Wanted: A Labour Leader (serious applicants only)
full text of article published in the Yorkshire Post December 16, 2019 (some zingers omitted)
There is an old maxim in American politics: the best time to kick a man is when he’s down.
It certainly applies to Jeremy Corbyn and his clique. In charge of the Labour party they were incompetent, self-indulgent and immoral. They destroyed it as an agent of change. They especially betrayed those most in need of a Labour government, those sick or poor or stressed or otherwise vulnerable, and all the children forced to live like refugees in their own country, dependent on handouts and rations and wearing all their clothes in bed at night. The Corbyn clique never examined their impact on Labour’s appeal. They built a house with no windows on the outside world, only mirrors.
They made even Labour loyalists, never mind the wider electorate, believe that the party had become anti-semitic and in league with terrorists and tyrants. They gave houseroom to cranks and fanatics. They crafted a manifesto which was not so much a programme as a series of letters to Santa Claus. Compared to 2017 (another election they lost) they drove away over two and a half million votes and brought Tory MPs to Labour heartlands, including nine new ones in Yorkshire. All this they achieved against an opponent widely dismissed as dishonest and uncaring, and repudiated by senior members of his party.
The kicking needs to be repeated fiercely and often. The Corbynites still control the party and are full of excuses for Labour’s performance. Amazingly, Corbyn and his followers claim that Labour won the election argument, but those pesky electors were so obsessed with Brexit that they did not notice. Jon Lansman, chair of the far-Left cheerleaders’ group, Momentum, claimed that the manifesto was popular because it won the (heavily Remain) London seat of Putney. There’s an exciting prospect: if Labour could win one seat at each General Election it could be in power again as early as the year 2600.
Corbyn wants to linger until the new year. His opponents among surviving Labour MPs should not let him: delay increases the chance of a Corbynite successor to lose the party another election. They still have the numbers to oust him as leader of the Parliamentary party and nominate his would-be replacements. Each could be given a crack at Prime Minister’s Questions. MPs should also give themselves a new Shadow Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary.
To give Labour any hope of recovery, the new leader will have to show that Corbynites have no influence over any part of it. That entails winning a long series of civil wars in local parties, in trade unions and affialated bodies, and over the party organization and policy apparatus. He/she will have to create a new means to expel instantly anyone whom a reasonable person might view as an anti-semite or any other kind of hater or an enemy of democracy.
Those civil wars will produce constitutional and courtroom battles and raucous and bitter personal warfare, abuse and threats of violence. All this is necessary simply to get the Labour horse into the starting gate for 2024, with no guarantee of winning the race.
So far no contender looks the equal of Neil Kinnock, who reconquered and re-cast the Labour party after a similar catastrophe in 1983. But he surprised friend and foe, and perhaps someone else will do the same.
Kinnock is a reminder that even “normal” Labour parties with attractive leaders and plausible policies regularly lose elections. Corbyn’s successor will have to provide new reasons to win back the voters who deserted the party – and more.
He/she cannot rely on Boris Johnson doing that job for them, although I still believe he will contribute.
Labour can certainly enjoy making him take full responsibility for Brexit and all its consequences. For now, it does not need its own Brexit policy, certainly not a commitment to Remain imposed by Londoners who have never tried to understand why so many Labour voters elsewhere wanted to Leave.
Even without a second independence referendum, the new leader will have to give Scots new motives to vote for the party as part of the United Kingdom.
The new leader would be wise to avoid the endorsement of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. He/she still needs the commitment and passion of those in the party who wanted something better than New Labour. They need to be uncoupled from Corbyn and his cheerleading claque, Momentum (which would be more aptly named Stasis.) He/she should therefore appeal to all those who want the Labour party to achieve something for other people, not serve as an echo chamber for themselves.
The new leader could do something totally radical and tell the truth to the British people.
In or out of the EU, whatever the final terms of Brexit, they face colossal tasks at home and abroad. To name only a few: meeting the national demand for health and social care, and housing; relieving family poverty; creating viable well-paid jobs in a global economy where billions of people now produce more output more cheaply than the average British worker; living sustainably and combatting climate change; facing down Putin and confronting the far greater menace of Xi Jinping’s China.
Achieving these tasks entails huge adjustments in the way all of us live, in which few can expect any increase in living standards – certainly not the perpetual one which conventional politicians still offer voters in every democratic country. Labour alone can ensure that Britain makes these adjustments promptly and fairly.
If Boris Johnson maintains in government the feckless, shallow approach he took on every issue in the election, Labour has much to gain from becoming the Serious Party.
Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman