Past Leaders Are Not A Path To The Future
July 3, 2016
by Martin Odoni
The orchestration of the Labour coup (or #ChickenCoup) against Jeremy Corbyn has crashed rather completely, and those behind it now scratching in the dirt for a Plan B seem determined to use ever-more desperate tactics. One rather sad approach that keeps resurfacing is “Let’s-hear-what-a-former-leader-has-to-say-to-Corbyn“, with all of the past leaders summoned demanding Corbyn stands down.
Tony Blair, of course, never tires of attacking and undermining Corbyn, and some of his remarks over the last few months have been almost demented in their lack of logic. Most particularly shameful were his remarks about Corbyn “standing by while Syria is bombed”. It was ludicrous on numerous levels, some of which scarcely need pointing out, and emphasise how worried Blair clearly is (as are his remaining allies in Parliament) about the upcoming Chilcot Report. Firstly, Corbyn is only Leader of the Opposition, there is little he can do for the people in Syria until such a time as he is in Government. Secondly, the only solution that has been offered by the present Government to the problem of bombing Syria has been more bombing of Syria – and very ineffective bombing what is more. The uselessness of this policy would be very obvious, even if it happened to be hitting its targets a bit more frequently. Thirdly, Corbyn is the main figure in Parliament who keeps pushing for more Syrian refugees to be allowed into the United Kingdom, a demand the Government keeps rejecting. Blair, so far as I can find, does not think that stance from David Cameron deserves condemnation.
Then of course we heard from Corbyn’s immediate predecessor, Ed Miliband. In fairness to Miliband, he has made a commendable effort since Corbyn was elected leader not to undermine him. But last week, he also called for Corbyn to stand down. Why any leader should take advice from a man who managed to lose a General Election to possibly the most unpopular Government in British history was not explained.
Neil Kinnock has also been rolled out and allowed a self-indulgent leap onto the bandwagon. Kinnock has expressed the wish, again needlessly publicly, that Corbyn would stand down. At the heart of Kinnock’s wishes, I suspect, is the fear that Corbyn plans to undo all the reforms that led to the creation of ‘New Labour’. Those reforms were started in the mid-1980’s by Kinnock himself, and it is hard not to imagine that his objections are based around a desire not to find out that he might have been wrong.
The answer frequently thrown uncritically at that is, “But he wasn’t wrong, was he? New Labour won three elections!”
Yes, but there are points of nuance in that; –
Firstly, the party’s troubles in the 1980’s were not necessarily that Labour was too far to the left. It began because some of its MPs were too far to the right, and some of them eventually broke off to form the Social Democratic Party, splitting the Labour vote. Contrary to popular myth, Labour’s subsequent switch to the right under Kinnock to try and win supporters back was not, in fact, particularly successful. In the 1987 General Election, Labour was thrashed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party by much the same margin as Michael Foot had suffered in 1983. In 1992, against John Major, it could be argued that Kinnock did even worse; although the margin in terms of seats in Parliament was narrow, Major in fact secured the largest number of votes by any winning party since before the Second World War.
It was only in 1997, against a Tory Party mired in constant sleaze and crumbling apart due to endless in-fighting over relations with the European Union, that Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour finally took power (even then, it still received half a million fewer votes than the Tories had five years earlier). Fourteen years after Kinnock’s accession – fourteen years of centrism and several more changes of leader – only then was a victory secured. A victory, that is, against an opponent so enfeebled that even minnows like the Green Party could have given them a run for their money. The ‘brand’ of the Conservative Party had become so toxic by the end of the Twentieth Century that it was also no great achievement to keep beating them. But even there, it is notable that between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost four million voters, as the true implications of ‘Blairite’ conservatism and ‘Brownite’ penny-pinching became apparent to people who had voted them into power with such hope.
On the subject of Brownites, even Gordon Brown has had to give us his ha’-penny’s-worth. While not expressing a desire to see Corbyn stand down as such, Brown stated that he thought Corbyn is likely to go, and implied that he did not think Corbyn had the right qualities. At the risk of sounding like I am using relativism arguments only, I must again point to how things went for Labour under Brown’s stewardship, and ask, “Well if he knows what it takes to be a leader, why did he not demonstrate it when he was at Number 10?”
The bottom line of what I am trying to convey is, well, who cares what any of these has-beens or ‘never-weres’ have to say? By extension, why do media outlets seem determined to give remarks from these yesterday’s-men such a strong billing? Of the four of them, the one whose perspective I think is probably most near rational is Miliband, somewhat paradoxically. Whereas the others all seem driven by an ideological desire to see matters in ways that conform to their ideals, Miliband does at least seem to be looking at things in perspective.He acknowledges that the problems Corbyn has to face are more to do with reputation and ingrained anti-left hostility in the media, and so at least they are not necessarily Corbyn’s failing.
But again, Miliband showed very poor leadership skills himself during the last term of Parliament, when Labour MP’s gave him a full five years and grudging-but-fairly-consistent backing. It seems tasteless and inconsistent for him to join the chorus-of-aggression against his successor after just nine months, especially when it is all-too-clear that most of the Parliamentary Labour Party gave Corbyn no real backing at all. Having been in a similar position himself a few years ago, and still been given a chance – that he rather wasted – Miliband really should instead be standing up and demanding that Corbyn be given the proper backing and enough time to formulate a strategy.
In many respects, it makes little difference what Miliband says, or indeed what the other say. These are just four men who used to be important to differing degrees, and are important no longer. It is quite odd that one of the frequent objections to Corbyn is that his ideas are ‘out-of-date’, when his critics call upon people who want the year 1997 to come back. As a rule, when you perceive people to be stuck in the past, it is difficult to make them escape it by invoking figures from the past, which is what Blair, Kinnock, Brown and yes, even Miliband, all are.
In the present, Corbyn has largely just shrugged off the coup. Nothing these past-timers say will unseat him. It is hard to say what can, for that matter. Even if Angela “When-is-an-Eagle-not-an-eagle?-When-she’s-a-chicken” Eagle finally finds her nerve and challenges him, instead of just repeating the same announcements over-and-over, Corbyn’s overwhelming support in the Labour Party at national level appears unassailable. Therefore, even if Eagle is formally endorsed by these past leaders, she will still be thrashed; probably even more heavily in fact, as the past leaders symbolise exactly the type of party from which the national membership clearly want to be free. If Eagle is endorsed by Blair et al, it indicates she offers more of the same as Blair et al.
Invoking old leaders and then saying, “Well obviously Corbyn has to step down because… because… well, ‘cos Gordon says so, dun’he?” is not the answer for New Labour.
Indeed, as I wrote the other day, short of breaking the law outright, I am not convinced that there is an answer for them. The best they can do is probably accept Corbyn’s fantastically generous offer of an amnesty, endure the worst from the Chilcot Report, and then turn their fire on the Conservative Party.
Pride, instead, will have its price.