Two years ago, to mark the 90th birthday of Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock wrote an open letter of congratulation published on the Labour Party website. In this extract, he recalls one of the Foots’ house parties in the early 80s, shortly after Foot had become leader:
As you’ll recall only too well, much of the Labour movement was, at the time, acting like a javelin-throwing team that had elected to receive. The festivities at your home therefore provided much needed merriment. All was bubbling along nicely in a well lubricated way until the late lamented Jill Tweedie and her husband Alan Brien started to praise Tony Benn for “stimulating refreshing debate” in the Labour Party by running for the deputy leadership.
The resulting argument gradually increased in vitriol and volume. Then Alan angrily bawled “You are crushing socialism!” That brought silence across the room. Everyone therefore heard your pummelling response that concluded “What is happening now is not debate. It is self indulgence. And it is selfishness like that which will crush socialism, you fathead!”
By 1983, Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party, a party unique in the history of British politics, a party repelled by power and seemingly comprised of those who were convinced of the virtuousness of perpetual opposition. In his infamous speech to conference in 1985, Kinnock tore a strip off the Militant Tendency egomaniacs who were ripping the heart out of the party:
“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises: you start with far-fetched resolutions; they are then pickled into a rigid dogma cold. And you go through the years, sticking to that: outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs. And you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I’m telling you now: no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos – I’ll tell you and you’ll listen – I’m telling you, I’m telling you – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and people’s services.”
I recall watching this speech with my father, who thumped the table at regular intervals to register his appreciation. I already had a passing interest in politics and had previously admired dapper Derek and his apostles, but this speech, delivered at Thatcherism’s apogee, lit a fire in me that will never go out. I instantly recognised that I would never in my life vote for another party, and that it was time to ditch those schoolboy flirtations with what I mistook to be radicalism.
Wind the clock on 8 years and John Smith had picked up the pace of reformation; John Prescot, much-maligned by today’s political automatons, delivered a last-minute speech that transformed almost certain defeat for the leadership into unlikely victory, persuading conference to support OMOV (One Member One Vote). A couple of years later and the Blairites won the battle to revoke Clause IV. The transformation from unelectable ramshackle to default party of power, was complete.
In the first 100 years of its existence, the Labour Party spent 77 years filling the opposition benches, and it is clear that a sizeable rump of party members, parliamentarians and supporters, prefer things that way. When Blair talked about modernising Labour, turning it from party of protest into party of power, these were the people who baulked. They included parasites who owe their prominence and even their political careers to electoral success bought with the policies they reject, or more accurately ‘claim’ to reject; misnamed ‘conviction’ politicians and their supporters; the self-appointed gatekeepers of socialist tradition who, for all their dogma, never lifted a single child out of poverty, or put an extra penny in the pocket of a pensioner. A case of their principles – someone else’s minimum wage.
Tony Blair has seen off 4 Conservative Party leaders and even at a time when British soldiers continue to die in a hugely divisive foreign war, he has led the Labour party to an unprecedented third-term with what would be considered, in any other circumstances, a more than healthy working majority. If the Conservatives could not beat Labour last night, then when? As for the Lib Dems, a party so consumed by its own moral certitude that it is blind to the sick irony that saw them urging a British electorate to use their votes to give a “bloody nose” to a Prime Minister who had just delivered 8 million Iraqis theirs, they’d better hope Blair joins Bush in a preemptive war on Iran between now and 2008 if they are not to return to the political obscurity their nauseating opportunism deserves.
So as Blair stares into the abyss of four more years of record-breaking Labour government, this party member salutes his vision, leadership and legacy, as the best things that ever happened to British children living in poverty, mothers looking to return to work, the young unemployed seeking jobs, and the poorest teenagers who dream of going to university.
Political aspirations not just written on the back of a membership card or used as a debating tool with ill-equipped Tories, but translated into credible, tangible achievements like the minimum wage that are helping to turn around the lives of so many. That’s the many, not the few.
And if, comrades, in an act of treacherous self-indulgence, you risked all this with a protest vote yesterday, then shame on you.
Shame on you.