John McDonnell's Role Model
John is not the first member of the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) to fail to gain sufficient nominations to stand for the Leadership of the Labour Party. Ken Livingstone went down that path in 1992.
After Labour's defeat in the 1992 Election, Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley bounced the Labour Party into elections for Leader and Deputy by their premature resignations, which gave the Party little time to give the matter much thought.
We can hardly plead that we were unprepared this time - although what is happening is again devoid of questioning and analysis.
Trying To Talk Ken Out Of Standing
As soon as Neil and Roy announced their intention to resign, SCG weekly meetings were dominated by how we should respond. Opinions differed strongly, with some keen to push Ken Livingstone's candidature. After all, Ken enjoyed a high media profile.
Yet there were strong voices arguing against running any candidate. For a while no-one sort to test the water by moving for a vote on the matter. But time started to run out and those supporting Ken needed to move. This was done at a poorly attended meeting which was held as a parliament was either moving in or out of recess - I forget which.
There were only seven MPs present for the crucial meeting. These were Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, Ken Livingstone, John Austin (who was newly elected and was then known as John Austin-Walker), the late Bernie Grant, the late Bob Cryer and myself.
At that time, Ken and Bernie had been at loggerheads over the best way to pursue anti-racist activities. Ken was fully involved in the work of the Anti Racist Alliance, whilst Bernie was active with the Anti Nazi League. Ken and Bernie barely seemed to be on speaking terms.
It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Ken informed us that if he stood for the leadership he was in favour of Bernie standing as his running mate for the post of Deputy. Thankfully for Ken, Bernie liked the idea.
Dennis Skinner and Bob Cryer were strong supporters of the notion that the Group should run candidates, so they supported the proposal for a Ken-Bernie ticket.
Tony Benn was probably chairing the meeting, as he did not vote. John Austin-Walker and myself opposed the proposal, as we felt that it would be counter-productive both inside the newly elected Parliamentary Labour Party and throughout the wider movement.
Otherwise tied at 2-2 (Skinner and Cryer vs Austin-Walker and Barnes), the outcome was determined by the votes of the would-be candidates.
Needless to say without Ken and Bernie even having widespread support amongst the missing members of the SCG, they failed badly to obtain the required number of nominations from Labour MPs.
The last time the SCG moved successfully to secure a nomination for the Labour Leadership was in 1988 when Tony Benn challenged the then incumbent Leader, Neil Kinnock. Tony obtained only 11.4% of the vote. (This contest is not to be confused with his famous narrow defeat by Dennis Healy for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party in 1981, during the high-water mark of Bennism.)
Before Tony's name went forward, there were again lengthy weekly debates in the SCG. I remember Red Dawn's reaction (i.e. Dawn Primarolo) in particular. She was a strong supporter of Tony Benn's political position and initially she argued forcefully in support of him standing. But when she discussed the situation with left activists in her Bristol Constituency (the very people who she thought would support her line), she was shocked to find them repeating the same warnings that some of us were putting to her at SCG meetings. She then changed her stance. Perhaps this was the start of her move into the Gordon Brown camp.
An immediate consequence of Tony's failed candidature in 1988 was that the Labour Party raised the hurdle for MPs' nominations beyond the then 10% level - a move that was unhelpful to John McDonnell in the long run.
Yield Not To Temptation
The SCG and the left generally need to learn the futility in current circumstances of running their own candidates for top Labour positions. It takes activists to the top of the hill and lets them roll down again - as will be seen in John4Leader's comment box and on many a blog.
It was the above reasoning which led me to press for Peter Hain to stand for Leader and not just for Deputy. I judged that for the left he was a plausible candidate who would clear the nominations hurdle, run a campaign we could associate ourselves with and give us an opportunity to have a marginal influence on the future direction of the Party. I did not expect him to win, but to have some influence on Gordon Brown via his campaign.
As Peter did not stand for Leader (and few saw the significance of pushing him to stand), I eventually moved at the 11th hour to support John McDonnell - as (given the eventual lack of choice) I would have nominated him if I had still been an MP. Which is more than I did for Ken Livingstone in 1988.
But none of us should be placed in such a position. When it comes to issues as key as the Leadership of the Labour Party, the left and its MPs should make coherent moves to seek out feasible candidates. Unfortunately, that position has never won through in the SCG - except as below.
1988, 1992, 2007 Or 1994?
Although I know what went on in the SCG over the 1988 and 1992 Leadership contests, I'm not privy to what happened this year. But I am keen to find out.
There has, however, been one Leadership election where the SCG adopted the approach I favour. In 1994, I actively campaigned alongside Ken Livingstone and others for Margaret Beckett in the contest which Tony Blair won. Margaret might not seem to be a standard bearer for "left of centre" politics in current circumstances, but she did in 1994 (and for periods afterwards). At the least she would have maintained the Labourite stance of John Smith and would not have propagated a New Labour line - she was the Peter Hain of her time.