Paul Flynn: "It's very difficult to see how Corbyn can unite Labour"
In his eighty-second year, Paul Flynn has finally taken his place in the shadow cabinet with not one but two jobs. But with a reputation as a fiercely independent backbencher, how will the MP for Newport West balance the competing demands?
He wrote the book on being a backbencher, but when the call came to join the shadow cabinet Paul Flynn did not have to think twice.
As the frontbench resignations last week grew from a trickle to an avalanche, Flynn put his name forward to Labour’s embattled leader. So, at the age of 81, he finds himself in not one but two frontbench positions, leading for Labour in the House of Commons and as shadow Wales secretary.
“There was a great danger that there would be nobody on the frontbench answering for the Labour party,” he says from his Portcullis House office. “I’m way beyond ambition. I didn’t want any jobs. But that would have been the ultimate humiliation.”
He admits to allowing himself the odd moment to savour his unlikely position, before the sobering realisation of Labour’s dire situation reasserts itself.
“You have that great stimulus of fear of failure, fear of messing the thing up. There’s lots of pressure on you; there’s nothing better for the creative process,” he explains, adding that at times the past ten days – and particularly scrutinising the Wales Bill – have even been “enormous fun”.
“But there are strains. Running the party machine is very difficult. We’re down to a skeleton staff. It is very difficult to maintain and to do the minimum work that’s necessary.
“But it is continuing. We haven’t had the SNP and Plaid moving in and occupying the frontbench. That was very much the fear – that would have made us even more foolish than we looked anyway.”
Flynn hopes it’s not a role he will have to fill for the long-term. While he says he will remain in post for as long as the leader wants him, he admits he already has one eye on skipping “merrily back to the backbenches” when – or if – the party can find some way out of its crisis.
We meet on the evening that the NEC decide Jeremy Corbyn will be on the ballot in September’s leadership election. Flynn had hoped that more time would be given to talks aimed at reaching a compromise and avoiding a potentially devastating confrontation over the coming months. With that hope extinguished, he says his party is now facing “an extremely dangerous situation”.
“We’re in the worst position we’ve been in the whole history of the Labour party,” he says. “The great screaming nightmare is this great gulf between the PLP and party members. That is very dangerous, when one is overwhelmingly in favour of the leader and the other is not.
“I’m absolutely certain that Corbyn will be re-elected, and we’ll just be there in confrontation – a party in the country and a party in parliament.”
A natural optimist, Flynn hopes there is still room for “conciliation”. “I hope good sense will prevail. We’re all after the same things in the party. Our only hope is some conciliation and people coming together and trying to come up with a practical solution that would bridge the two wings of the party. But they are so far apart.
“We want the conciliators and the mediators to come forward now, not people who are going to deepen the division in the party.”
His own position on Corbyn’s future has been the subject of speculation this week after reports on Twitter that he had called on the leader to resign at Tuesday’s meeting of the shadow cabinet. He does not reveal exactly what he told the leader, but describes the reports as a “total distortion” of what was a “positive” conversation.
“I said I believe people are behaving disgracefully in running down the achievements of the Labour party under Corbyn. We had a splendid result in Wales. We gained three seats we lost in the general election in 2015. In the Tooting by-election we trebled our majority. We’ve won every by-election, mayoralties. No credit is given to Jeremy. And he’s blamed for everything. He’s blamed for the referendum – it was Cameron’s fault.
“There’s been this constant campaign: since the day he was elected they were saying what a disaster he’s going to be. They haven’t given him a chance.
“But it’s very difficult at the moment to know how he can practically find a way out of it.”
Despite his deserved reputation as an independent backbencher, Flynn also places a high premium on party loyalty. “Honour your party and extend its horizons,” is one of the Ten Commandments to backbenchers set out in his book How to be an MP, and it’s impossible not to feel for him as he contends with the competing duties and loyalties – to leader, to members, to parliamentary colleagues – weighing upon him.
“I’ve been a serial loyalist to Labour party leaders since Clement Atlee,” he says, recalling campaigning in the 1945 landslide as a ten year old boy. “I was the only person who put Ed Miliband as number five in the 2010 leadership election. But I never said a word against him while he was leader of our party,” he adds.
He expresses sympathy with his former leader Neil Kinnock, whose impassioned speech urging Corbyn to stand down at last week’s meeting of the PLP reportedly left several colleagues close to tears.
“I relate entirely to the emotion of it. I feel bereaved,” he says. “It really runs very deeply, those of us who’ve been in the Labour party from childhood and can remember the hateful things that happened before we had Labour governments. It really is something in the depth of our being.
“He sees the party in trouble and what he said was something said with great sincerity. But we’ve got to find some way of bridging the gulf between party members and the party here.”
I ask what form that bridge would take and, while he makes it clear he will continue to serve Corbyn as long as he is needed, he admits to serious doubts about whether he is now capable of providing the leadership the party needs.
“You wonder if we’ve passed the tipping point. It was understandable when the born again Blairites were plotting against Corbyn, and then it increased into the coup last week, the avalanche. But it gets to a tipping point when it’s taking in the new left. You wonder if it’s possible to rescue it from there.”
“It’s very hard to see now how he can do it,” he says, but makes clear: “I think we need a left wing candidate in the election. We need a left wing choice in the party. The party has always been a balance between the two.”
I mention Clive Lewis, the new shadow defence secretary, who has been tipped as a Corbyn replacement. “He’s really good. I think he’s got a lot of qualities that would be very electable,” Flynn shoots back. He stops short of publicly backing Lewis to stand this time and admits his lack of experience is a setback, but describes his shadow cabinet colleague as “a cause for optimism in the future”.
“He’s a genuine idealist. He’s not into being a careerist. He fought in Afghanistan, he’s very impressive, got all the political skills, an attractive personality. He’s a very attractive candidate. He’s not tainted with an extreme either side. I do admire him greatly as a potential leader.”
As for his own political future, Flynn is clear he has no ambitions for a lengthy frontbench career. After close to 30 years on the backbenches, he admits ministerial life requires “a set of very specialist skills that I probably don’t have”.
Writing for this magazine immediately following last year’s general election, Flynn welcomed new colleagues by warning them not to covet a future of “obedience as whips’ bitches and purveyors of party half-truths and untruths” on the frontbenches, urging them to choose instead the “liberation of free thought and action” of the backbenches.
He laughs knowingly at the reminder of his words, but insists that while he has to now be “more cautious of what I’m saying” he certainly won’t be breaking any of his backbench commandments.
“The ones for the frontbench are very similar,” he smiles, adding that he won’t be engaging in the typical frontbench pursuits of “mock indignation” and “manufactured empty gestures”. “I don’t have any appetite for doing those things.”
So his time in Labour’s shadow cabinet may be brief. But, as I leave, I ask what one thing he would most like to achieve.” At the moment,” he says after a pause, “survival.”