FORMER Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has invoked the memory of the late John Smith to warn the party against choosing an “unelectable” left-wing candidate as leader.
Mr Brown made his first intervention in the party leadership yesterday as polls suggested the left-wing contender Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner for victory in the contest.
He told supporters how Mr Smith appealed for the “opportunity to serve” at a public meeting on the night of his death 21 years ago. He added: “He didn’t say ‘I want the opportunity to protest’.”
Although Mr Brown did not mention Mr Corbyn by name, his comments were widely seen as an attempt to warn that the Islington North MP would consign Labour to the status of a “permanent party of protest” if he wins the contest next month.
Mr Brown, whose intervention in the independence campaign last year was seen by many as having swung the vote in favour of No, made his first foray in the Labour leadership contest with a London speech yesterday. He recalled the late Mr Smith, who replaced Neil Kinnock as party leader but died while he was leader of the opposition in 1994.
Mr Brown said: “What did John Smith say? I was there, I was sitting across from him the night tragically that he died in 1994. He was addressing a meeting and what did he say?
“‘All I ask’, he said, ‘is the opportunity to serve’.
“He didn’t say ‘I want the opportunity to protest’. He didn’t say ‘I want the opportunity to make a song and dance about this policy or that policy’.
“He said ‘I need and I want the opportunity to serve – to form a government’, to take action to relieve the suffering that he described around him, to make a difference to society.” In a high-profile 50-minute speech in London he did not mention Mr Corbyn – viewed as unelectable by many Labour MPs – but warned of the consequences of becoming a “party of protest”.
The former prime minister said the party must learn from its history that only by being elected has it been able to implement Labour policies.
He acknowledged the party was “grieving” after its general election defeat, but said: “There is one thing worse than having broken hearts, it is powerlessness.
“Our hearts can be broken and yet it is worse to find out we are powerless to do anything about it. To see a wrong and not be able to right it, to see an injustice and not be able to correct it, to see suffering and be able to do nothing about it, to see pain and know you cannot heal it, to see good that needs to be done and change that needs to be made and not to be in a position to do it.
“When I know, and I argued, and I think you believe, that the only way that we can avert the pain and end the suffering is by securing in the future the election of a Labour government to deliver on our priorities.
“And when I see the opinion polls that say the one grouping in the party that is likely to get most votes is the one grouping that even its own supporters say is least likely to be able to form a government, then we have to look at the lessons of our history.”
In a clear indication he was warning about the impact of a victory for Mr Corbyn, he singled out some of the would-be leader’s potential foreign allies.
Mr Brown said: “If we are going to solve the problems of both the global economy, global finance, global climate change, if we are going to solve the problems of global inequality and poverty, we will need a level of global co-operation to match our national endeavours that is higher and at a far more sustained and advanced level than ever before. And I have to say, if our global alliances are going to be alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, there is no chance of building a worldwide alliance that could deal with poverty and inequality and climate change and financial instability.”
In an apparent reference to Mr Corbyn’s refusal to rule out campaigning for a British exit from the European Union, Mr Brown added: “How can we say that for progressives the best way of facing the future is to abandon co-operation with Europe, to leave our membership of the European Union just at the time when our leadership is needed more than ever to fight protectionism and xenophobic isolationism and all the extremes of racism, discrimination and prejudice?”
With ballot papers for the contest arriving and voting beginning in the coming days, Mr Brown said the party had to offer “hope” that it could be an alternative government.
His speech was delivered in the symbolic Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, scene of the victory party that greeted Labour’s 1997 landslide.
Mr Brown said: “Remember that we seek power for a purpose. We seek power out of principle. But we cannot win power if we do not win the people.”
Mr Corbyn’s camp insisted he was the candidate “most likely to engage with voters beyond Labour’s existing supporters” and credibility did not mean signing up to austerity.
A spokesman said: “Gordon Brown has highlighted the need for a Labour Party that stands for hope, that is credible, radical and electable – on which basis the best candidate to vote for is Jeremy Corbyn.
“Jeremy Corbyn’s clear plans for growth-led recovery rather than austerity mark him out as the candidate offering hope and drawing in thousands of new people in the process. Polls vary but most have shown that Jeremy Corbyn is the candidate most likely to engage with voters beyond Labour’s existing supporters.”
Mr Corbyn is competing for the Labour Party leadership against Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.