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Must Labour Always Lose? by Denis MacShane


In the thirteenth year of Tory rule Labour and its cheerleaders had high hopes of coming back to power. John Major seemed a very pale shadow of Margaret Thatcher. He was utterly out of touch with new developments in the European Union. Neil Kinnock and Robin Cook were now making speeches extolling the need for Labour engagement with Europe.

Tony Benn as ever remained hostile. He refused to campaign for Labour MEPs, like the innovative left internationalist Glyn Ford, as Benn could not bear to find anything positive to say about Europe. Labour defectors who had stood for the SDP, like Roger Liddle or Andrew Adonis, were now coming back to Labour.

I went to Labour’s 1992 spring conference in Edinburgh, which met to discuss local government and European affairs. The only buzz was the general election and a sense that John Major was desperately clinging on to Downing Street at the head of a broken Tory party. The gossip was on the size of the Labour majority and who would get which jobs in a Kinnock administration.

In a taxi with Labour MPs and activists going to the airport I pointed out that Labour had to win nearly ninety seats to get a tiny majority and far more to form an effective government. Maybe because I was watching politics from Swiss mountains, I could see things a bit more clearly. Winning an election is not climbing Mont Blanc. It’s more like completing a hundred 10k races or getting to the summits of all the 282 Munros in Scotland. With the best will in the world I could not see how Kinnock’s Labour Party could win all these seats. My Labour friends were horrified; many of them were candidates. They almost threw me out of the cab to walk to the airport.

I wish I was wrong but when a party of government takes the kind of wrong turning Labour took after 1979 or in the lost decade of 2010-20 it takes a long time and a new set of ideas, top figures and policies before the public will again give its confidence to a political party asking for the right to decide taxes, police on the streets, the state of schools and health, as well as scores of identity-issue policies to win back full public endorsement. The Tories won more than 14 million votes – their biggest ever score and 2.5 million more than Labour.

There was still a way to go.

So we replaced Neil Kinnock with John Smith. John had been brave as a centrist pro-European in the 1970s and managed to navigate when the left of the Labour Party was dominant after 1979 without losing his nerve or his constituency. But I wasn’t convinced John was the man to reinvent Labour as we headed towards a new century.

Lesson 23. The Covid pandemic introduced a new medical concept: Long Covid, a lingering hard-to-shake- off continuation of the malady. Labour has suffered from the political equivalent. Thatcher and Scargill may have gone, and Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone no longer commanding national figures, but Labour was still associated with its unelectable virus dating back to inner party sectarianism after 1979, the 1983 manifesto to quit Europe, the Scargill and Wapping strikes, and the pacificism of unilateral disarmament. It takes years for voters to forget why they could not bring themselves to vote Labour. The poor results for Labour in May 2021 showed that what might be called “Long Corbyn”– the lingering but ineradicable memories of the disastrous lost years for Labour 2015-19.

In the summer I read that Michael Meacher, a thoughtful left MP friend was doing a house swap holiday on the southern Atlantic coast of France close to the Pyrenees. Meacher was elected in 1970 along with Neil Kinnock and Dennis Skinner. Meacher was of that generation of Labour MPs who were aged around forty when the Thatcher era began. There is nothing more miserable for a politician than to have served an apprenticeship and then find the chance of plying your trade in government is gone as voters elect and re-elect the other party. Meacher trudged through Labour’s wilderness 1980s gradually detaching himself from Benn, who, he came to realise, was not going help Labour win elections.

But Michael also could not read the new times. I planned to spend some of my summer holiday in 1992, improving my Spanish just across the Pyrenees in San Sebastian, the seaside Basque city with the best tapas in Europe. I called Michael and suggested we got together for a chat and dinner. I drove up to Saint Jean de Luz and we found a sea-side restaurant.

He had just written a book called Diffusing Power: the Key to Socialist Revival, which had been launched by John Smith (memo to anyone hoping to rise in the Labour Party: there is nothing less likely to sell copies than a book with ‘Socialism’ in its title). Meacher enthused about the new party leader. ‘I really like him. Kinnock wasn’t interested in ideas. It was all about presentation guided by Mandelson. John is completely different. He reads widely and knows how getting policy right is vital.’

