As our leaders sit back and take stock during the holidays, they might reflect, not just on the daily parliamentary grind against Cameron and the coalition, but of something else: of the time that opposition affords parties to deal with their own problems and, in dealing with them, help show their fitness to govern.
They’re not small, these problems. The unfinished business of the party organisation, freely acknowledged by Tony Blair in A Journey, is coming back to haunt us, as it becomes clear that this year’s exercise of Refounding Labour has done precious little to advance, well, the refounding of anything at all.
The party machine now finds itself caught in a giant pincer movement: in the North it is in a race against time to sort out its broken party so that it is in a state to fight Salmond before he springs the referendum on them in 2014 or 2015. And in the South it has the problem of London: of Ken fighting an election he is surely destined to lose, in an Olympic year when all eyes will be on London; of Tower Hamlets and left-wing politics in the East End, from which a faint odour has been increasing with each passing year; and of the Jewish community which has surely been alienated until after the next general election, let alone the London one.
Scottish Labour had a chance which it last week failed to grasp. Realistically, it was probably never going to vote for Tom Harris, but it could have voted for Ken Macintosh, whom at least the membership wanted. The candidate list was weak overall, and the mood amongst Scottish Labour favouring MSPs over MPs, coupled with it being a pretty poisoned chalice anyway, meant that Westminster’s big guns stayed at home.
The result is that Scots now have a choice between a very familiar Alex Salmond, who they don’t necessarily trust 100%, but who is the devil they know: and a Johann Lamont, decent enough but whom they’ve never heard of and who was elected thanks only to the union vote. At first glance, it seems like racing a well-travelled racehorse against a small pony, on its first outing and with a bit of a gammy leg. We shall see.
And so we come to London. Of course we must fight to win, but let’s face facts: we have also made a misjudgement in selecting a candidate who has already lost once. Forget the baggage, forget the polls, although there are tough stories on both: for Ken to go on and win would be the first time in British politics a losing figure had done so in a major election since Harold Wilson won in 1974. (Moreover, from a worse base: Wilson’s 1970 loss was an upset for the pollsters, who expected him to win. Ken’s was not.)
Next, Tower Hamlet’s ex-Labour mayor, Lutfur Rahman, yesterday won an adjudication from the Press Complaints Commission against the Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, the claim being essentially that Gilligan was smearing him. Gilligan has previous on this – let’s not forget his key role in the David Kelly affair – but the reality is not so straightforward. The part of the complaint dealing with Gilligan’s describing the Islamic Forum Europe (IFE) as “extremist” and Rahman as “extremist-backed” was not upheld. This story is clearly by no means over, whether or not you trust Gilligan’s journalism. Labour is currently holding its nerve about not readmitting him to the party. It needs to continue to do so.
Finally, let’s not forget the sterling work that various senior members of the party have done during 2011 to alienate the Jewish community, two-thirds of whom live in Greater London. First there was the invitation of racist preacher Raed Salah to speak at Parliament; recently, the botched reaction to the foolish comments of Paul Flynn on the ambassador to Israel; and finally, well, Ken is not exactly loved in the Jewish community, as Nick Cohen reports, whether we like this fact or not. And his open support of independent Rahman, who has refused to deny links to the IFE, and his council’s to unsavoury Islamist preachers such as Abdul Raheem Green only serves to reinforce this (not to mention alienating many in the East End party, who will now not campaign for him). And yes, in brutal electoral terms, the Jewish vote is dwarfed by the Muslim vote in London, but that kind of thinking leads us only to a very ugly place, as Cohen points out.
Labour has a window to sort itself out, which is a mere three-and-a-half more years under Miliband. After that, there are really only two possibilities: he will either be in office, with other concerns, like Blair: or on the back benches (the probability of staying on after a defeat has to be close to zero).
But the real work in Scotland and London needs to be now, in what will be the crux year of 2012. We must use this year wisely: our party, and perhaps the very integrity of our country, depend on it.
This post first published at LabourList