Joe Haines: We need another Wilson to enthuse Labour

Harold Wilson in 1974
Harold Wilson in 1974
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JEREMY Corbyn will receive a hero’s welcome when he addresses the Labour party conference next week. Understandably so. It’s the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong audience to expect any reality to dawn.

They will give him a standing ovation for whatever slogans he delivers in substitution for policy. They did the same for Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband. And they will put out of their minds – if it was ever in them – that those leaders were all losers.

None ever won a general election.

And delegates will continue to excoriate Tony Blair as they once did Harold Wilson, two men who won seven elections between them. That’s the Labour party I’ve always voted for, sometimes despairingly.

The collapse of Volkswagen and the sensationalised serialisation of Lord Ashcroft’s biography of David Cameron have taken the spotlight off Corbyn, for which he must be grateful.

On the front pages or not, the only question is how long will last? His first two weeks as Labour leader has shown him to be totally out of his depth. His flip-flopping on every policy he has ever proposed held is already a joke.

This inveterate opponent of the European Community is now in favour of it. This arch republican is preparing to swear a Privy Counsellor’s oath of allegiance to the Queen.

He will have to support Trident because that’s what the majority of his Shadow Cabinet will demand. He will support the Army and Nato, though he has argued for abolishing the one and leaving the other.

The white pacifist poppy will be changed to the red patriotic one. He will sing the National Anthem regularly once he has learned the words.

His one policy announcement which might attract the voters, the renationalisation of the railways, is conceived in such a hopeless form that it will never happen.

The extreme left minority of the party has at last achieved their 
triumph and they don’t know what to do with it.

Once upon a time, Corbyn and his running mates, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, could stoke up their fury on the backbenches of the House of Commons confident in the knowledge that their fiery words weren’t going to be listened to. Now every word is going to be scrutinised, dissected and held up to ridicule.

But what is the Parliamentary Labour Party going to do about it?

The centre-left of the party, where common sense largely resides, is in a fog of despair. They can’t see the way forward. They see that the party has no divine right to survive; that there is no light at the end of the tunnel because it is a cul-de-sac they are in and they have no one with a torch bright enough to lead them out of it.

The emergence of Corbyn reflects the failure of the Parliamentary party to provide one, partly because Gordon Brown and Miliband drove some of the ablest out of politics.

What is left is promising but largely untried talent: Chuka Umuna, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis and Rachel Reeves. (I exclude Andy Burnham: for the sake of a shadow post he has thrown in his lot with Corbyn).

They could learn a lesson from the one powerful and disciplined left-wing body that existed in the post-war PLP, the Tribune group or Bevanites. They organised, had their own meetings at the Commons, issued their own secret whips and publicised their own policies. They were a constant irritant to leaders of the party and frequently disloyal, twice plotting to remove Harold Wilson when he led the party, so the left could hardly complain if the centre took a leaf from their book.

But first the anti-Corbynites have to decide what they stand for, what policies they will project and, privately, decide how long they will tolerate Corbyn as leader. My guess is two years, at the most. The longer he stays, the more inevitable the defeat in 2020.

Some meetings have taken place, in secret. I doubt if anything yet has been decided, though all seem agreed that the catastrophe which was Ed Miliband’s legacy, the system of leadership elections which allows every Tom, Dick and Tory to buy a vote for £3, should be scrapped. It should be replaced by a simple rule which states that members should have at least a year’s membership before being eligible to take part. That would defeat the malicious (full party membership is much more expensive) and the union-inspired last-minute rush which enabled Corbyn to win.

But there is, as yet, no Gaitskell, no Wilson, no Blair to excite and enthuse the party to victory. That’s why the far left can create a new mythology, a fantasy world where Arthur Scargill, among many others, can say Labour lost the general election because it was not left-wing enough. (The last person to give advice on how to win an epic struggle is Mr Scargill, the man who sacrificed a great union to his ego and Mrs Thatcher).

Jeremy Corbyn began his leadership in dire straits, with a large majority of the Parliamentary party opposing him and huge support from recent recruits to the party – those who weren’t even members six months ago, who total only 0.5 percent of electorate and who will probably not be members in a year’s time –and would be smashed to small pieces in any conceivable general election at which he was leader.

He will depart, sooner rather than later before that day arrives, but the mythology will survive him. It always does. That’s why the Brighton conference will met in euphoria next week. For its sake, I hope it departs in gloom. It will all be very Romanesque: We who are about to die salute you, Jeremy. Or a few of us, anyway.

Joe Haines was press secretary to Harold Wilson.