Paul Devlin says we need to come to terms with our past before we can agree a path to our future and, judging by recent events, the Labour Party seems a long way from doing that.
Parts of this piece have been rattling around my head for sometime now, but events of the last few weeks have meant any submission could be out-of-date within days, and in some cases hours. Nevertheless there does now seem to be some clarity as to how the issue of the party’s UK leadership is going to be resolved.
I write this as someone who has read biographies of Tony Blair and has made attempts to understand his approach to Iraq in 2003, which I will return to later. I also voted for David Miliband in the 2010 leadership election. I say all this to make it clear I am no Corbynista.
The events of last few weeks have been incredibly challenging, and at times I have felt incredibly angry as to how some MPs have conducted themselves. Without wanting to name and shame, I found the suggestion put forward by Chris Bryant that Jeremy Corbyn had voted Leave in the EU Referendum shameful. I was also appalled to find Kezia Dugdale tweeting that clarification was needed on the matter and also her comments on the UK leadership in general.
I have a lot of respect for Kez, but as someone who led us to third place in the recent Scottish Parliament elections she may be best advised to be a bit more circumspect when it comes to commentating on others’ leadership. For example, one of the news items on this site has a piece on how a majority of 13 Labour MSPs called for Jeremy Corbyn to stand down. The fact that we have less than 25 MSPs in the first place may be the salient point here.
The EU referendum, like the Scottish independence referendum, exposed real divisions in this country, and crucially for the Labour Party exposed the fact that people in traditional Labour areas have voted contrary to the party’s official position. That is down to something far greater than Jeremy Corbyn being leader and as John Curtice has pointed out, it may well have been the case that no Labour leader could have reached those Leave voters.
After the speculation regarding how Jeremy Corbyn voted in the EU referendum had died down, the talk then turned to how he couldn’t win a general election. While I can understand this view, it also gave the impression that we were simply panicking at the prospect of Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling a snap election. Moreover, a cursory glance at Labour Party rules and recent history would have made it clear how difficult it is to remove a Labour leader from office, especially one elected recently and by such a significant margin.
The “coup” has at best been amateurish and really has been an example of us washing our dirty linen in public. In contrast the Conservatives have in less than three weeks since the EU referendum found a new leader and Prime Minister. In some ways in a rather brutal and ruthless manner, yes, but there is a reason why they remain one of the most successful political parties in the world. In contrast Labour have had negative news coverage on an almost daily basis, with us reduced to tweeting that the SNP didn’t campaign enough during the EU referendum. “We delivered more leaflets than you” is not going to help us recover in Scotland and is frankly politics that belongs in the school playground.
I mentioned Tony Blair earlier and it is eerie how it seems to be taking the Labour Party a long time to come to terms with his legacy, just as it took the Conservative Party a long time to come to terms with Margaret Thatcher’s. My own view of Iraq is that he genuinely believed to Saddam Hussein to be a threat (he had long bracketed Saddam and Slobodan Milosevic as leaders the United Nations and NATO needed to be ready to confront) and that in essence a US led invasion of Iraq was going to take place come what may. He made the decision to try and influence that from the ‘inside’ and, as the Chilcot report makes clear, that approach was fundamentally flawed. However in an era where chemical weapons are used and starvation of the population is utilised in war, calling him a war criminal is I would suggest slightly hyperbolic. Moreover, in hindsight he should either have resigned before the 2005 General Election or closer to the 2010 General Election than he actually did.
Nevertheless, those who aspire to embed his legacy need to do more than remove Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. As Steve Richards so starkly put it on BBC’s Dateline London the day Corbyn was elected leader, they need to do some serious thinking about what they see the Labour party being in the 21st century, and this needs to go beyond platitudes such as ‘owning the future’. I would also add “a growing, creative, greener economy”.
2016 is never going to resemble 1994, when there was a tired Tory government which had lost all economic credibility following Black Wednesday. Moreover, Corbyn’s election and the determination of him and his aides to hang onto the leadership is I believe a result of many years of frustration for what is deemed the ‘left’ of the party, including the fact that no candidate was able to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership in 2007. Such a challenge would have allowed a genuine debate on what the Labour government had achieved, its perceived shortcomings and its future policy direction.
After the turmoil of the last few weeks, I hope that a full and frank debate such as this is a feature of the forthcoming leadership election. It is clear that at both a UK level and in Scotland, the party needs to reconnect with voters in traditional Labour areas as well as reach out to those voters who voted for Labour in 1997/2001/2005 but who have since voted Conservative. It is not simple, nor will it please everyone. However, surely the one thing we can all unite on is the need for a Labour Party that is in government.