Back in the day, on the old London Labour Party executive, I used to say that my degree in politics and economics was of much less use then a degree in psychology would have been. That thought has regularly reappeared in recent years as the Bennite cultish heresy has resurfaced, taken over and nearly destroyed the Labour Party as an electable organisation.
I have been slightly more taken aback by the re-emergence of the Roy Jenkins heresy – that the worst thing to happen to British politics was the Labour/Liberal split of the early 20th century. Roy Hattersley used to point out that this fundamentally assumed that the creation of the Labour Party was a historic mistake. It also implicitly criticises social democracy worldwide for breaking from liberalism, especially with our focus on collective action and provision.
It was disappointing and surprising when Tony Blair revived the Jenkins heresy by urging a reunification of Labour and the Lib Dems last week. Surprising, because Tony’s victory in 1997 comprehensively refuted the lazy assumption, especially after our 1992 defeat, that Labour could not – on its own – defeat the Tories.
A variation of this defeatist attitude is the semi-regular reach for the panacea of proportional representation, rather than grapple with reasons for our defeat and try to win under the existing electoral rules. After the 1992 election loss, Tony demonstrated beyond doubt that a Labour Party with a broad appeal could capture the imagination – and the votes – of the British people with our 1997 landslide. It is incomprehensible to me that he should join those downgrading his triumph, but that is a matter for others to speculate on.
It is especially odd given that many of the faults that he finds in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour are replicated and indeed magnified in the Lib Dems. The crucial difference is that as we seem to be seeing a surge of support for sensible candidates, Labour appear to have a self-correcting mechanism which is extremely lacking in the Lib Dems. They are not a serious party aiming for majority government and don’t need to act accordingly – we do. Furthermore, the appalling behaviour of Lib Dems in areas across the country make them unacceptable to many local parties.
Rather than follow the fantasies of Jenkins, the Labour Party needs to get back to basics – focus on Clause I of our constitution, to be a party fighting and winning elections. A party based on collective action of members’ unions and local councils, defending and improving the lives of our people, valuing communities and community values.
The last Labour government did a huge amount to bring about so many beneficial changes. It’s therefore surprising that Tony Blair doesn’t value it as much as we do. We should remember that while Jenkins wrote a biography of Gladstone, Tony Crossland wrote The Future of Socialism. Going forward, our focus should be on a socialism applicable to the 21st century that can win an election in the UK – not look back glowingly at failure.