Putting Labour ‘Treachery’ Into Historic Context
January 7th 2010
It has been another riveting day in the short and ill-fated history of the Brown leadership. I have just appeared on ‘Good Morning Scotland’ with James Cusick of the ‘Sunday Herald’, where I attempted and failed to put the whole thing in some historic context (1).
Yes it is true as Cusick says that mood, momentum and the political weather matters. Of course they do; they define a lot of what makes politics and how events turn out. But so do rules, culture and history, as these often shape mood and momentum.
Despite British politics in the last twenty years turning upside down in so many respects it is still true to say the Tories practice regicide against unsuccessful leaders, whereas Labour plot, engage in disunity, but nearly always never move against sitting leaders. Given all New Labour’s destruction of many of the most sacred cows of the once ‘great movement’, this could even be seen as the last remaining distinctive ‘ethos’ of the whole thing left standing – in the sense of Henry Drucker’s ‘doctrine and ethos of the Labour Party’ (2).
Here are a few observations about rules, culture and history and why they matter to understanding Labour leadership dynamics.
A Labour Party spokesperson called the Geoff Hoon-Patricia Hewitt attempt for a secret ballot ‘unconstitutional, not wanted and not needed’ (3). That is a pretty categorical dismissal, and broadly a correct, if literal reading. Labour MPs have no right to call a secret ballot on whether they have confidence in the leadership. Nor do they have the right to force a leadership contest. All they have is the potential to force the convening of a special conference which would then decide by a vote on whether to bring about a contest against a sitting leader. It is almost of Politburo proportions and built to be never used.
All of this matters in terms of how easy it is to move against sitting leaders who don’t want to move. When the first Tory attempt to oust Thatcher began in 1989 it only required two Tory MPs to force a contest – who could remain anonymous. Labour now require when an open contest occurs – 20 percent of the PLP nominating a candidate – 71 MPs.
This was introduced in the aftermath of the Benn kamikaze candidature in 1988 which was launched with little support in the PLP or wider party, and in 2007 when Brown was ‘elected’ Labour leader and Prime Minister, was used by Brown and his supporters to stop a proper contest. Neither John McDonnell or Michael Meacher could muster the required numbers, and neither Brown or the party saw fit to change the rules to allow a proper context.
2. Party Culture.
This matters. Labour historically does not move against sitting leaders. The obvious example here is Blair who put the party through hell in later years, but was never faced with an open contest from Brown or anyone.
The last Labour leader who was challenged was Neil Kinnock who as leader faced Tony Benn standing against him in 1988 in a contest which was widely seen as a complete distraction – given Benn’s support was hugely waning in the party at the time from the high point of the early 1980s. This is the only time in the last forty years a sitting Labour leader has faced a challenge: the famous Benn campaign in 1981 which induced intra-party civil war was for the Deputy Leadership against Denis Healey; the previous occasions before Benn were when Hugh Gaitskell in 1960 and 1961 faced successive challenges as the party fought over nuclear disarmament.
The sole example of a Labour leader being removed was that of George Lansbury who in a key moment of Labour mythology was basically humiliated at the 1935 Labour Conference by Ernest Bevin over Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia: Lansbury being a pacifist in an age of increasing fascist aggression. Attlee became the interim leader with an election imminent, presided over significant Labour gains (in the context of a huge Tory majority), and then won a leadership election against Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. That’s it in Labour history in terms of getting rid of leaders, unlike the Tories ….
This Labour history still matters particularly when it is reinforced by rules which discourage leadership contests. The whole Blair era points to still mattering as does the Brown interregnum – with three failed coups and counting.
The Tory Party has got rid of lots of its leaders, most spectacularly Thatcher who was removed against her will. The examples cited in the media in the last day have been of John Major calling ‘the bastards’ bluff in 1995, but there are many others.
In 1955 Churchill, then sitting Prime Minister resigned and was replaced by Anthony Eden, who had been seen for years as his obvious successor, who called and won an election.
Since 1997 the Tories have had a series of unsuccessful leaders, but the only one who was removed was Iain Duncan Smith who after his ridiculous ‘quiet man’ speech to the Tory conference, faced a forced vote of confidence among Tory MPs. This has obvious parallels with what Hoon and Hewitt were hoping for with Labour MPs, but the point is Tory rules have the possibility of this if 25 MPs ask for it. In 2003 the requisite number did and then voted 90:75 against IDS’s leadership. The result was simple: he was history and Michael Howard became leader without a contest.
So Brown staggers on and will lead Labour into an election in which the odds of a Tory majority have just increased significantly. Hoon and Hewitt, along with such previous amateur plotters as James Purnell (attempted coup no. 2), have allowed the possibility that themselves and other Blairites will be blamed for the forthcoming election rout. And really that cant be allowed to happen. These people are part of the ‘guilty men’ of Labour, but then that’s a whole other story of what Labour became under New Labour and the losing of what shall we call it, the party’s ‘moral compass’.
1. Good Morning Scotland, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0074hf7/episodes/player
2. Henry Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, George Allen and Sons 1979.
3. Channel Four News, http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/politics/brown+challenge+how+it+would+work/3490352