Don Brind says Labour hopefuls know their party’s future isn’t in their hands

Don Brind says Labour hopefuls know their party’s future isn’t in their hands

It’s one of the toughest gigs in politics – going on after TV after a defeat to explain that, really,  your party had done quite well in the circumstances.

The man holding the Labour short straw on the BBC on Friday morning April 10th 1992 was a middle-rankingsShadow minister — one Tony Blair.  I came across the BBC archive on YouTube few days ago, which is the video above, I didn’t see it at the time having worked through the night reporting John Major’s shock victory.

It makes interesting viewing in the light of the Labour leadership election where Blair’s complex legacy is one of the key strands in the debate.

Shadow Care Minister Liz Kendall has been cast as the heir to Blair and certainly enjoys the support of most identifiable Blairites in politics and the media. To have any chance of victory, though, she needs to reach beyond that comfort zone – and she has made some interesting additions to her team that show she understands that.

Blair is the model of a successful Labour leader having won three general elections. On the other side Labour support dipped by 4 million votes between 1997 and 2005. “They were his to lose,” is how one uber-Blairite responded to having that uncomfortable fact.

The 1992 post-match interview suggests that this is not a claim Blair himself would make. The night before Major had delivered a Tory victory with a record 14 million votes but Blair the shadow employment secretary was there to claim that Labour had made serious progress. He explained that Labour had had a mountain to claim after the Tory landslide in 1987. But under Neil Kinnock’s leadership they had slashed a Tory majority of 100 to 20.

He rightly praised Kinnock who had done much of the heavy lifting in reforming Labour policy and organisation – changes that were to reach fruition under Blair’s leadership in 1997.

As Labour seeks the path back to winning ways the Blair interview is a reminder that the road to power in 1997 was a long one and the creation of an electable party was not a one-man feat. It took place under four leaders – Kinnock, John Smith, Margaret Beckett and Blair himself and involved others who were to become the big beasts of the Labour governments including Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, David Blunket, Harriet Harman and John Reid

The task facing the wannabe Labour leaders is in many ways more complex than that facing Kinnock, Blair et al. Blair’scurrent  advice that the party needs to get back on to the centre ground is unhelpfully simplistic given that the party needs to compete with the SNP in Scotland and the Tories and Ukip in England on quite different political terrain.

Whatever the new leader does to make Labour more electable could count for little unless they get some – like the misfortune that struck the Tories on 16th September 1992 – an event seared into the memory of David Cameron.

He’s the tall young man in the back ground of the fuzzy archive pictures as the Chancellor Norman Lamont marches towards the camera to announce the Britain is leaving the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. For Lamont’s 25-year-old special adviser it was an early taste of the damage the issue of Europe is capable on the Tory party. Black Wednesday led to hikes in interest rates and taxes that prompted the kind of collapse in Government support which Oppositions usually need to win office.

Europe and the economy are likely to provide plenty of opportunities for voters to turn against the Tories – although the memories of his bit part in Black Wednesday is likely to make Cameron especially cautious.

But on it’s own a Cameron calamity would not  be enough to give the next Labour leader a realistic prospect of power in 2020. They also need a setback for Labour’s other tormentor in May Nicola Sturgeon. With support for the SNP apparently growing rather than slipping that looks like the stuff of dreams.

But for those in Labour ranks who hope and believe that the SNP’s radical pretensions can  undermined there’s encouragement from recent polling in Canada which shows that separatist tide can be reversed. A recent Federal poll puts Labour’s sister party the New Democratic Party level pegging with both the Conservatives and the Liberals. The Tory government could be ousted by an NDP-Liberal coalition when the election takes place in October.

The NDP became the official opposition in 2011, thanks in part to a collapse of the Bloc Québécois. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is highly regarded and his party recently took power in Alberta after 40 years of trying.

The separatist Bloc Québécois are polling in single figures. In 1993, as Brad MacKay of Edinburgh University recalls they achieved something similar to the SNP sweep in May. “The Bloc Québécois won more than half the vote in Quebec, and with 54 of Quebec’s 75 seats, sweeping almost all the French-speaking ridings (constituencies) in the province. They held a similar tally in 2004.  

In 2011 as the Tories took power and the NDP became the official opposition the BQ was “was knocked back to four seats, appearing to be a largely spent force in Québec politics.”

We can be pretty sure that won’t happen to the SNP any time soon but without a significant recovery in Scotland Labour’s hopes of power at Westminster look dim

Don Brind

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