Yesterday’s by-election result in Brecon and Radnorshire came as no surprise. For the past thirty years the seat has been a LibDem-Tory marginal and the leave-remain divide just adds another overlay. Labour’s share of the vote, at 5%, though dreadful for the main opposition party, was widely predicted.
It however did lead me to still more reflection on some questions that have been occupying my thoughts over the last few months: can the Labour Party be saved and, indeed, is it worth saving? My musing was given a further stimulus because of some of my own Labour Party history, in particular my years as a precocious teenage activist in Cardiff.
The Chair of the Cardiff North Labour for much the mid 60s was Caerwyn Roderick, a secondary school teacher. He was a most generous man and patient and helpful to me. I can remember how grateful he was for my maladroit efforts on the doorstep in one of the 1964 General Election. Now, like many agricultural areas, Brecon and Radnorshire was not always a hopeless prospect and it has been a Labour seat. In the early 1970s Caerwyn became the MP and held on despite changing demographics until he lost to the Tories in 1979. During his time in Parliament he continued to offer me much helpful advice and indeed came to speak on my behalf when I became a candidate myself.
Last week I delved further into Caerwyn’s background and politics. He came from Ystradgynlais a mining village that was at the top of a South Wales Valley but geographically part of Breconshire (now Powys). It was one of a group of similar communities that gave Labour its core vote. Unsurprisingly Caerwyn had been a great admirer of Nye Bevan. In Parliament he joined the Tribune Group and was Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to left-wingers Eric Heffer, Tony Benn and Michael Foot.
Now to aspire to power Labour has needed to maintain a balance between an ideological, Marxist influenced, left, and a pragmatic social democratic right. Nye Bevan always appreciated that fact: he could not have had the opportunity to implement the social transformation that was the National Health Service without reaching an accommodation with the pragmatic Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison.
The leader of the time, Clement Attlee had both the ability and determination to hold the Labour coalition together. This has been true of all his successors until, but not including, the current leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. One of these successors, Neil Kinnock wrote of his struggles in the 1980s: ‘The contest in the Labour Party was between those people who put a premium on getting power in the Labour Party and those on getting power for the Labour Party’. [i]This is even more so today. Many hard-core Corbynistas are simply interested in control of the Party as a vehicle in preparation for some fantasy revolution.
So, returning to my questions, it is because of people like Caerwyn Roderick that I will stay in and join the efforts to save the Labour Party. I retain that emotional bond. Accordingly I have renewed participation in the All Members Meetings of the North Norfolk Labour Party – and an extraordinary experience it has been. At a poorly attended July meeting the person sitting next to me took it upon himself to interrupt every time I sought to make a point. He moved on from counter-arguments to interjections of balderdash and then finally in desperation resorted to loud theatrical coughing. So much for the kinder, gentler politics that we were all promised when Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Now, to be fair, several members present attempted to intercede on my behalf. More importantly the current Chair intervened to try to give me a decent hearing and indeed has subsequently written out reminding the Executive of the Party’s Code of Conduct. This is to his great credit since he has a very different perspective on the state of the Party to the one that I hold.
Attending local Labour Party meetings these days is like being in the wrong stand with opposing supporters at a football match. They suddenly discover you are not one of them and act with hostility. The factional divide is now so deep that the Party may not continue to be a credible force, bumping along polling around the high 20%s in a good election year. I wonder what Caerwyn would have thought.
leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges. If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.