Roy Hattersley, in one of his many works, describes the moment in 1981 when he knew he would rather stay inside a Labour Party he believed to be doomed, rather than join his many friends and ideological bed-fellows in the Social Democratic Party (SDP). It was moments after the special Labour conference at Wembley which concocted an ‘electoral college’ for electing Labour leaders which Hattersley considered ‘so obviously absurd’:
‘On the way out of the conference centre, both friends and enemies predicted that the likes of me would soon be driven out of the Party. I could not find my car in the car park. And as I wandered about in the rain, I thought about the future…I had only one clear idea about what lay ahead. If the ship sank, I would go down with it.’
Earlier, Hattersley had addressed a Fabian Society fringe event on ‘love and loyalty’ at a time when there was precious little of either on the left of politics. Shirley Williams had hovered in the doorway, but decided not to come in.
Such solid faith in the Labour Party is hard for outsiders to understand, yet it is shared by many thousands of Labour activists. ‘Faith’ is the right word, because it implies a mystical bond, more akin to a religion than a rational assessment of politics. We join the party as young people, filled with energy and idealism, and we grow and mature with our party always in our lives. Sometimes it makes us angry and disappointed. Sometimes it gives us great joy. We share these moments of pain and euphoria with others. They form our tribe, and we behave in ‘tribal’ ways: fierce loyalty to those who make common cause with us, enmity to those who don’t.
Ken Livingstone is testing the tribal loyalty of many in the Labour Party at the moment. This is nothing new. Homophobes inside the Labour Party were tested in the early 80s when Livingstone championed gay rights. Democrats inside the Labour Party are tested daily when he appears alongside those who oppose human rights, democracy and secular laws. Livingstone is a complex Labour politician, who has been annoying Labour Party members since the 1960s. But the vital thing to understand about him is this: he is the Labour Party candidate in the coming Mayoral election. That means Labour Party members must get out and vote for him, and see the Conservative candidate beaten.
If Siobhan Benita, the former civil servant now running as an independent for London Mayor, wanted Labour supporters’ votes in May, she should have stood for the Labour nomination. Benita has been tipped by today’s Times as ‘one to watch’. She is a former running partner of Gus O’ Donnell, the ex-Cabinet Secretary, and press secretary of John Major. She is gaining momentum, but can never catch up with the two front-runners. More importantly, if Labour members want to vote for her, they should either keep it very quiet, or resist the temptation as no good will come of it. You know who you are.
Throughout Labour’s history, individuals and splinters have believed themselves to be bigger and better than the Labour Party. George Galloway is merely the latest in a long, long line. In 1914, two Labour MPs defected to the Liberal Party. Down the decades, Labour MPs have defected to the Communist Party, the Liberals, the fascist ‘New Party’ of Oswald Mosley, to ‘National Labour’ after 1931, to the Conservatives, to the ‘Scottish Labour Party’, and to the SDP. What they have in common is that most sank without trace. Some – David Owen, Shirley Williams, Jim Sillars, Vince Cable, George Galloway – found national prominence by defining themselves against Labour Party. Most just disappeared, and waters closed over their heads.
What has continued is the Labour Party. Those who spent the rainy Bank Holiday dipping in and out of BBC Parliament’s re-running of the 1992 general election, probably shared my amusement at the discussions around whether Labour would cease to exist without the introduction of proportional representation or a pact with the Liberal Democrats. On the BBC 20 years ago, earnest pundits, many still sharing their wisdom with us today, discussed the probability of Labour never forming a government again. What made the hours of television so compelling was the dramatic irony – that whilst younger, thinner versions of our political class-mates agonised, we, the audience, knew that within a few years Labour would win a breath-taking landslide and govern for three full-terms.
Faith can be superstitious and irrational. Nothing wrong with that. It can also be anchored in the facts. Labour has been in the doldrums before. People have written us off. Others have said we must do deals with our opponents such as the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Respect. They have been dazzled by demagogues, or seduced by Sirens. Yet each time, Labour has come to its senses and found the way out. Sometimes it takes 20 years, and may do again. But like Roy Hattersley, wet, lost, clutching his car keys in the north London car park all those years ago, we all need to keep the faith.