Richard Heller: How Labour’s big beasts became extinct species

IN viewing Labour’s leadership contest, it is depressing to remember the riches on offer to the party in 1976 when Harold Wilson retired.

The six candidates were Jim Callaghan, the eventual winner, Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Tony Crosland. In such a race of political thoroughbreds, the present four selling-platers would never have made the starting gates.

The six 1976 candidates were all highly talented politicians with a record of achievement outside politics (Callaghan is less known for this than the others but he was a highly competent trade union official). Five had served in the Second World War.

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Above all, each of the 1976 candidates had made his own way in British politics. Whether in opposition or government, none of the six had ever been a leadership stooge. They had established their reputations as serious politicians during Labour’s long Left-Right battles of the 1950s and 1960s (it is worth remembering that Benn was then a Right-Wing party moderniser).

In two demanding periods of government, they had all brought some personal agenda, with varying success, to their departments.

Of course, in 1976 each of the six was striving to become Prime Minister as well as party leader, and in those far-off days the choice was left to MPs alone, and by a secret ballot. It sounds terribly undemocratic, but it remains the only workable system for a governing party.

For Labour in 1976, it ensured that the leader was chosen by a politically sophisticated electorate, who knew how the candidates performed where it mattered, in Parliament and government.

Labour was then in office with a tiny majority, coping with a deep-seated economic crisis. Over a third of Labour MPs were part of that government and although some undoubtedly hoped for personal preferment, all of them had an overwhelming motive to choose a capable Prime Minister. MPs defending marginal seats also had to judge which new leader would be the biggest vote-winner.

The MP-only electorate spared candidates the chore of devising slogans and mini-manifestoes, or promising to listen and learn and create a new kind of politics, or babbling all the other current bromides that leave uncommitted voters cold. MPs knew already what each candidate would bring.

Moreover, Labour MPs, even ministers, were far more independent in 1976 than they are today. Their selection was less dependent on the party leadership, and their activity was less controlled. No fewer than 129 (from 318) were sponsored by trade unions. Again, this might sound shocking today (the system was abolished shortly after Tony Blair became leader) but it gave sponsored MPs an agenda and support mechanism which was independent of the party leadership.

Labour MPs, even in government, were accustomed to arguing about policy or principle. A year earlier Harold Wilson had to allow ministers and MPs to campaign against their government policy’s on remaining in what was still called the Common Market. In 1976, Denis Healey faced down vigorous resistance to his economic policies during the sterling crisis.

In sum, the six candidates in 1976 had received a rigorous training for the party leadership and were judged by a tough-minded electorate.

Both of these conditions vanished during the Blair-Brown era. MPs and ministers were penalised rather than rewarded for showing signs of independent thought. In a precise reversal of their constitutional role, Blair demanded early in his Premiership that Labour MPs should act as “ambassadors for the government” in their constituencies: most obeyed, regurgitating government propaganda, however drivelling, and staying “on message.”

Blair stifled arguments about policy, never mind principle and purpose in government, by constantly proclaiming his support for “what works”, as if his chosen policies worked for everybody, although plenty of his policies clearly did not work for anybody except the special interests who demanded them or the expensive consultants who created them. He regularly claimed the support of all progressive and reasonable people, sometimes the entire British people. Such claims could sound close to fascism – they certainly discouraged dissent.

Gordon Brown’s advent made no difference. Unlike the Gaitskell-Bevan struggle, the long Blair-Brown rivalry was about personality, not principle or policy. Neither Blair nor Brown liked independent-minded ministers. Their choices were more memorable for their resignations than their achievements. In the crisis, Brown was so short of able ministers that he had to recall Peter Mandelson and load him with offices.

New Labour simply did not raise thoroughbreds. The present four have risen without trace: two unremembered ex-ministers, two with no record in government at all, one of those the legatee of the man who came close to destroying the party in the 1980s. A desperately-ill party now faces a choice between one faith healer and three undertakers’ mutes.

• Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey. His latest book, The Importance Of Not Being Earnest, is a study of Britain’s lost literary genius, Luke Upward.