The former leader is the only person who can pull the party back from the brinkby Peter Kellner / July 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
One more act of heroism is needed from my Labour Party hero. Neil Kinnock saved the party from collapse in the Eighties; he needs to do the same again.
Nobody now under-50 has an adult memory of Labour’s madness in the early Eighties, when Tony Benn came within a whisker of being elected deputy leader, the Trotskyist Militant group was on the rampage, more than two dozen Labour MPs defected to create the rival Social Democratic Party and in 1983 Labour slumped to its worst defeat since the Second World War.
I do remember them. I was a member of the General Committee of the Hornsey and Wood Green Labour Party. It came under the spell of a far-left trade union organiser who backed Benn, Militant and every madcap left-wing policy. He delivered his extremism in persuasive, conversational tones. He was Jeremy Corbyn.
In 1983 he left us to become the MP for Islington North. Nationally, the party elected Kinnock as leader. Neil had already done Labour a huge service by persuading 36 other soft-left MPs not to back Benn in the 1981 deputy leadership contest. Given the closeness of the race, these MPs tipped the balance.
Kinnock went on to defeat Militant and marginalise charismatic but destructive trade union leaders such as Arthur Scargill, whose contempt for democracy propelled the miners into a pointless strike that not only failed but which hastened the demise of Britain’s coal industry. Throughout the Eighties, Kinnock displayed outstanding leadership, fine political judgement and great moral courage. He dragged the party back to electability. Without Tony Blair there would have been no Labour landslide in 1997 and 2001; but without Kinnock there would have been no Blair. Anyone who values the minimum wage, Sure Start, gay rights, the Human Rights Act, tax credits, free museum entry, the right to roam and the investment of the Blair/Brown years in health and education—owes a huge debt to Kinnock.
We in Hornsey and Wood Green played our part. In the mid-Eighties, with Corbyn gone locally and Kinnock leading nationally, we repulsed a serious attempt by Militant to infiltrate local ward parties and started selecting sensible candidates for parliament and Haringey Council.
If readers detect a personal animas towards Corbyn, they are wrong. On the odd occasion when I encounter him at Westminster these days, our conversations are brief but perfectly friendly. I have no doubt that he is a loving husband and father, and diligent constituency MP. But so was Benn. That did not alter the need to defeat him and his ideas.
Kinnock led the fight not just because of his (correct) political calculation that a Bennite Labour Party was unelectable, but because Benn’s policies for Britain were wrong. Kinnock won the party over by offering a superior prospectus about the role of the state, the way to get the best out of a market economy, and Britain’s place in the world. He and bright young shadow ministers such as Blair and Gordon Brown built a reformed and relevant Labour Party that could gain power and transform the lives of the people who needed a Labour government, rather than one that gloried in its purity and impotence.
Kinnock needs to remind the leadership-electorate (party members plus trade unionists and others who have signed up for the election) of why he fought those battles and the importance of preventing a Corbyn victory. His intervention could tip the balance. In YouGov’s poll this week for the Times, respondents were asked which of four previous party leaders they would choose today, if each were still in his prime: Kinnock, Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband. Blair came top, with 32 per cent, with Kinnock second on 20 per cent. But among Corbyn’s supporters, Kinnock comes top. Put another way, of those who chose Kinnock, 61 per cent say they plan to vote for Corbyn. Many of them would like more radical anti-austerity policies, but not at the expense of electoral victory. They are today’s soft-left, as distinct from the hard-left, for whom ideological purity matters more than political power.
This suggests to me that a clear intervention now by Kinnock could prevent Corbyn winning. In the past, he rose to power by splitting the party’s soft-left from the hard-left. Today, the key to the outcome of the leadership election is whether a wedge can once again be driven between these two groups. If it can, Corbyn will lose; if it can’t, then Corbyn could win.
Corbyn’s support is strongest among party voters under 40—those that were either not born or young children during Labour’s wilderness years. But Kinnock still holds an iconic status, even for them.
Neil: your party needs you. Speak out for sanity and explain why a Corbyn triumph would undo the victories that led, in time, to 13 years of Labour rule. If you do, the party can still pull itself back from the edge of disaster.