LESSONS OF HISTORY
Last time Labour elected a hard left leader in 1980, it was a matter of months before senior figures in the party broke away and formed the Social Democrats under the leadership of Roy Jenkins.
It initiated a very difficult period for the then Liberal Party, particularly when the SDP leader became David Owen. A more arrogant man than the emollient Woy (sic) Jenkins, the TV puppet satire show Spitting Image had little David Steel in Owen’s jacket pocket.
There were rows over which of these two centrist parties should fight which parliamentary seat in the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, after which difficult merger talks took place with much agonising over what was social democracy and what was Liberalism. It left the first leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, with what he describes as an asterisk in the opinion polls where the percentage supporting the new party should be.
Why am I boring you with this political history lesson? Because the chances are growing of Jeremy Corbyn actually winning the Labour leadership. Downtown’s Managing Director, Frank McKenna, argues powerfully in his blog this week that the party should be following the advice of Tony Blair to shy away from a left wing course. It may be good advice but should Blair have said it? Frank rightly points to Blair’s recipe for election success but also acknowledges that he is seen as a war criminal by some in his party. I’m afraid he is, and there is a danger that his intervention may strengthen Corbyn’s position not weaken it.
This is another reason why Blair is toxic to many activists. His time as party leader saw a huge centralisation of the party’s internal structure. Party conferences became rallies not occasions for real debate. Regional party officials, who had been a valuable source of authority with the ability to feed back to London what was going on, were neutered. Parliamentary selections were hijacked to put in Blair’s favourites, Ex Tory Shaun Woodward in St Helens being the most blatant. Part of what Corbyn is about is a demand from the foot soldiers to get their party back.
So if Corbyn should win will the newly elected leader of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron, present an appealing alternative for Labour moderates who conclude that their party is out of office for the foreseeable future?
And what will Tim Farron say to them? He should probably welcome them in. He shouldn’t tell them to form a separate SDP Mark Two party. The reasoning in 1981 was that a new party would make more of an impact than just admitting Labour defectors to the Liberals. But as I’ve illustrated above, it led to years of wrangles in the centre of politics while Margaret Thatcher kept getting re-elected.
Farron was the right choice for the Lib Dems in their parlous state. He got over 50% of the vote in his Cumbria seat in May and knows how to campaign from the bottom up. Grandees like Paddy Ashdown and Vince Cable might sneer at his judgement but at least Farron has a chance of being heard. If the other contender, Norman Lamb, had won, opponents would have felt they were being attacked by a dead sheep.