The Paul Richards column
Like death, Labour going into opposition is one of those subjects people don’t like talking about. Some people think that not talking about it makes it less likely to happen. Others consider any public discussion of the possibility of Labour losing a future election to be an act of treachery and disloyalty, as I found when I spoke to Labour Students last Saturday in Leeds. The event was what used to be called the ‘NOLS Student Council’, and I wasn’t in any way freaked out by the fact that I was NOLS chair before most of the audience were born.
I have no idea what will happen at the next election, lacking as I do the gift of prophecy. I can predict the range of possibilities: Labour will either win, or lose, or there will be some kind of coalition which either does, or doesn’t, have Labour in it. Ruling out military coups or popular uprisings, I think that covers it. I fervently hope the country will be spared Cameron and his gang, on the entirely sensible grounds that the worst possible Labour Government is preferable to the best possible Tory one. But like death, it is inevitable that Labour will one day leave office, and form Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
My considered view for the students in Leeds was that being in opposition is rubbish. In the first few months following a Labour defeat, Labour has always descended into rancour and blame. It happened in 1931, 1951, and in 1979, and it runs something like this: Labour lost the election for not being socialist enough, because the recently-ejected ministers lacked proper socialist conviction and resolve, and because the Government lost touch with the rank-and-file. Aside from the obvious contradiction contained within the contention that millions of people vote Tory when they think Labour is not left-wing enough, this post-defeat narrative is all about Labour’s culture of betrayal. It suits some (Compass springs to mind) to blame Labour’s leadership and centrist policies for failure, because it forces people to take up left positions.
This was the perspective put to me by one of the Labour students when he suggested that Labour lost votes and seats in 2005 because it was too ‘New’ Labour. That would mean that the voters of such Labour heartlands as St Albans, Enfield Southgate or Welwyn Hatfield voted Conservative because Labour offered too little red meat: a point I wish I’d made at the time rather than thought of days later. Ah well: l’esprit d’escalier.
It is not just the internecine warfare that makes opposition rubbish. It is also the impotence and irrelevance of it all. In the absence of government departments to run, Labour’s leaders’ energies are diverted to the internal workings of the Labour Party itself. Documents become a battleground. NEC papers assume great importance. It becomes a battle of endurance, with two-day, no-sleep shadow cabinet and NEC meetings to thrash out policy positions. The reason Militant took control of Labour’s youth wing, and could have taken over the NEC without Kinnock’s courage, wasn’t because of their politics; it was simply because they had nowhere else to be.
Shadow Ministers, their speeches drafted by politics undergraduates on work-experience, will face Ministers with the full weight of the Government machine behind them. The Labour front-bench may look wistfully at the officials’ box under the press gallery, and see the familiar faces of civil servants who a few months previously were at their beck and call. Post-election, they won’t even acknowledge a friendly nod or wave. Journalists, once grateful for a ten-minute interview with a Labour minister in the back of a government car, won’t even return a shadow minister’s phone calls. There’s the old joke that you know when you’re no longer a minister when you get in the back of the car and it doesn’t go anywhere. You can imagine Labour’s shadow ministers working out how to use their new oyster cards with all the London street smarts of Japanese tourists.
I noticed the obituary this week of Bryan Stanley, the former general secretary of the POEU, the posties’ union. Stanley was the convenor of the St Ermins group of trade union leaders, formed in 1981, to keep the Labour Party’s feet on the ground during the Bennite insurgency. He was far from being ‘New Labour’, but as a Labour mainstreamer who was prepared to stand up to the hard-left on the NEC and the TUC council, and argue for passionate moderation, he made sure Labour did not disappear after 1983. He was typical of a generation of Labour stalwarts, who were dismissed as ‘right-wing’ yet who stayed in the party despite the defection of the SDP. One day, we will need people like Bryan Stanley, in the unions, in the CLPs, and on the NEC to make sure the party stays connected to the people who vote for us.
Labour losing an election one day is inevitable. We all hope the day isn’t 6th May 2010. But Labour descending into the kind of civil war we saw in the 1950s and 1980s is not inevitable; it can be avoided if we resist the easy temptations of faction-fighting and finger pointing, if the understated efforts of men like Bryan Stanley are successful. I heard a Tory say this week that Tories are always looking for someone to recruit, whilst socialists are always looking for someone to blame. It was the underlying truth of it that rankled the most.