Saturday, July 11, 2009

Not-so-new Labour say their goodbyes

This week's Journal column focuses on North-East matters, namely the forthcoming retirement of at least ten of the region's 30 MPs. Most of them are going not because of the expenses row but because they're 60 and facing a spell in Opposition, but some of them will leave a bigger hole than others....

All general elections involve goodbyes. Over the last decade and a half, those who have bidden farewell to the Commons’ green benches have included such North-East political luminaries as Don Dixon, Sir Neville Trotter, Dr David Clark and Derek Foster.

In between times, the region also saw two of its most famous ‘imports’ move on to fresh woods and pastures new – Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair.

But even that loss of political talent looks set to be dwarfed by the scale of the exodus when the next election finally takes place.

Ten of the North-East’s 30 MPs have already announced they are standing down – or in the case of Stockton North’s Frank Cook, had it announced for them – and several more may yet follow.

As well as Mr Cook, who has been deselected, those on the way out include former ministers Hilary Armstrong (Durham North West), Alan Milburn (Darlington), Doug Henderson (Newcastle North) and Chris Mullin (Sunderland South).

They are joined in the queue for the exit door by backbenchers Jim Cousins (Newcastle Central), Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington), John Cummings (Easington), Bill Etherington (Sunderland North) and Peter Atkinson (Hexham).

Some of these departures can be put down to natural longevity – with the exceptions of Mr Kemp and Mr Milburn, all are either at or approaching the normal retirement age,

But there has inevitably been speculation that the MPs’ expenses scandal, while not directly implicating any of the above-named in wrongdoing, may have persuaded at least some of them that Parliament was no longer worth the candle.

For my part, I’m not sure. While some no doubt view with trepidation the prospect of having the public pore over their expense claims online, it is as nothing compared to the far grimmer prospect of Opposition.

With Labour providing 28 of those 30 MPs, the prospect of a Labour defeat in 2010 will inevitably have a bigger impact in the North-East than elsewhere.

Most of the Labour MPs who are retiring have already experienced a longish spell in Opposition prior to 1997 – but back then, they were in their 40s, and could look forward confidently to ministerial office one day.

For an MP past his or her 60th birthday, five years of Opposition presents a quite different proposition. Even if Labour is only out for one term, there would be little for them to come to back to save for a lap-of-honour on the backbenches.

So Ms Armstrong and Mr Henderson, for instance, are right in their assessments that it is time for a younger person to take over the reins in their respective seats, and although they have not all said so explicitly, the same goes for many of the others.

That is not to say, however, that some of those going will not constitute a grievous loss to the politics of the region, and indeed to the UK as a whole.

The MP who will be most sorely missed in terms of his dogged and occasionally lonely championing of the region’s interests will, without doubt, be Jim Cousins.

Meanwhile the ones who will leave the biggest holes in terms of their wider contribution to Parliament and to centre-left politics more generally will be Chris Mullin and Alan Milburn.

So why single out those three? Well, Mr Cousins first. Back in the days before 1997, the Newcastle Central MP had legitimate ambitions to be a minister, and served at one time as part of Robin Cook’s Shadow Foreign Office team.

But to the region’s very great fortune, he lost that job and ended up in what turned out to be the very much more influential role of backbench member of the Commons’ Treasury Committee.

For the past 12 years, he has used that platform to advance the interests of the North-East at every opportunity, from bemoaning the impact of London-centric interest rate policies in the late 90s to helping facilitate the rescue of Northern Rock last year.

Jim would have been a perfectly competent minister, but the truth is he’d have been wasted. Quite simply, there has been no finer advocate for this region over the past two decades.

But if the North-East owes Mr Cousins a great debt, the country as a whole owes a greater one to Mr Mullin – another who found his talents more suited to being out of government than in it.

His championing of the cause of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four highlighted two of the worst miscarriages of justice of the past half-century, and led to lasting changes in the criminal justice system.

As for Mr Milburn, he will, to my mind, go down as largely unfulfilled political talent. He had a lot more left to contribute to the Labour Party, and had he chosen to do so, could have helped Gordon Brown renew its policies for new political times.

Unfortunately the two men found themselves unable to work together for the good of the party – a sure sign of a party that is about to lose power.

Inevitably, there have been suggestions that the great exodus will fundamentally change the political culture of the North-East, but that remains to be seen.

While the imposition of all-woman shortlists in some seats may very well make the Northern Group of Labour MPs less male, whether it will make the North-East less Labour is much more open to doubt.

The Tories can legitimately entertain hopes of winning perhaps three additional seats in the region next year, and the Liberal Democrats two – but that still leaves Labour as the overwhelmingly dominant force.

The region is seeing not so much a changing of the political guard, as the swapping of an ageing Labour generation for a younger one.

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1 comment:

Robert said...

I hope Labour can pull it's self out of this suicide plunge but I doubt it. Browns days within Labour are numbered and I doubt he will be going on many world wide tours to say good bye. The last twelve years has seen my party go from a position of doing something for the people, to bending down and being shafted by the large business.

I've left after 40 years in the party, I've been angry before when Wilson fought the Unions for a decent wage for council workers, but New Labour has been a nightmare.

The fact is for the first time in my life I do not care who wins the next elections I'm F*cked no matter who wins Labour Tories or the dam BNP..