Monday, 27 February 2017

Gerald Kaufman leaves. And is Jeremy Corbyn preparing a backhanded tribute?

Gerald Kaufman, who has just died aged 86, at least fulfilled his wish of remaining an MP until the end of his life. He represented a tough Manchester constituency, today called Gorton, steadily increasing his majorities by dint of being an excellent local MP, until it reached over 24,097 votes at the latest General Election.

Gerald Kaufman 21 June 1930-26 February 2017
Acerbic, awkward, accurate
He had a way of getting up people's noses, certainly irritating those in power, including in power in his own party. That prevented him ever reaching Cabinet rank. He made his mark in other ways, though. In one that appealed to me, he was highly critical of the Israeli government despite being a Jew, precisely as I am.

But the statement of his I most like was his description of the 1983 Labour manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”. The manifesto, written when Labour was led by Michael Foot and his deputy Tony Benn, was a long and indigestible statement of policies which appealed to few in the electorate.

At the 1983 general election, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher increased their number of MPs by 38 while Labour lost 52. The Conservatives, who had held a comfortable majority of 44 seats, emerged with a landslide of 144 seats, despite losing 700,000 votes.

It was Labour’s worst result since 1918, though I rather suspect we’re heading towards setting a new record at the next election.

Back then, Tony Benn, deputy leader of the Labour Party and flag carrier for the radical left, was proud of the manifesto. It was, he felt, the first truly socialist manifesto the Party had fought on and, the implication seemed to be, if Labour kept working to such manifestos, in the long run voters would rally to its appeal. The party would be returned to government and radical change would follow.

In the meantime, we had a Thatcher government with a massive majority. There was certainly radical change but not, I hope, of the kind Benn had intended.

Benn saw the policies as appealing. Kaufman saw them as a suicide note. Even when Labour finally returned to power, under Blair, it pursued policies heavily marked by Thatcher’s influence. The toxins she spread affect us still.

So I’m inclined to think that Kaufman assessed things considerably more accurately than Benn did.

In the statement issued about his death, his family pointed out that Kaufman “never believed that policies, however attractive, meant anything without the power to act on them”. That strikes me as a view it’s difficult to deny. So it’s interesting to see how Jeremy Corbyn has reacted to the latest crushing defeat suffered by Labour, when it lost a by-election in the Copeland seat.

He’s asked for more time to prepare – some appealing policies.

This begs two questions. The first is why he hasn’t been able to get his policies in place in the last eighteen months: he has a staff, he has advisers. The second is still more fundamental: why does he believe that a party’s appeal is based on its policies? In 1983, they had plenty of policies. Loads of the blasted things. To the point of tedium. The problem was that voters simply couldn’t see Michael Foot as Prime Minister.

Just as, today, only a tiny minority of the electorate see Corbyn as a potential Prime Minister.

Ah, well. Perhaps Corbyn’s working on a kind of backhanded tribute to Kaufman: another long-winded litany of fine policies no one will read and everyone will mock. Just like Benn.

In fact, he may be crafting another fine suicide note. Not just for Labour, of course. Again, it’ll be for all of us.

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