corbyn has much appeal outside his own supporters and he shows little inclination to venture into more unwelcome political waters from where Labour would need to gather votes if it is to stand any chance in 2020.
Politics is a brutal business where winner takes all and the runners up have to make their own arrangements. Time will tell if Corbyn is a winner but the early signs are not good. He may not care, of course, as his mission could be to see the radical left take over the Party’s levers of control and then shuffle off. If that is the case he will be the first Labour leader to prioritise control of the Party machinery over actually winning a General Election.
Labour’s 9 million voters will not wait around forever for the Party to become something they would like to vote for once it has sorted out issues with economic management, welfare, immigration and defence and security. Other Parties will come along with offers to tempt them.
So will historians place Jeremy Corbyn in the failures box along with Lansbury and Foot or the successes box with Attlee, Wilson and Blair? Given the blatant disregard for voters’ concerns and unwillingness to contemplate the characteristics of what voters see as a Labour winner the omens are not good.
Twitter – KeithNieland