Labour must learn from the time when Neil Kinnock nearly sacked me – Brian Wilson

Given the size of the Conservative majority, Labour must embrace hard graft in committees, cross-party working and iron discipline in order to provide effective opposition, writes Brian Wilson.

Neil Kinnock, interviewed during a visit to Edinburgh in August 1991, enforced strict party discipline that helped turn Labour into a credible political force (Picture: Hamish Campbell)
Neil Kinnock, interviewed during a visit to Edinburgh in August 1991, enforced strict party discipline that helped turn Labour into a credible political force (Picture: Hamish Campbell)

When I became an MP in 1987, the Tories had an overall majority of 102. Today, they have an overall majority of 80. So let me recall a few lessons.

Opposition in these circumstances is hard work. If there is to be any chance of recovery, the opposition requires to behave with iron discipline, as if the deficit was eight rather than 80. That is how Labour, under Neil Kinnock, approached a similar chasm.

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In these days, we caught the sleeper to Glasgow on a Thursday night. I trailed home one morning to be greeted by my wife with news that Neil had been on the phone to tell her, with great personal regret, that he was going to have to sack me from my front-bench role for missing a vote the previous night.

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I quickly put two and two together. On the train, I had read a diary item which ridiculed a Tory MP with the surname Wolfson for having voted in both lobbies. He hadn’t. The clerk misheard and my name had not been ticked off. Relief all round and my career survived.

But it remains a powerful illustration of just what a tight ship Kinnock ran and the dedication night after night, with which we fought first Thatcher, then Major in order to rebuild Labour’s credibility and gradually erode the Tory majority. It still took another decade to regain power under Tony Blair.

Platitudes and postering

Nobody who does not understand the scale of the task and the need for that kind of discipline should even be standing for Labour’s leadership. Platitudes and posturing will deliver nothing. It is how Labour is perceived, inside and outside Parliament, that will determine credibility.

And it is only credibility – currently at its lowest in history – that will determine electability. The Tories went through a similar decade thereafter with unelectable leaders – Hague, Howard, Duncan-Smith – before the pendulum was ready to swing. Credibility takes a lot longer to build than to destroy.

Opposition MPs of all parties have been operating in a fool’s paradise. There were minority governments, votes mattered and the House of Commons was a theatre of interest to a wider audience. Forget most of that for the next few years. There is now a Government with a majority that allows it to do pretty much what it likes.

For that, I hold two elements responsible. First, the Labour Party for having ignored all lessons of history and persisted with an unelectable leadership.

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Second, the self-deluded who repeatedly voted (in the same lobby as right-wing Tories) against Theresa May’s Brexit deal while blithely ignoring the risk of something much worse. Where now are the daft proceduralists who were going to stop Brexit? The last step in that march to the precipice was led by the Lib Dems (suicidally) and SNP (cynically) to give Mr Johnson the election of his choosing at the time of his choosing on the terms of his choosing. An entirely predictable outcome ensued. Huffing and puffing about the injustice of it all will quickly become a bore in the mouths of the impotent – none more so than the “gie’s another referendum” brigade.

That was very much the tone of this week’s Commons debates on the EU Withdrawal Bill around a series of amendments designed to negate the effects of leaving the EU.

In each case, the time to negotiate was while there was a hung Parliament – not after the Tories were handed their majority. It was all pointless grandstanding. On emotive issues like the right of migrant children to join their families and Erasmus, the programme which helps young people to study abroad, ministers insisted such schemes will remain; they just won’t be dependent on EU membership and directives. We shall see, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I suspect the Johnson regime will show more guile than is assumed.

The certainty is that if opposition MPs are going to contribute to such desirable outcomes, it will be through hard graft in committees and cross-party working – and not by making the same old speeches at full volume to an ever-diminishing audience.