Monday, January 15, 2007

Martin Kettle's flawed history lesson

Amid all the spurious nonsense that gets written about the Labour leadership, one or two articles occasionally stand out. Such was the piece by Martin Kettle in Saturday's Guardian in which he advocated a six-way contest for the Labour leadership along the lines of the one that took place in 1976 - the only other time in its history that Labour has chosen a new Prime Minister while in office.

Kettle's views on this subject have long been worthy of note on account of his close relationship with Tony Blair and evident dislike of Gordon Brown. If he is saying something, it is a fair bet that someone in the Blair inner-circle is thinking it.

To my mind, his call for a contest is all of a piece with the recent similar intervention by arch-Blairite Stephen Byers - an attempt to turn what should be a debate about policy into a debate about personalities.

This is to confuse two very separate issues. There is a genuine desire in the Labour Party, a genuine need even, for a debate over its future policy direction. But there is much less debate over whether Gordon Brown is the right person to take that forward, because the overwhelming view of the Cabinet, the PLP, the Unions and the Party as a whole is that he is.

For those with an interest in recent political history, the most interesting aspect of Kettle's piece is his analogy with the 1976 leadership election, in which Tony Benn, James Callaghan, Tony Crosland, Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins all stood. He suggests that a contest between Hilary Benn, Gordon Brown, Peter Hain, David Miliband, John Reid and Jack Straw would have a similarly revitalising effect on the Government today.

Superficially, it's an attractive argument, and it would certainly generate a lot of excitement at Westminster and beyond. But there are three major flaws in it as I will seek to show.

First, it ignores what Kettle's would-be candidates have actually said on the record about the issue. Benn, Hain, and Miliband have all made it clear they are supporting Gordon Brown, and that they regard his claims on the job as superior to their own. Straw has said nothing but is widely assumed to hold the same view. Only Reid has stood aside from this consensus.

Second, the "Class of '76" were, with the possible exception of Foot, all true political and intellectual heavyweights with genuine claims to leadership. Two of them, Crosland and Healey, would make most people's lists of the Best Prime Ministers We Never Had. Only Brown among the current crop can boast anything like that sort of stature.

Third, there were genuine ideological differences between the candidates in 1976 which to an extent defined the contest. The party was deeply split between the Gaitskellite right represented by Crosland, Healey and Jenkins, and the Tribunite left represented by Foot and Benn. In the end it chose Callaghan in the middle as the best man to keep the two factions together. No such divisions exist at the top of the party today.

A contest, not least a six-way one, would be great news for the press, and for the wider commentariat. I am increasingly coming to the view that, for the Labour Party, it would be a pointless diversion.

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11 comments:

skipper said...

It's certainly pointless if half of his putative candidates don't want to stand but I think he's right regarding:
i) the contest helped to reinforce Callaghan's authority after he best such a strong field.
ii) a Brown 'coronation' will, by the same token, fail to deliver the same kind of imprimatur from the party. And his authority will not be quite a healthy as it should/could be once elected in.

Paul Linford said...

Coming from a reasonably objective, mainstream Labour person like you Bill, I find the argument in favour of a contest more persuasive. What troubles me is that most of the calls for a contest are coming from uber-Blairites like Byers and Kettle who clearly despise Brown.

Cassilis said...

"No such divisions exist at the top of the party today"

I wouldn't dispute that but from an outsiders point of view what would interest me is the degree to which there is an ideological split in the wider party. 12/13 years ago Labour opted for Blair because of his obvious electoral strengths but I suspect many in the party hoped that the changes were superficial and in policy terms Labour would remain firmly a party of the left. The Tories embraced this reading and used the 'New Labour / New Danger' tactic. Blair's genius was that he then surprised everyone by being exactly has he'd promised - a la his 'it's worse than they think, I actually believe it' remark a few years back.

There's a danger Labour are about to do the same thing again - every utterance from Brown is, at root, 100% supportive of Blair and everything he's done - it's only us political nerds and obsessives who pour over it looking for hints and slips that don't really exist. Consequently many in the rank & file Labour party are just 'hoping' that Gordon will revert to type as they once 'hoped' Tony would. I suspect they'll be disappointed.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are just embarking on the same charade..!

p.s. Thanks for the link.

MorrisOx said...

Brpwn's authority will depend on two things: his ability to mark out a clean break with the past and, on a more down-to-earth level, his (so far unsuccessful) attempts to get comfortable in his own skin.

