Martin Salter - working hard for Reading West

An Open Letter to my Party

Lets try not to make ‘political oblivionthe choice for Labour tomorrow

Dont worry, this is not another missive from some ageing political hack urging you to vote for a particular candidate when the ballot opens for the election of a new Leader and Deputy Leader of our party on Friday. You crack on and vote for whoever you think will lead us back from the parlous place we now occupy – an endangered species in Scotland, a decidedly minority party in England and a fading force in Wales - to victory at the next election. Uncomfortable as this plain truth is for some on the political fringes, politics is necessarily about power. Power to turn our policies and principles into practical action for the benefit of those who most need a Labour government and who can ill afford to live through another decade, or whatever, of a rampant Tory administration untroubled by any effective opposition and cheered on by a craven media.

For sure we can vote for a leader who makes us feel good about ourselves and go to the country with a manifesto that burnishes our socialist credentials but in reality is nothing more than the  ‘longest political suicide note in history. We tried that with Michael Foot in 1983 and it was that complete and utter shambles that persuaded me to throw myself into the battle to turn Labour, both locally and nationally, into a fighting force that could once again inspire the trust and confidence of the electorate and prise the grubby fingers of the Tories from the levers of power.

Tony Benn might have thought that the electoral oblivion that we faced in 1983 was a triumph because ‘8 million people voted for socialismbut he forgot to mention the 21 million who didnt. The result was 18 years era of Conservative rule which divided the country as never before, destroyed our manufacturing base, emasculated trade unions, increased poverty and inequality and left a generation without hope or prospects. Some triumph!

Since I stood down in 2010, after 26 years of fighting and winning in the marginal seats that our party needs to capture to have a hope of returning to office, I have watched with increasing horror as we have appeared to resort to our comfort zone and forget the real achievements of Labour in government in favour of talking to ourselves rather than those we seek to represent.

Jeremy Corbyn is lovely bloke and has been afforded the luxury of voting more than 500 times against his own party and parliamentary colleagues, safe in the knowledge that these comforting gestures would achieve nothing as there were sufficient Labour MPs prepared to give their own government the benefit of the doubt more often than not. As Alan Johnson writes in his excellent piece here, the NHS and the Open University were Labour achievements born not out of disloyalty but out of determination and discipline.

Now most of us had a few red lines and the occasional disagreement with the Leadership, which occasionally expressed itself in the division lobbies, but our underlying principle was that Labour voters had sent us to Parliament to vote Labour and to support Labour policies and a Labour manifesto. No political leader has a snowballs chance in Hell of succeeding unless they are able to count on the support of their parliamentary colleagues and if the polls are right and Jeremy is elected leader it would be interesting to see him hold the party together if his fellow MPs are but half as disloyal as he has been. Divided parties dont win elections and believe me a Corbyn led Labour Party would crash and burn while the Tories and their backers rub their hands with glee.

Im a great believer in a political existence outside the comfort zone – that probably explains why I like living in Reading – and, even nowadays, I do keep tabs on what the enemy are up to. Check out this piece by the odious Toby Young in the Torygraph on why £3 is money well spent registering as a bogus Labour supporter in order to vote for Corbyn and consign Labour to ‘electoral oblivion.

Im not sure which political genius thought it was a good idea to allow Tories, Greens, Trots and other of our political foes to join our ranks in order to help us destroy ourselves. To his great shame Jeremy has done nothing to discourage or condemn this unprecedented level of infiltration. Im told that ‘Tories for Corbynis now the fastest growing political movement of moment.

So we know who David Cameron is hoping he will be facing across the dispatch box in a few weekstime and I guess we could make an argument that it not about personalities – afterall that worked really well with Ed Miliband – but about the policies being put forward by the candidates. Thats why I wont be voting for Liz Kendall either. I want a Labour Leader to look and sound like a Labour Leader not an apologist for either a Torylite agenda or, in the case of Corbyn, an amalgam of every passing political protest movement in recent history.

My friend and colleague Jon Cruddas, who Im sure is now regretting helping to put Corbyn on the ballot paper, has published research showing just how out of touch the electorate will view Jeremys dismissal of the need to re-establish economic confidence and credibility. Positioning himself as the anti-austerity candidate has clearly benefitted Corbyn but as Cruddas says: “The first hard truth is that the Tories didnt win despite austerity, they won because of it.”

Those of us who came through the battles of the Thatcher years remember the point when the next Labour government went from being a dream to a racing certainty. It wasnt the Poll Tax, ‘cash for questionsor the Maastricht Treaty revolts – although these undoubtedly helped. The point of no return for the Conservative Party occurred in September 1992 with ‘Black Wednesday. This was the day they lost their reputation for economic competence.

From 2010 onwards we have allowed our enemies to re write history, and misrepresent Labours economic record almost unchallenged, consigning the Party to a certain defeat in 2015. From 1997 to 2008 we delivered rising living standards and unprecedented investment in schools, hospitals and public services. As Johnson reminds us, lets not forget the 3,000 Sure Start centres, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Act, civil partnerships, rescuing 1.2 million children from absolute poverty and 1.8 million from relative poverty, pension credit and the worlds first legally enforceable carbon reduction targets.

I want a Labour leader who will stand up and proudly promote the achievements of our Party in government whether it be the first ever national minimum wage, the historic Belfast Agreement, Trade Union rights and an end to the union ban at GCHQ, new rights at work including maternity and paternity pay and re-joining the civilised world by honouring our commitment to overseas aid to help some of the most impoverished people on this planet.

It will be a long march back to power and electability and our next Leader has to be both a visionary and a proud advocate for our achievements rather than a reluctant apologist. Our next Labour leader must be a unifier, capable of demanding and inspiring loyalty, both within the party and amongst those whose support we need to succeed. They must look like a Prime Minister in waiting and have credibility on the economy and in other major areas of public policy.

Sure, we can ignore these key tests and vote for the candidate that makes us feel good about ourselves. We can do the Tories work for them and consign ourselves to political oblivion for a generation or we could do something a bit more clever and principled. We could, in the moments before we cast our votes, reflect on the hopes and aspirations of those who fought to create a party for working people and social justice in the teeth of opposition from a powerful establishment. When Labour loses its horrible for our activists and candidates but its a thousand times worse for those who look to us to protect their homes, hospitals, schools, jobs and communities from the worst excesses of what the Tories have in mind.

Martin Salter

Labour MP for Reading West 1997 - 2010

12th August 2015