I gently said to him, ‘John is a great guy, but the next English Labour prime minister will be Tony Blair.’ 

He exploded. ‘Blair! Blair! I’ve served with Tony Blair on the front bench, on the NEC, in the shadow cabinet. Tony Blair is nothing! Nothing! Nothing!’ he bellowed as other diners in the restaurant wondered why les rosbifs were having such a heated discussion.

‘Michael,’ I said. ‘I know exactly what you mean but as a friend of yours let me suggest you find any bit of Blair still sticking out and start sucking now.’ He snorted, and we retreated to the safer topic of how Labour and Michael would bring socialism to Britain.

Tony Blair was firmly on my horizon and had been for some time. All political leadership is about telling followers in a party that this or that cherished belief was past its use-by date. One example was the great Labour PM Clement Attlee in the late 1930s telling the Peace-Pledge-left MPs to grow up and understand that to defeat fascism, petitions and marches were not enough. Another was the post-war Labour PM Harold Wilson forcing Labour’s anti-Europeans to come to terms with the existence of the European Community and winning the 1975 referendum on Europe. Tony Blair seemed braver than Smith or the new rising younger stars of Labour, like Robin Cook and Gordon Brown.

Their higher ability as platform orators was not as important as telling the truth to your own followers and leading them out of dead-end politics.

Meanwhile we were lifted out of our misery by the win for Bill Clinton.

Clinton was at Oxford the same time as me and any number of friends from Christopher Hitchens to Martin Walker, both of whom claimed to have been buddies of his at the time, including one or two women students who were said to have slept with him. If so, they kept their friendships remarkably under wraps for more than 20 years as in all my perambulations through the British and American left in the 1970s and 1980s I don’t remember anyone mentioning him.

Clinton had the same political life story as so many of us, including Joe Biden. The excitements of the 1968 generation. A 1970s full of passionate opposition to the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon. Working for George McGovern and then disappearing into the deep weeds of American political careerism. He was a keen political fixer, an organizer, and above all a seriously good speaker. His election victory was a joyous moment for progressive politics around the world after the long years of Reagan and Thatcher followed by the boring incompetencies of the first George Bush and John Major.

Soon after Clinton’s victory in 1992 I found myself at an autumn Labour European conference in Bournemouth. Standing in line to get a coffee I began enthusing to the Transport and General Workers union general secretary, Bill Morris, about the new US president.

I suggested to Bill Morris that the UK labour movement could take a lead in giving new direction to the Labour Party by organizing a big conference in London to coincide with the US president’s inauguration early in 1993 and learn from the architects of the Clinton victory how progressive politics can actually do what Labour was failing to do – win elections and power.

Bill instantly agreed to put up the first tranche of sponsorship money and I went off to help get what we called the ‘Clintoneconomics’ conference off the ground. I had spent a lot of time in America in the 1980s working with trade unions, getting to know left-wing writers, intellectuals, journalists over drinks in the Tabard Inn in N Street in Washington or at seminars and left political conferences.

I’d learnt so much about the positive and progressive side of America. The one-dimensional view of the United States as a red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist, war-mongering, racist or redneck country purveyed by the left in Britain failed or perhaps refused to acknowledge the many reformist, progressive, indeed left (but never use the word ‘socialist’ in America) policies and ideas on offer in the US.

And now here was a young democratic president inspired by Roosevelt, willing to walk on picket lines, and using the language of aspiration rather than regulation, of empowerment rather than increasing taxes. The Clinton generation was my generation. We wanted a good life for all but never at the expense of curtailing our own appetites and desire for money. After the misery of Labour’s fourth defeat here was a political star on the progressive side of US politics who could actually win elections. Britain seemed like Japan or Germany to be permanently under the control of centre-right politicians. Clinton showed this did not need to continue for ever.

Must Labour Always Lose? is available in paperback and ebook

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