The ramblngs of of the Blairites are becoming increasingly irrelevant and the Brown vs Blair posturings adopted in the past few months by various Guardian columnists are turning into a cartoon sideshow that my dear chum Rusbridger really ought to have kicked into touch. But this, remember, is the man who allowed Madeleine Bunting back in after her think-tank fiasco (or did he?).

Your horse Cruddas didn't do himself any favours on Comment is Free today, with a decidedly Nu Lab talk-at-people-and-ignore-the-facts performance.

GuardianReader said...

Cassilis has a point. There are many in the Labour party who have heaped huge expectations on a Gordon Brown premiership - to revert to some "genuine", yet mythical Labour government.

Assuming Gordon wins, I fear they will be very disappointed. Labour spent 18 years in opposition because of the public division in policies and beliefs.

Labour spent years IN government unable to govern effectively because the party was riven by ideological difference.

Brown & Blair were friends because they saw that this division was keeping Labour out of government and wished to forge a united party.

To my mind, Brown sees that a line has to be drawn under the Blair administration, but this is not necessarily because he disagrees with it, but because it's the only way Labour can remain in power after the next election.

A line can and will be drawn - Saturday's Fabian conference was the first step - but it doesn't mean that there will be a "genuine" Labour government. Such a thing exists only in myth and fantasy. The hard reality is that Labour has to change or it will be voted out, and Brown understands that only too well.

The Tin Drummer said...

Excellent post, Paul. A quick question: I've always tough Michael Foot was an intellectual heavyweight, but you've put him outside your list of them in that Labour cabinet. Do you not rate him then (this is a real q, not an attempt to start a row)?

The Tin Drummer said...

*thought*, not "tough" - odd slip, that.

Paul Linford said...

Yes, Foot was undoubtedly an intellectual heavyweight, but maybe not quite a political heavyweight, as was shown when he did become leader.

Had Crosland lived, I believe that he, not Foot, would have succeeded Callaghan in 1980, the SDP split may well have been averted, and as a result tthe history of progressive politics in the 1980s might have been very different. As someone who was obliged to spend his formative years under That Bloody Woman, this is the defining - as well as most depressing - political counterfactual of my lifetime.

RedEye said...

But Crosland had fallen out with Rodgers and Jenkins in the seventies (for more on this, see Susan Crosland's biography of her late husband) so much so that they voted for Ted Short in the 1972 leadership contest to 'teach him a lesson'. One of the reasons the SDP came about was the despair of Owen, Rodgers, Williams et al at the willingness of Healey and Callaghan to compromise (or, as they saw it, to 'sell out) with the left, as seen in their fury at Callaghan and Healey's willingness to entertain an electoral college which included a block vote wielded by a largely left-wing trade union leadership.

We know already that Crosland may have favoured reselection of Labour MPs, another grievance of those who left to form the SDP.

Much of the ill-feeling between him and those who left to form the SDP also arose out of their different attitudes to Europe. Crosland saw it as not all that important compared to getting the Heath government out of power, while Shirley Williams threatened to leave politics altogether if the Yes camp lost the 1975 referendum. So some sort of parting of the ways would also have been likely over their comparative attitudes towards the success of the Bennites in getting a pledge for UK withdrawal included in the 83 manifesto.

Plus there's the evidence, in Crewe and King's 'SDP', that six of the SDP defectors deliberately voted for Foot (a decisive number, when he won by ten votes) to make Labour look a totally lost cause.

Most of all, Crosland (despite the drawl, mischievously referred to by Michael Foot as his 'bogus Oxford accent')was tribally Labour, and got on with the likes of Dennis Skinner (in fact, oddly enough, the likes of Skinner rather liked Crosland precisely because of the drawl, when he didn't - as happens with Tony Blair's cringeworthy lapses into 'Duke of Windsor Cockney' - patronise them by putting on a bogus working-class accent). As for the SDP defectors, John Smith's comment that he didn't feel at ease with them because they, in turn, didn't feel at ease with trade unionists may have been a slight over-generalisation, but there was, nonetheless, a lot of truth in it.

That said, while I don't think Crosland would have averted the SDP split, he may well have beaten Foot in a leadership contest, and he would have been a far less shambolic and ineffectual leader than Foot.

If you've got 4,000 words or more on this counter-factual, then e-mail Duncan Brack at the e-mail address mentioned in the Introduction to President Gore.

Paul Linford said...

I thought the mention of Crosland might bring you out to play, RedEye, and as ever I'm glad that it did!

The Tin Drummer said...

This is a great discussion.