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Balls, Labour leadership., Miliband

Labour leadership candidates: ‘wasn’t us guv’.

 The odd thing about the Labour leadership contest, nominations for which closed yesterday,  is that the leading candidates all appear to have been elsewhere during the last 13 years of Labour government.  How else can we account for their disowning so many of the policies pursued by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

    The former cabinet secretary Ed Balls has recently discovered that the government of which he was a prominent member was letting in far too many immigrants. And the Iraq war was a “dangerous mistake for which the country has paid a heavy price”.  Well he kept that to himself.   David Miliband agrees that immigration got out of control in the Labour years and that the government let down Labour voters.  Oh, and the former foreign secretary never supported the policy of regime change in Iraq . 

Of course, his little bro’, Ed, was supposedly too young to  understand what Labour’s policies were in the dark ages of Tony Blair.  Miliband minor can’t be held responsible for what he calls the “catastrophic loss of trust” caused by the war in Iraq because he wasn’t in parliament.  Mind you, I don’t recall this political activist supporting the million people who marched against the war or putting his name to the various petitions denouncing the invasion of Baghdad. And as a cabinet minister Ed Miliband was curiously silent while Gordon Brown, was selling off the family silver, trying to build third runways at Heathrow and selling us all to the banks. The final middle-class-white-male-forty-something candidate, Andy Burnham, is so far to the right of the ConDems on immigration, crime and antisocial behaviour that he practically needs a party of his own.  

  But, hey: the past is another country.   Labour is renewing itself in opposition by disowning almost everything it did in government apart from the minimum wage, sure start and civil partnerships.  All five Labour leadership candidates seem to have been privately opposed to Gordon Brown’s devil’s bargain with the City of London which gave us deregulation, non doms, dangerous speculation and the credit crunch.  Pity they didn’t do anything to stop him.   Everyone appears to have been on holiday when the decision was taken to step up the war in Afghanistan – that’s the one John Reid the former defence secretary said could be over without a shot being fired.  Manufacturing industry was allowed to decline against the wishes of just about everyone – it’s just that they forgot to say so.  And the record public spending deficit was a tragic and inexplicable accident that struck ministers dedicated to sound finances. 

   As the memoirs tumble out of politicians great and small it looks like the epitaph from the Labour years has to be: “It wasn’t me guv”.  Or: hypocrisy means never having to say you’re sorry. Even the heritage left-wing candidate, Diane Abbott, upholder of the rights of the single mother, ethnic minorities and state education has sent her children to a fee-paying school. Abbott – a tv personality with zero credibility in the PLP – is a dismal standard bearer for the feminist Left. Why did Harriet Harman not stand herself since she’s been doing the job rather well for the last few weeks?  This was surely the sisterhood’s big chance.  

     But the prize for barefaced hypocrisy must go to John Prescott heard on BBC radio lambasting the Tory MP for Richmond, Zac Goldsmith, for allegedly trying to block the construction of affordable homes for ordinary working people.   I’m sorry?  Who exactly has been in government for the last thirteen years of unaffordable housing?  Who presided over the most dangerous real estate bubble in history?  House prices tripled under Labour thanks to tax breaks to buy-to-let and a policy of not building council homes – or any kind of homes.  John Prescott’s signal contribution was the “Pathfinder” programme to demolish thousands of empty houses in the north of England in the hope that this would push up prices and attract commercial developers.  But let bygones be bygones.  We now have a contest to lead a Not-the-Labour-Party which hasn’t a clue what it stands for anymore 

    And what does it all mean for Scotland?  Well, quite a lot really. For,  this leadership contest marks the passing of an era in UK Labour politics which was dominated by a unique generation of Scots. Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, John Reid, Robin Cook, George Robertson, Brian Wilson, Des Browne,  Adam Ingram,  Donald Dewar, Douglas Alexander, George Foulkes – the list went on and on.  Even the Speaker was Scottish – Michael Martin, the Labour MP for Springburn or “Gorbals Mick” to his metropolitan detractors   Indeed, there used to be mutterings about a “Scottish Raj” of caledonian cabinet ministers ruling England. Not anymore.  The Scottish Raj is now safely ensconced in the House of Lords or in the boardrooms of defence companies.  There are precious few of the new intake who are of the same calibre as the devolution generation.  With this Scottish lodestone gone Labour  in future will likely be much more responsive to English policy issues.  I think this is why, all of a sudden, we are seeing immigration becoming a touchstone issue in the Labour election.  A remarkable development when you remember that Labour has traditionally rejected public concern about immigration as inherently racist. Which is why, during the general election campaign, when Gordon Brown described Gillian Duffy  as a “bigoted woman”.

  The new leader may also take the housing crisis rather more seriously than in the past.  Gordon Brown never quite understood just how desperate young lower middle class voters in England feel about being locked out of the housing market.  In Kirkcaldy until very recently you could pick up housing for a fraction of what they cost in the South East of England.  Broon thought high house prices were a good thing because it made people feel well off.  Now we realise that it just means more and more debt for the next generation. 
  So is Labour going to  discover what it stands for in this leadership election?  So far, I don’t see much sign of it.  Perhaps a great debate will begin over the summer.  But Abbott aside, the candidates are ideologically opaque except  for immigration. This really won’t do.  Labour needs truth and reconciliation, not selective amnesia.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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