Sunday, May 20, 2007

Beyond Our Ken

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.

Crunch Time

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.

Tony's Contribution

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.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting post, Harry!

Of course, I am among those who are disappointed by how recent events have unfolded - I would have liked to see John on the ballot. Personally, I think that, had John made on to the ballot, he could have made Brown's eyes water by giving him a good "kick in the ballots" , so to speak.

Furthermore, I feel that the lack of a contest takes away not only Gordon's Brown legitimacy as Labour leader (which in my view is a position which he has not earned), but Labour's legitimacy as a Party of "the many, not the few".

As far as I see it - but, then again, you would know much better than I - the Deputy Leadership race is a non-contest; absolutely trivial in its importance to the Party.

At any rate, the John McDonnell campaign, though short-lived, will, hopefully, be the first step towards building - re-building (?)-a powerful Labour Left.

What do you think, Comrade?



Harry Barnes said...


I feel that John has run as effective a campaign as is possible from his political perspective. Much better than the Benn in 1988 and Livingstone in 1992. My main differences with John's position are not so much over his socialist aims, as over the relevance of his methods.(This means I can be driven at times to back him and at other times to criticise him.)

Given the general weakness of the Left, I feel that SCG candidates seeking the Leadership is a mistaken and counter-productive move. It drives activists further into the wilderness. Many become temporarly optimistic, then when the Leadership campaign collapses they become either more depressed or more extremist then ever.

All the best,

susan press said...

Harry , didn't Ken Livingstone only get 11 nominations? The point was John could have done it had those who made promises delivered. That's my understanding anyway. I truly think if he thought he wasn't going to get the nominations he would have pulled out after his initial meeting with Meacher.He was utterly realistic about his chances. Most of us who supproted the campaign never thought John could win against Brown but his campaign showed he could win support and,hopefully, help us turn the Party round in the future. You are right in the sense that maybe we all expected a bit too much. There also seems to be widespread animosity to the SCG MPs - something I suppose I didn't realise. I have just had an e-mail from Alice Mahon saying she is in despair and I suppose that's what happens when you raise the stakes far beyond fringe meetings.
But don't blame John and his team. Blame the cravenness of the PLP for not realising it wastheir duty to ensure there was an election because the Party desperately needed one. This was not 1988. I remenber thinking the Livingstone/Grant ticket in 1994 was madness. And even the Tony Benn attempt in 1988.
The time was right for a "comradely debate." The tragedy is that the PLP couldn't see it.

Harry Barnes said...


I believe that Ken received 11 nominations. It came up as I was searching the web, but I moved past it and could not find the source again. I refused to nominate Ken or anyone else for the Leadership - not even John Smith at that time. But I submitted 5 questions to the Leadership and Deputy Leadership candidates. These and the answers I received were covered in articles I wrote for the "Morning Star". So I contributed in some small way to a mini debate.

I had intended nominating Ann Clwyd for Deputy (she has a Left/Centre record and her current views on Iraq are shaped by the strong support she has given for the Kurds in Iraq, via some honourable work with CARDRI -even though I see her as wrong on the invasion). When she withdrew from the contest, I nominated John Prescott, who was also centre-left at the time. But later turned out to be Blair's ungroomed poodle.

I understand Alice's stance and hence her feelings. I think her reaction of despiration adds to my views (e.g. in my repsonse to mikael).I am much more philosophical about the situation and expect the left to be sold down the river in such matters. We need strategies that appreciate the problems we face. I am not arguing for surrender, but for tactical nous.

It is the Left which now needs the comradely debate.

Matt Buck said...

Harry, I found your blog via Mark Crail's myTimemachine - and I'm glad I have. Pleaes forgive the comment spam, but I'd like to point you in the direction of this site, if you ahven't found it already.

Harry Barnes said...

Matt Buck


susan press said...

Harry, having got over my initial upset I am going to the Compass conference onJune 9 where you'll be glad to learn the LRC is having a seminar and a stall. Brown is obviously determined to finish the job Blair started by destroying the Left. Wish us luck!

Harry Barnes said...


In order;my priorities that weekend are (a) our daughter's birthday, (b) a discussion week-end by Independent Labour Publications (the old ILP's modern title), (c) a Labour Party discussion meeting I have organised for my local branch and (d) Compass. I am making amends for missing the ILP by a submission I will eventually post as a blog item. Whilst I have to see that the local Labour meeting is organised to run smoothly without me. So Compass will be entirely missed out. As Leftish (and open) New Labour they provide some useful links - as long as no-one has illusions about them.

Best of luck.