Jump to content

Center-Left Newspapers


Recommended Posts

  • 2 months later...

The Daily Mirror

Jim Connelly- An inside account on the man who changed the Labour Party
By James Byrne

I first met Jim in 1994. He had just been selected as the Labour candidate in Bradford South by-election and some of my good friends in the party, Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner, could not speak highly enough of him for his work in the Trade Union movement. As we went on the train from London to Bradford to meet him and do a bit of campaign work with him, I was told story after story of how he rose up the ranks in the Transport & General Workers Union and worked with Jack Jones. I heard of his influence on democratising the Labour Party. I heard of his activism in the anti-apartheid movement. I was very impressed.

When we finally got to Bradford and I was introduced by Tony and Dennis who were already familiar with him, I quickly understood why they held him in such high regard. A hard worker, coming from a working class family. He climbed the ranks. He was ambitious and you could see how much he cared about people. You could tell that he was a gentleman and we quickly became good friends.

He joined the Socialist Campaign Group after his election, and we began to work closely on campaigning on a wide range of issues, as well as both of us being dedicated to our constituency work. We would be more often found on picket lines or on marches than we would be in the tearooms of Westminster. That is the way that we had to show our influence and our solidarity, even at a time when the leadership moved away from our roots as a grassroots party on the side of workers and Trade Unions.

He had joined the parliamentary left at our weakest point since the split of the Labour Party in 1931. We had been completely ostracised from the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the leadership continued to move further rightwards after Tony Blair was elected Labour leader just a month after Jim was elected to parliament. Blair would go on to court the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch whilst we were out in the cold. These were what I call our “Wilderness Years”.

During the years of the Blair leadership, the left were encased in what was described by Peter Mandelson as a “sealed-tomb”. We would rebel often, and succeed rarely, if ever. We would speak out and criticise the leadership when we felt they went wrong, but it ultimately had little effect. Even when we were part of the Stop the War Coalition march on February 15th 2003 against the Iraq War, the largest protest in British history with an estimated 1 million people in attendance, the people were ultimately ignored.

The left, it seemed, was history. We were seen as a dinosaur in British politics, stuck in the arguments of the 1980s, not with the modern consensus of free market capitalism that was advocated on all sides of the House of Commons, with the exception of our little corner of the Labour backbenches. However, New Labour, after the Iraq War and with divisions between Blair and Gordon Brown becoming more visible, began to creak a bit. After 2 election landslides, in 2005 Labour saw huge losses. We lost 80 seats and only narrowly held on to our majority, and we won just 0.5% of the vote more than the Conservatives.

Our party broke out into all out civil war following that election. The “Blairites” against the “Brownites” as it was dubbed. But, throughout this factional battle for the leadership, the Labour Party was the real loser.

At a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group, we settled on two candidates, John McDonnell and Michael Meacher, to put forward to represent the left. After receiving more nominations for the leadership, Michael dropped out and John was put forward as our candidate to widen the debate for the leadership and put forward ideas to “challenge the present political consensus”. John put forward a fantastic programme for the party leadership, his “manifesto for 21st century socialism”. Unfortunately, John did not get on the ballot and Brown was declared leader unopposed. Ultimately, this led to our party losing out at the 2007 General Election. However, the leadership contest in 2006 provided a vital basis for the left going forward.

After Gordon Brown resigned as leader, we were looking for another candidate to put forward for the leadership. John declined to run again, so naturally the next choice for everyone was Jim. He accepted and me and Peter Britchford quickly began organising nominations. We felt that the basis of the policy platform of John, along with our vision for democratic reform in the party and a return to our roots were the basis to get the membership onside and energised, along with working closely once again with the Trade Union movement. We felt optimistic and when Jim got on the ballot we rejoiced at finally having a proper leadership election, but I don’t think any of us thought that we could win. We could change the argument, but we never thought the leadership would go to Jim.

When it was announced that Jim had won, there were hugs and celebrations and a lot of phone calls. I was very surprised to be asked to serve as the Shadow Foreign Secretary, but I felt we had gotten a great top team together. Peter Britchford, another good friend of mine, was appointed as Shadow Chancellor and many other comrades came into the fold after never leaving the backbenches in our careers, some of which spanned decades. I was especially delighted to see Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell join us on the frontbench. Frontbench experience was also then provided by Jack Williamson who was elected as the Deputy Leader and took on a few other jobs in the Shadow Cabinet.

Inside the Shadow Cabinet, the feeling was great at the start. We were full of optimism and began working on our approach for the next 5 years for how we would hold the government to account and how we would return to power. First up was the Queen’s Speech from the new Prime Minister Nicholas Colton. Jim put up what I thought was a good performance, but language needed to be more layman's terms looking back. We overcomplicated a simple message, a mistake we did not seem to learn from.

