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Remembering Frank Dobson: A sombre moment for a party in peril

The coffin holding the body of Frank Dobson is carried from St Pancras Church in London following his funeral service. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Whilst mourning the loss of former health secretary Frank Dobson, ALASTAIR CAMPBELL explains why the Labour party’s future looks bleak.

It says something about how grim recent days have been that one of the highlights was a funeral. Frank Dobson – for it was to the former health secretary that we were bidding farewell – would have loved it.

One of the biggest churches in his London constituency packed to the rafters for a Yorkshire-born atheist, to recall some of his more printable jokes, alongside his achievements in government and his countless acts of support and kindness as a local MP. Glenda Jackson reading Shakespeare. One of the hymn slots given over to I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, anthem of his adopted football club, West Ham United, with more name checks for Bobby Moore in the tributes than any of the dozens of politicians present. And a truly brilliant eulogy by his son Tom, which beautifully captured Frank, his character and his politics, and led to a standing ovation as warm as any I have ever witnessed, inside or outside a church. Having held it together so well while he spoke, Tom deserved his tears of pride and relief and sadness which flowed as the applause echoed round the church.

It was quite a gathering. Of five living Labour leaders, all but Gordon Brown, who was in the United States, were present. Neil Kinnock was there, a reminder of the last time the Labour Party felt as shell-shocked as now, when he had to lead on the hard journey back after defeat under Michael Foot in 1983.

As he and his wife Glenys took their seats, I recalled another election defeat, 1992, which I had covered as a journalist for the Mirror, when John Major unexpectedly won a majority.

As the results came in, I was being interviewed by the BBC alongside commentator Peter Jenkins who said “if Labour can’t win in these circumstances, we have to face up to the prospect that they might never win again”.

Well, he got that wrong. Towards the front of the church there was a reminder of that, Tony Blair, who won a landslide five years later. He served also, however, as a reminder of just how hard it is for Labour to win. Indeed, if, as seems highly likely, Boris Johnson serves the five years of the term he has just won, it will be a full half-century since any Labour leader other than Tony Blair has won a general election.

That is quite a sobering thought in what is often described as a two-party system. Sobering too, the fact that in their respective histories Eton College has produced three times more prime ministers than the Labour Party, and the latest Etonian to secure power has done so by winning in places once deemed beyond any Tory, Margaret Thatcher included.

Sitting across the aisle from me was Ed Miliband, the third of the four Labour leaders present, who survived as an MP in Doncaster, but saw his majority shrink, and who in 2015, like Kinnock in 1992, had known the painful experience of voting in the morning thinking he might be prime minister by the next day, then found himself faced with the reality that the public had other ideas.

A dozen or so pews ahead of us sat Jeremy Corbyn and his wife Laura. I have had literally thousands of conversations with the other four Labour leaders, but have never had a proper chat with him. So I cannot pretend to know what might have been going through his mind, though a church was as good a place as any other for the ‘period of reflection’ he had called for.

The day before, my partner Fiona showed me a clip of Neil Kinnock explaining in a documentary why he felt he had to resign after his second election defeat as Labour leader. It was about facing reality, and taking responsibility. Jeremy appeared to have accepted the logic of that, having said he would not lead Labour into the next election, but not the immediacy that Neil applied second time around, and Ed first time.

As to why he was determined to stay on while his successor was chosen, that was perhaps relevant to the presence of others among the mourners. Most of the contenders being mentioned in connection with the leadership and deputy leadership were there: Keir Starmer, Frank’s successor as MP for Holborn and St Pancras, delivered the first tribute; Emily Thornberry took time out of her spat with Caroline Flint; Angela Rayner; Lisa Nandy; Clive Lewis; Rebecca Long-Bailey. These are names currently more familiar to bookmakers and political correspondents than to many of the voters Labour will have to win back if the party is ever to win power again.

But one of them is likely to become a household name before too long, and with enormous responsibility given the nature of the government just elected, and the scale of the challenges faced by the country.

That Rebecca Long-Bailey is the bookies’ favourite is perhaps a reflection of the fact that she has been for some time the favoured candidate of what might be called the Corbyn faction machine, which has proved far more adept at winning power inside the party than it has at winning power in the country.

I have a very obvious but unfashionable idea for the coming contest. Rather than narrow the choice by saying it must be a woman, or it must be a northerner, or it must be someone to protect or extinguish the Corbynite flame, how about the decision being based on this… who has the ideas, the talent and the character to take on and defeat the Tories, and who is best suited to be prime minister?

The signs are not good. The period of reflection has so far been characterised more by self-justification, than self-reflection.

Caroline Flint reflects that she was right all along. Stephen Kinnock reflects that if only everyone had listened to him, all would have been well. Both demand an apology from anyone who fought to stop by democratic means what they deemed to be a catastrophic act of national self-harm. Both conveniently overlook facts which diminish the power of their easy narrative, not least that Labour lost more Remain votes to Remain-supporting parties than Leave votes to Leave-supporting parties compared with 2017.

The Corbynistas, in their rush to excuse Jeremy – his programme, his worldview or his politics – of any blame, pin it all on Brexit, again overlooking the inconvenient testimony of every MP who lost their seat, and plenty who held theirs, that he came up as an issue way more often, and way more negatively, than Labour’s admittedly confused and conflicted position on Brexit.

Most spectacularly of all in the self-justification game, Jeremy says Labour won the argument, which reminds me of the times I leave Burnley games we have lost, saying “I reckon the pass completion and possession stats will look better than the final score”. Comforting, but irrelevant, and ultimately delusional.

Labour lost. The People’s Vote campaign lost, and if I may offer some self-reflection on the latter, the truth is we never truly found an answer to the argument that the country having voted for something, it had to happen.

Amid all the analysis of the Labour defeat, it is worth reflecting on that of the Liberal Democrats, who made to my mind two spectacular strategic errors, both rooted in that central weakness in our argument. One was the Revoke policy, and the second was Jo Swinson seeking to present herself as an alternative prime minister on that basis.

It suggested they were locating their strategy in the world as they want it to be, rather than the world as it is. I sense a real risk that Labour intend to do the same now, at this crucial moment in its and the country’s history. It was why, as we left St Pancras church on Monday, I had the horrible feeling that unless the right lessons are learned, it was the funeral not just of one man, but of his party. I hope I am as wrong now as Peter Jenkins was in 1992. But as Johnson
takes control, and Labour race to replace Corbyn but not Corbynism, things feels a lot bleaker now than they did then.

And, to extend my football analogy, the sense of bleakness is not helped when it is clear that the task of picking the next manager is largely in the hands of the team responsible for relegation.

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