LAB’s loss to the SDP in the Greenwich by-election exactly 30 years ago has lessons for the party today

February 26th, 2017

A guest slot by Stodge

30 years ago today (roughly), I was pounding the wet streets of Greenwich on a miserable cold Thursday evening. I was doing knock-up for this woman:

   This was a by election in what was supposedly a safe Labour seat which had survived the 1983 Conservative landslide but the 1987 by-election was a disaster for the Party of Opposition. The third party vote (in this case the Conservatives) collapsed and Rosie Barnes swept home by over 6,600 votes.

Yet the abiding significance was not Alliance strength but Labour weakness. Greenwich showed how far Labour was from power and even though the 1987 Labour campaign had the imprint of Peter Mandelson, Greenwich showed that however many people wanted to vote Labour to help it win, many others wanted it to lose and would vote for the Party most able to make it happen.

It’s bad enough when people don’t want your party to win but worse when they actively vote tactically to ensure your party’s defeat.

As a Sheffield man had said a few years earlier, that was then but this is now.

The main message from Greenwich 30 years ago is one that resonates now following the Conservative win in Copeland last Thursday.

Labour are not only struggling to hold on to their current support levels but are also facing the prospect of people (including former supporters) determined to vote for opposing candidates to stop Labour winning.

I’m not a Conservative but nor do I support Labour. Unlike some, I don’t wish Labour ill nor do I wish to see its destruction and nor would such an event be desirable.

Government needs to be held to proper account and scrutiny – that requires a proper Opposition which could function as a credible alternative Government whether it follows similar policies to the existing administration or a completely different programme.

We clearly don’t have that now – Labour has two problems.

The first and lesser problem is Jeremy Corbyn – now, I have to confess I don’t share the visceral contempt for the man some have. He has however proved himself quite incapable and unsuitable to be Party leader yet alone a prospective Prime Minister.

His cardinal error is simple – there’s no problem talking to political groups whose aims are diametrically opposed to yours, indeed that’s how plural politics operates. If, as a political group, you wish to campaign within the boundaries of politics and the law for a United Ireland or for a Palestinia State, that’s fine. I’ve no problem with British politicians engaging with such groups.

However, the line is crossed when such groups seek to achieve their political objectives through violence and especially when that violence is directed at British people and British military personnel. At that point we cannot and must not engage politically with such groups.

For an MP to not only engage with groups advocating violence but then to stand up and support those acts of violence including the targeted assault of British civilians and soldiers is understandably well beyond the pale for most British people and yet that’s what Corbyn and McDonnell have done.

To call these “misjudgements” would be generous in extremis, others might use words like treason. If credibility and integrity are key measures for a prospective Prime Minister, Corbyn fails miserably.

Yet Labour’s biggest problem isn’t Corbyn – the much more serious problem is that Labour has nothing to offer in way of a credible alternative prospectus for Government.

If there is an economic policy at present, it seems to be to spend more money whatever the problem. In truth, the centre-left has failed to come up with a coherent economic response to the events of 2008. That doesn’t mean the muddled Conservative response of half-hearted austerity which has now become half-hearted reflation has helped much – for many people, living standards are stagnating as wage rises struggle to keep up with growing inflation and the public finances remain in a parlous state.

What then can Labour do?

There are three years until the next election – given the seismic shifts of recent times, it’s too early to call it lost but it’s hard to see where and how any recovery will manifest. It won’t while Corbyn is in charge but even if he is replaced by someone more telegenic and agreeable to the British public (clearly any new Labour leader will be pilloried by Conservative activists but they can be ignored), the absence of a viable and coherent programme will count.

Then there’s the small matter of Brexit . It shouldn’t be forgotten that for all the talk of Conservative division on Europe, Labour too has had its differences and while the Conservatives have for now rallied round Theresa May (even though between a third and two fifths of the party’s voters supported REMAIN), Labour’s divisions have been brutally exposed. Corbyn was always part of that anti-EU tradition (the “longest suicide note in history” contained a commitment to withdraw from the then EEC) and dates right back to the 1950s.

Labour should be trying to construct a blueprint for Britain in the 2020s and that could be quite socialist or social democratic in nature. May is not afraid to be an interventionist so we could be entering a renewed period of Butskellism. It could be argued Blair won in 1997 not by being different but by being the same as the Conservatives but simply managing things better.

BY 2025, with the Conservatives having been in Government for 15 years, a revived re-dedicated Labour Party could be a highly attractive proposition to an electorate tired of a Conservative party which will inevitably fall into the traditional trap of believing in its own invincibility and will start becoming gaffe-prone, insincere and out of touch.