Don Brind has some unlikely advice on where he should look for lessons
It’s a fine sunny day in April 2005 and Tony Blair is about to make a major speech on immigration — responding to a Tory General Election campaign inspired by Lynton Crosby on his first foray into British politics. The venue is Dover and the Labour events team have spent weeks on planning and staging the event. Blair arrives by helicopter and the media pen is positioned so that Blair steps down against the back drop of the white cliffs. Before a word is spoken the message of the image is that Labour, led by Blair is the patriotic party.
Fast forward to May 1st this year and Jeremy Corbyn is speaking from the top of red open deck bus, in front of a plastic wrapped construction site. In what is said to be the first appearance by Labour leader at a May Day rally in 50 years he is surrounded by a miscellany of banners and flags – one of the biggest is that of the minuscule Communist Party of Great Britain adorned with a hammer and sickle. We can be sure Tory HQ have got that image squirreled away for later use.
This is not an exercise in Blair nostalgia. Nobody has taken over a party in better condition than Blair did in 1994. The party had been transformed under three predecessors Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Margaret Beckett. The Tories under John Major were flatlining in the polls after crashing out of the European Exchange Mechanism a few months after their 1992 victory.
It’s also true that the Labour vote fell by four million between 1997 and 2010. The Blair-Brown legacy to Miliband and Corbyn was a meagre one. So I suspect we will wait a long time to see Corbyn arriving anywhere by helicopter.
Buses, bikes and trains are his thing. His supporters will see Blair’s white cliffs trip as rather tacky. For them Blair has become a four letter word; “Blairite” the casual, slur against critics of the leader.
I think they are missing something important. Labour values are British values. In the face of Tory and Ukip populism it is vital that we continually assert that Labour is the patriotic party.
Part of what makes us British and patriotic is that Labour is the anti-Fascist party. I was out on polling day last week with Jane, the daughter of the late Dick Briginshaw, the print union leader, who was in the British Army unit which liberated the Belsen concentration camp in 1945. During the 1970s I remember him vividly describing to TUC delegates the horror of finding those piles of corpses and the emaciated bodies of survivors.
Briginshaw’s anti Fascism was transformed in the 1970s into a broader campaign against all forms of discrimination. The Greater London Council played a key role in that. Under the collective leadership of Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell and Tony Banks campaigns against racism and homophobia fostered many of the progressive, liberal attitudes we take for granted today.
This liberal outlook is such a key part of our self identification that many in the party – including Jeremy Corbyn – have found it hard to come to terms with the charge that we are anti-Semitic. The response was slow and grudging. He has been badly served by his friend Ken Livingstone’s obssession with “proving” that Hitler was a Zionist.
There are, however, there are high hopes that the inquiry led by former Liberty Shami Chakrabarti will provide a fresh start.
Sadiq Khan did get it. The new Mayor, who served with Chakrabarti as chair of Liberty. understood that the perception of anti-Semitism was a fact that had to be confronted through engagement and dialogue. His first official engagement was to attend Holocaust Memorial Ceremony. He was pictured in a hug with the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
Symbols really do matter.