Then we would hit the first sign of problems with our democratisation reforms. We have always believed that the Labour Party belonged to it’s grassroots, and Jim wanted to ensure more power for our members, moving power away from the cushy offices of Westminster which had led to our party becoming out of touch with the British people by the end of the New Labour decade. Unfortunately, we allowed the spin and fearmongering to take hold over these reforms. Instead of being seen as reforms to move power away from those at the top, it was spun by the Conservatives, as well as other opponents of the leadership, as a power grab by those at the top. We brought forward other reforms beside Mandatory Reselection for Labour MPs to hold them accountable to their local parties, there was One Member, One Vote for leadership elections to stop 200 members of the PLP’s votes being worth the same as that of thousands of members. We made every vote equal. Of the other reforms put forward to and passed by the NEC, the Policy Review was one of the most important to try and reconnect with voters we had lost and those who did not turnout, which I have been told before Mr Black was elected was to report to the new leader shortly after his election.

Early in our leadership, we also began to see the trouble that the British economy now faces, with the government bailing out Northern Rock. Peter Britchford was on top of this, holding the government to account on the matter, but unfortunately he soon had to resign for personal reasons. Tabitha Kinsey, someone from the moderate wing of the party, had to be brought to the frontbench to replace him.

Whilst we put forward good work against the government, whether on the government’s reckless approach to Iran or protecting the billionaires, we were crashing on the rocks of internal party mutiny. Any good work we did was set back by sniping from certain Blair era cabinet ministers who had not realised the party needed a fresh approach after crashing out of government. Unfortunately, this division was hurting us in the polls, for every one step forward there were 2 steps back in the polls.

When Jack Williamson resigned as Deputy leader, it was exciting to see young rising star Sophie Patrick take the position when she became Deputy Leader without opposition. However, there was protest by some at her platform even when they refused to stand in the election. Being newly elected to parliament in 2007, I had never worked closely with Sophie before, but I had seen her work at Unison and she was a highly impressive figure. I was taken by surprise at her promise to change Clause IV, and did raise some concerns privately about how it would look. However, after Sophie came on to the frontbench, I saw what she could do.

Her work on our flood plans led the way and the National Care Service proposals have been extraordinary, with our party now offering a plan to tackle issues with social care and provide security for older individuals in our society who now need our support. These plans put forward showed the radically different vision for Britain we can put forward to improve things for Britons across the country. But, at the same time, her inexperience did show at times, and did come back to bite us, such as her major mistake when calling for a strike which did a lot of damage to us and was a completely unforced error made by Sophie.

The next major issue to arise was in budget season. Whilst then-Chancellor, and now Prime Minister, Sarah Hastings froze pay for public sector workers in real terms and bailed out billionaires, our proposals offered real terms pay rises for our brave army service people and tireless NHS staff, investment for the economy, cuts to taxation for the most vulnerable in society whilst asking those with the broadest backs to pay their fair share. We offered cheaper transport for young people and proposed to get rid of fares on the London Underground. We put forward house building investment, NHS investment and investment to tackle climate change. I saw the hard work that Jim put in to lead the way on the budget, but you could also tell that attacks and lack of progress in the polls were getting to him.

As I said earlier, for every time we went up in the polls, we got hit down twice as hard. Jim had worked his socks off, but circumstances surrounding the party and mistakes by others meant that he did not get the full fruits of his labour. When Tabitha Kinsey walked out of the Shadow Cabinet out of nowhere, I think that is when Jim decided that this was the end of the road for him. We talked in the Shadow Cabinet and me and Sophie asked him to reconsider and stay on, but he did not have the fight to continue as leader.

However, despite this, Jim has changed our party and our movement. After the wilderness years for the Labour left, Jim brought Labour’s traditional values back to the heart of our party. Labour is now a party, once again, for the grassroots. Power has been moved from the Parliamentary Labour Party to the people. Jim has begun the process of moving Labour towards a 21st century socialism, and we must continue that under the party’s new leader, and any move away from those democratic and socialist principles must be combated.

I am sad to see my good friend Jim Connelly step down. He served with integrity and has brought forward hope against a decaying political consensus. Socialism is back on the map in British politics, real change is possible for our country, and that is thanks to Jim Connelly. His legacy will have major impacts for the future of our party and our politics, and I believe we are all the better for it. Thank you, comrade, and solidarity, Jim.

Arnold J. Appleby

MP for North Bedfordshire (1979-Present)
Shadow Foreign Secretary

Link to comment
Share on other sites


  • Create New...