Andrew Whitaker: Hypocrisy of the Corbyn-bashers

Corbyn has had a torrid time of late with senior party figures quick to question his competence. Picture: PA
Corbyn has had a torrid time of late with senior party figures quick to question his competence. Picture: PA
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Those quick to criticise the new leader used to be the party’s attack dogs against dissent, writes Andrew Whitaker

Jeremy Corbyn must feel as though the forces of the world are ranged against him, with hardly a week passing when there is not some sort of scathing attack on his leadership by senior Labour figures.

Mr Corbyn could be forgiven for thinking that Labour grandees and rising stars in the party are queuing up to take a swing at him and that there’s little chance of a respite anytime soon.

There’s been no shortage of big hitters laying into him, with senior cabinet ministers from the Blair years such as John Reid and David Blunkett among the most vitriolic.

Lord Blunkett said Mr Corbyn “has got a lot to learn” as leader of the opposition and warned time was running out for him to prove himself, despite the Labour leader being elected by a decisive margin with over 50 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting less than three months ago.

Fellow former Home Secretary Lord Reid went as far as saying that Mr Corbyn had not appeared “competent” on national security issues in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

New Labour-oriented politicians of a more recent vintage, of the likes of defeated leadership contender Liz Kendall and the prominent MP Chuka Umunna, have also voiced early criticisms.

Of course Labour members at all levels of the party have the right to take Mr Corbyn at his word from the summer’s leadership contest when he promised a more open and tolerant party, with critics of the leadership free to speak out against any decision they disagreed with.

Much has been made of Mr Corbyn’s previous status as a serial rebel against Labour governments over issues such as the last Iraq war, the introduction of tuition fees and cuts to single parents’ benefits.

But even taking into account the right of Labour MPs, former cabinet ministers and rank and file members to disagree whenever they wish with the current leadership, it’s worth taking a trip down memory lane to seek comparison - say about 20 years ago when some of Mr Corbyn’s most strident current detractors were right at the top of the party.

Think back to the mid-1990s or more specifically the period from 1994 to 1997 - the time in between Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader and the party’s historic landslide win in 1997.

What’s indisputable is that it felt like a period of change, with the UK electorate thoroughly fed up with the Tory government that was engulfed in what seemed like daily sleaze scandals and regularly looking out of touch and extreme with opposition to policies like a national minimum wage. It was a time when Britpop music was on the airwaves and the well publicised battle for supremacy - for those old enough to remember - between the bands Blur and Oasis was at its height.

Seminal dramas like Our Friends in the North, that referenced many real political and social events from the 1960s to the 1990s, starring the then emerging talented actors like Daniel Craig and Christopher Eccleston, graced the UK’s TV screens at around this time.

Mr Blair, the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, represented in the minds of many voters an image of a desire for change, not seen since 1964 when another young Labour leader Harold Wilson dislodged a Tory government exhausted by scandal and years of incumbency.

But what was also a defining characteristic of the mid-1990s was the iron-like discipline associated with Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party and what some would criticise as the “control freakery” of New Labour.

There was an immensely understandable mood in Labour that after nearly two decades of Tory rule, the party had to avoid rifts and disunity at all costs, if it was to end its lengthy period in the political wilderness.

But in Mr Blair’s new-model Labour of that time, the new orthodoxy meant no criticism or dissent at all of the leadership, and a top-down structure arguably never seen before in the party.

As long-cherished policy positions like backing for free university education and a commitment to public ownership were abandoned, anyone raising even moderate concerns was singled out as someone who wasn’t serious about winning the forthcoming General Election.

Figures like Peter Mandelson, then close to being at the height of his powers in the party, regularly hit out at anyone with lingering Old Labour tendencies or those displaying even mild criticism of the leadership.

Lord Blunkett, then shadow education minister, rounded on arch-party moderate Roy Hattersley at the 1995 party conference after the former deputy leader received a standing ovation from delegates for calling for a drive against the UK’s remaining grammar schools and declaring: “For God’s sake let’s stop apologising about comprehensive schools.”

Blunkett suggested that Lord Hattersley was among those in the party’s ranks who “believe that they and they alone are the custodians of the Holy Grail” of social justice.

The party leadership also showed itself to be utterly incapable of tolerating Labour people with different shades of opinion and steadfastly used its iron-like grip over the party machine to block those on the left of the party from standing as General Election candidates.

Probably the most extreme and high example of such instances in the mid-1990s was when the left-wing lawyer Liz Davies was vetoed as a party candidate in a key marginal seat despite overwhelmingly being the democratic choice of the local party in the constituency of Leeds North East after a televised selection contest.

In the years that followed, the way Mr Blair moved to effectively block Ken Livingstone from being Labour’s mayoral candidate in 2000 as well as showing opposition to having the moderate but “Old Labourish” Rhodri Morgan as the party’s candidate for Welsh First Secretary were also arguably examples of an intolerance to put up with anyone not signed up to the gospel of New Labour.

But whatever episodes one chooses to raise from the years of Mr Blair’s ascendency and dominance of Labour, it’s not too difficult to go back and pick out members of the cast from those days who were pretty quick to round on those offering a critical perspective of various elements of New Labour.

Yet in a strange political twist, figures such as Lord Reid and Lord Blunkett appear to need little encouragement to speak out against their own party.