Caution urged over Labour's leadership election

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08 Sep 2015
John Golding, employment minister in Jim Callaghan's Government in the 1970s and my predecessor-but-one as Newcastle's MP, died all too prematurely – aged just 67.

His funeral 16 years ago took place on the day my eldest was born, so I paid my last respects by writing John's obituary for the Guardian newspaper and editing his memoirs for publication, posthumously.

The book – Hammer of the Left – was conceived as an antidote to some of the more misty-eyed accounts of Labour infighting in the 1970s and 1980s in Tony Benn's voluminous Diaries.

As Winston Churchill well understood, those who write history often command history's sympathy. And John was determined that Benn should not have the first, last and only word about the struggle against the hard, illiberal left that cast Labour into the wilderness for 18 long years until 1997.

This week, the Labour Party elects a new leader, and it would be a tragedy if history repeats itself and those battles are fought once again.

Blow by gruelling blow, John's book recounts how three 'Young Turks' spearheaded the fight against Militant (a group within Labour) and Benn's Trotskyite fellow travellers, mobilising moderate trades unions, in particular, in support of the leadership to make Labour electable again.

Two are very much still with us, both as West Midlands MPs: Birmingham Sparkbrook's Roger Godsiff, an astute tracker of where votes were most needed in Labour's labyrinthine organisation to counter the march of the unelectable left, and John Spellar, now MP for Warley West and then an energetic, no-surrender political officer for the electricians' union.

After a chaotic leadership election this summer, today Hammer of the Left stands as a salutary reminder of 'no go' territory for Labour, if it actually wants to win in 2020, or before.

As former leader Neil Kinnock wrote in his gracious introduction to the book, it is: 'an object lesson for any political party that allows itself to drift away from electoral reality and into the wilderness of illusion and self-obsession'.

I say 'gracious', because when I asked Neil to pen a few words, I recommended he read the draft from the back. For half the manuscript, he gets a rough ride. By the end, after his gloves-off 1985 Bournemouth speech laying into Militant, he is a hero (and still is today).

By then, Labour had suffered its disastrous 1983 defeat – an election fought, in veteran Manchester MP Gerald Kaufman's words, on 'the longest suicide note in history' – and the defection of the so-called 'Gang of Four' to form the SDP. Our electoral system ruthlessly punishes splits, another object warning as Labour looks ahead.

Thirty years on from Bournemouth, it is now up to the Party and Labour MPs to heed the lessons.

With the deluge of people signing up during the leadership election (my constituency numbers have nearly trebled), I really hope that ambitions behind the new rules succeed: that people paying £3 to vote become full members and active volunteers, reinvigorating the Party and engaging with voters.

When I see old dinosaurs rearing their heads, though – like Merseyside Militant Tony Mulhearn, who was expelled in the 1980s – my mind goes back to interminable, packed meetings, to incessant agitation and aggravation that succeeded in putting decent people off.

In the 1980s, the holy grail of the hard left was automatic, full-blown selection contests for MPs before every election. Clothed as 'proper democracy', it was simply intended to deselect moderates en masse in favour of slates of revolutionary 'true believers'.

Over the years since, as well as keeping the lights on at Party HQ, the most important role of trades unions has been as a stabilising force during those re-selections. Negotiating day in, day out for working people, since the 1980s they have been an anchor of common sense for Labour.

After the leadership contest ends this Saturday, I hope that role continues.

Labour does now need an urgent review of its leadership election rules. As for policy, it also needs to draw the right conclusions from this year's General Election defeat. For those tempted to lurch to the left, 100 per cent of nothing is not just nothing. It is five, 10 or more years of a Conservative government.

Originally published in the Sentinel, 7/9/15