One of the home truths about the Labour Party that is actually true is the one about how Labour really doesn’t do regicide all that well. You only need to look at all of the bungled coups to dethrone both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband to understand this fully. There is a tendency to wait until the electorate crucifies the leader, and then everyone posthumously pounces.
In the wake of the last disastrous confrontation with the voting public, which took place only a few weeks ago, Ed gave us all a terrible resignation speech to savour (weirdly, if you had to summarise it in one word it would be this: smug), and has ever since been hanging around the Commons like a bad smell. Obviously, he is the representative for Doncaster North and has every right to attend any session he thinks is in the interests of his constituents. But there has been something in your face about his presence already in this parliament; some hint of the same sense of “you were all wrong, I’m still right” attitude that stunk up his bow out, post-election.
Labour have a real problem with leaders, both getting rid of them when they are clearly headed for a brick wall and how to deal with their legacy once they head for the hills. I recall sitting in the hall in Brighton at Labour conference 2013, listening to Ed prattle on about the upper-middle class people he’d met on Primrose Hill as per usual, when I noticed they had sat Neil Kinnock in the prime seat in the house. Indeed, the screen behind Ed kept cutting to Kinnock, as if he represented the eternal soul of the Labour Party. This was weird for so many reasons, but they are all worth exploring. One, Kinnock was not the newly departed Labour leader back in 2013, nor even the penultimate person to lead the Labour Party at the time. We were four leaders on from him by then, in fact (granted, the one immediately after him couldn’t have been in the hall for obvious reasons that no one could possibly fault John Smith for). Two, Kinnock was never prime minister, and in fact has the rare accolade of having lost two general elections (most of the time, they only give you one go round in politics). But finally, it’s not even like Kinnock represents the pure, lost soul of the Labour Party – he was the guy who took on the unions and the lefties and attempted to pull the party back to the centre ground, remember?
I’ve seen Kinnock mobbed by young activists at many an event. I don’t begrudge the man his legacy – he’s a decent enough chap. But I’m interested in the underlying psychology. Is it because he never won, tapping into the underdog tendency within Labour? Is it because, whatever his intent in terms of moving the party away from Foot territory, he wasn’t New Labour? Is it simply that, in terms of leaders to follow, one of them was an unpopular failure as PM, one’s dead, and one’s Tony Blair?
If it sounds like I’m being academic here, I assure you I’m not. All of this baggage is weighing on the current leadership campaign; you can hear it in every single thing Burnham, Cooper, Kendall and Corbyn utter. The fact that the most electorally successful Labour leader of all time has to be forgotten is a massive thing when you stop and think about it, as a for instance. And I’m not being simplistic about that one either: I had huge problems with Blair throughout his premiership (over Iraq, civil liberties, his over-closeness to the Bush administration) and his activities post-government have hardly helped his legacy. But nevertheless, this colours what Labour does next. Which in turn affects greatly who will be running the country over the next generation. Which, whatever your opinion of the Labour Party and its history, and I’ll remind you all again I’m not a Labourite, really makes a difference as to what happens to every single one of us during that timespan.
So in six years time, at Labour conference in Margate (they get a great deal on the venue), will we see Andy Burnham, or whomever else wins this current contest, rubbed out of Labour history entirely a la Blair? Will they have to again wheel out Kinnock to be front and centre, the only former Labour leader who remains both alive and still somewhat palatable to the membership? Questions worth considering.
Good questions, but Labour (although more consistently masochistic) isn’t blameless on this. Do you remember the awful Hague-era Tory conference where Thatcher and Heath were made sit slumped in plush armchiars side by side on the stage glaring at each other for large chunks of the conference (and presumably Major was hiding at home, crying somewhere)?
And the LibDem Paddy-Ashdown fetish of the recent campaign (my family got sick of robot-Paddy rinnging me to tell me to go out to somewhere not in my area to canvass) wasn’t a million miles away.
John Lane says
I think generally speaking most parties hold on to their past leaders one way or another, unless those former leaders make a firm decision to bugger off out of it themselves anyway, regardless of how their respective parties might wish to fetishize them, use them or abuse them. It’s often just as well, because with the few that hold that position for a short time, the press very quickly lose interest in them and we might just all forget who they were at all, and what good (or ill) they might have done during that tenure.