We can’t return to Labour’s Civil War years: we shouldn’t make it easier to get rid of Labour leaders

John Spellar

I am becoming more than a little disturbed at the rising clamour for a so-called break clause in the term of a Labour Leader or a variant of this, calling for the Tory Party rule enabling a certain number of Members handing letters to the Chairman of the PLP in order to trigger a contest.

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All of these initiatives seem to me to show an alarming lack of either understanding of the Rule Book, which already provides when Labour is in Opposition for candidates to seek nomination as long as they can get 20% (i.e. 46) of the Commons Members of the PLP. Or a lack of understanding of politics (which is unforgiveable). Or a lack of knowledge of our Party history which is, I suppose, allowable for those who didn’t have to live through the Civil War in the Party.

I start with the latter point – The Rules were specifically designed to stop a Bennite challenge year after year. Effectively that would have meant incessant relentless, grinding, political warfare. Very attractive to those who hanker after “a permanent revolution”, but a nightmare for normal people. Been there, done that, don’t want to repeat the experience. It would also mean the Party becoming completely introverted, wearing the Party out internally and being highly damaging electorally (whoever actually comes out on top).

It also undermines the Leader from day one. Tory editors and desperate political journalists would be endlessly speculating as to how many letters the Chair of the PLP has in his (I hope locked) filing cabinet. Any small group could fuel this for political reasons or even for their 15 minutes of fame.

Colleagues that doubt this should go onto the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website to watch their latest gripping documentary “The Killing Season” to see how this debilitates and ultimately destroys a Government in the Rudd/Gillard years. The argument regarding previous Leaders is also spurious. The main reason there was no challenge was that there was no serious challenger and no appetite to mount such a campaign. It’s not a matter of rules or procedure, but a matter of political will. Even so it is still quite damaging. Tony Blair won three elections with mouth-watering majorities, but was still regularly briefed against. Harold Wilson won four elections and had to quell one of many plots with the pity phrase “I know what‘s going on I’m going on”.

It was also said of the greatest all time democratic leader, Abraham Lincoln, that the only thing that united his cabinet was their individual belief that each of them would do the job of President better.

Finally Clem Attlee rightly lauded as a great Labour Leader was the target of plots especially by Herbert Morrison (is it genetic). Ernie Bevan brutally crushed those. Even after the spectacular win in 1945 Harold Laski the Party Chairman wrote to Attlee suggesting he should put the Leadership up for a vote. Attlee’s response was both crushing and very apposite for today’s discussion “a period of silence on your part would be most welcome”.

John Spellar is the MP for Warley

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