Paul Flynn: Labour's gap year is over
After 12 months of red-on-red attacks, Paul Flynn urges the leadership, the PLP and members to draw a line under the self-destruction – and take the fight to the government
It happens with political parties. Electoral defeat breeds depression and creates a blame culture which turns inwards.
2016 was Labour’s gap year when we had a holiday from reality. Measured in terms of election results, Labour had a brilliant year. Challenging these were opinions polls that presaged doom under Jeremy Corbyn in 2020. MPs chose to believe the soothsayers rather than the hard evidence of real votes by real people in real elections. Fear and pessimism triumphed and many MPs surrendered to unreason and sought ways to get rid of Corbyn by hook and sometimes by crook.
My role in this tragedy was a minor one. I have been a serial loyalist to Labour Party leaders since Attlee. Although I had a few wobbles about Tony Blair on Iraq and Afghanistan, since the 1945 election that I worked in as a 10 year old I have been loyal to the Labour Party through thick and thin. In the election for the previous Labour leader I supported David Miliband and inadvertently emphasised my pessimism about his brother Ed by being the only MP to place him in the 5th bottom place in the vote. As a good democrat I never once uttered a syllable of criticism of him during his doomed years as prime minister in waiting.
In the 2015 leadership election I publicly supported Liz Kendall, who amassed 4.5% of the vote. This was a sobering lesson. Now and henceforth I will remain silent on my voting intentions. This time I followed the example of the Welsh Labour Leader Carwyn Jones and remained neutral.
Although their intentions were honourable the methods used by the anti-Corbynistas have failed and gravely damaged the future prospects of the Labour Party. A whole Chinese army of hostages to fortune were supplied in vehement red-on-red attacks.
First came the refuseniks who bad-mouthed Jeremy with tweets minutes after his victory was declared. Then came a drip-feed of resignation, some inflicting maximum damage by being made on live television with banshee wails on the alleged desperate state of the party.
The Brexit vote was unfairly blamed on Corbyn who persuaded 63% of his supporters to vote Labour’s way while Cameron got only 42% of his followers to vote his way. The anti-Corbynistas struck. Cascading resignations designed for 24-hour television coverage pre-occupied the media on a Sunday when the destruction of prime minister Cameron’s career should have occupied the media’s attention. The result was a shortage of Shadow Cabinet members. The voices of opposition have been weakened but a wealth of new talent has been discovered among new backbenchers that will serve us well in the future.
Corbyn felt safe in his support from the burgeoning growth in party membership. A vote of no confidence by the majority of MPs left him unmoved. By September Labour had grown into the biggest left of centre political party in Europe with a massive 600,000 members and supporters.
There was hope that an internal election undertaken in an atmosphere of mutual respect would provide a platform of Labour alternative policies to challenge government failures. Instead the hustings swiftly plummeted into self-lacerating attacks in which brotherly and sisterly love were absent.
The wild hyperbole of contempt, the shrieks of hopelessness created a Hallelujah Chorus of division. The party fell into cannibalising itself. Not surprisingly, the unrelenting message from Labour MPs that the leader (and by extension the party) was rubbish was believed by the voters and the prophecies of doom and gloom fulfilled themselves in electoral failure.
The myth of hopelessness took hold in spite of the cliff of evidence that Labour under Corbyn was harvesting majority votes. Winning 1,326 Council seats, hailed as triumph under Blair, were mocked as a failure under Corbyn. Four magnificent mayoral victories were consigned to a dungeon of the unconscious mind where the equally stunning by-election triumphs dwelt.
In Wales the canard that UKIP has experienced a boom in Wales was endlessly repeated and became part of an accepted lexicon of lies. The New Statesman gullibly re-echoed the myth of a UKIP Welsh surge based on the election 18 months ago under Miliband, wilfully ignoring the election four months ago in which UKIP lost support. This misses the point that if the Westminster election had been decided on the Welsh PR system, a factor now mentioned in the journal, UKIP would have had 83 seats in the Commons now instead of the one the FPTP system delivered. Had the Welsh Assembly election been decided under Westminster rules, UKIP would have won no seats. Therefore, the true news story in Wales is of a UKIP droop and Labour gains. Labour won three parliamentary seats under Carwyn Jones and Jeremy Corbyn in May 2016 that were lost under Miliband in 2015. A brilliant success.
Distinguished Welsh academic Richard Wyn Jones hailed, “The Labour Party in Wales’ remarkable record as the UK’s most successful electoral machine.” He said that the Welsh Labour brand now make the SNP look like ‘gauche arrivistes’. The gold truth of election victories was alchemised into dross in a desperate battle to create a fable of failure.
This month should put the lid on self-destruction. The party has grown with a great force of the politically inspired idealistic young. Traditional party members are angered by the avoidable internal battles. There is a new spirit of compromise.
Clive Betts presented his bid to change voting rules in a spirit of unity-seeking moderation. The Shadow Cabinet responded in a cooperative spirit. It would be a relief to get some of the best talents in PLP back on the front benches. The PLP was firmly and loudly supportive of Corbyn’s defenestration of May in the final PMQs before the conference break.
A year ago I wrote that party members had fallen in love with a principled, authentic partisan of Classic Labour. I hoped the country would follow. Unconventional politicians who break all the rules are succeeding across the world.
The gap year is over. The way ahead for the PLP and members now is ONE Leader (no quibbling or back-biting), ONE Party (no splits), and ONE Enemy (this awful Government).
Paul Flynn is shadow leader of the Commons, shadow Welsh secretary and Labour MP for Newport West