Interview With Lord McNally

Last Friday, I interviewed Lord McNally of Blackpool, whose former posts over the years involved being  Justice Minister, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, Labour (later SDP) MP for Stockport South, and former Head of the  Prime Minister's Political Office in Downing Street when James Callaghan was Prime Minister. We touched on the comparisons between UK Politics in the 1980s and UK politics now. Brexit, and the current situations involving Labour and the Liberal Democrats

Lord McNally and I spoke on the telephone, on the afternoon of Friday 21st September. Theresa May had just made her statement, which people were excited about in the hours beforehand, having that most catching of fevers "What if it is announcing the general election!", or "No deal Brexit announced", where it was simply the PM announcing an empasse in the Brexit negotiations. We started on this, and did return to Brexit at the end of the conversation. A furrther exchange of emails had Lord McNally adding a couple of points, which I inserted into the interview.
 I then asked how the current situation with Labour compared with 37 years ago, when, following a growing takeover from the hard left, McNally and 27 other Labour MP's, plus one Conservative, went and formed the Social Democratic Party.
 "Leaving the Labour Party was a very traumatic thing for me to do. I was in the Labour Party since I was 16, I came from a working class family. The decision to leave was a very difficult one. Could we, should we have stayed? Well that is an argument I have had with over the decades with Roy Hattersley. Roy has always believed that the defectors weakened the Labour Party in a way that enable Thatcher to win her three elections. I take the view that whatever else came from the SDP defections, it finally forced the Labour Party to reform itself and make itself electable again. The run-up to the 83 election, and here is where there are echoes, the Party adopted a far left programme and famously dubbed by Gerald Kaufman as 'the longest suicide note in history'. Very crucially, and this is the crunch point, the Party was committed to withdrawing from Europe without a referendum. The current wisdom is because of where the SDP failed, any split or creation of a new Centre Left Party is bound to fail. The SDP came very close to a breakthrough. The arguments around the Alliance, and the creation of the Liberal Democrats was a great drain on energy and time and focus. We could have made even further progress. It was not a total failure, it brought in as well, a whole draft of people from outside politics who had not been in any of the main parties, many of whom are still in politics to this day. It is interesting because a no of factors that were in play 37 years ago are in play again."
So is the situation worse now than it was then? "I think it is worse in a no of ways. First of all, as far as the country is concerned, although the Labour Party was in turmoil. The Conservatives were ready for government. We were not in the situation were are in now, with the Conservative Party in considerable disarray, and a Labour Party which is unelectable, with the Left in control and a disaffected Parliamentary Labour Party. So both major parties are in difficulties in terms of providing stable government for the country. And of course the third element is of course the Liberal Democrats are, at best, flatlining. So we are not in a position to offer any third party breakthrough. I would say the situation is more perilous than it was in '81, '82. And added to that is Brexit, which I believe is one of the great catastrophies of British politics in our history. I think it is sad that, again, because of the contradictions between the lifelong belief of Jeremy Corbyn and others in the hard left, in hostility to Europe. The Labour Party is taking itself to the margins of what happens next as far as Brexit is concerned"
So in which case, is a new Centre Party viable in this situation? "Politics at the moment is like sailing into a fog bank. It is almost impossible to predict what is ahead. Possibly, I always give these doctors or gypsies warning. We have already seen the creation of a successful and lasting Party only a couple of times  over the past 200 years. The modern Conservative Party emerged after the Corn Laws, and the Labour Party's creation was helped by the aftermath of the First World War and the creation of the Trade Union movement. So it's a tough bat, it is not enough to have a few well known names and a lot of money. Why the SDP nearly worked was that there was a genuine upsurge of people, frustrated by the political situation at the time and saw it as genuinely new and fresh. All the factors needed for  success are not present. Nevertheness it doesn't mean if it happens it would be bound to fail. With other examples, looking at different political systems or circumstances, the way the Canadian Liberals have revitalised and reinvented themselves and of course Macron in France. Of course the French system makes it easier to create a new Party. Nethertheless I do think Europe could be the catalyst for the creation of a new third force in politics. The gap is certainly there with Labour led by the Far Left and the Conservatives dominated by the Far Right. This goes back to the great dialogue Roy Jenkins and Tony Blair had. The Centre Left have only been in government intermittently because it's forces are dissapated and has not been a central force. But that is a fact of life. What comes through is, you've heard of Vince Cable's idea of some kind of movement, which would engage across that radical reformist centre. A lot will depend on what comes out of the Labour Conference in Liverpool. There's lots of chatter of big money available, but a lot of people who have big money have very naive views about how politics works at the sharp end. It's not just a matter of full page adverts, it's a matter of having the footsoldiers who knock on doors, get those leaflets through, and you've got to have those candidates, and you've got to have that coherent programme that people will look to and support.
"However Europe could be the catalyst for change in both major parties and provide the basis for genuine realignment on the centre-left. If Labour does not opt for a People’s Vote the conditions will then exist for the creation of new party or grouping/alliance on the centre- left."
So where will Party politics go from here. Can Labour recover? Can the Liberal Democrats make vast improvements?
"I preface with what I say by going back to saying that in my whole political life, I first got involved in elections in 1959, I have never known a period of such uncertainty, and I honestly do think we are in one of those political periods when the tectonic plates are moving. I have said how difficult it would be to create a third force, but ever there is a chance to do it it is at a time like this, when there are such profound things taking place, just as industrial Britain produced an industrial working class which produced a Labour Party, I think the fourth industrial revolution, the advance of robotics, and what would be a potent cocktail anyway, Brexit, makes this a very fluid time in politics and we are going to see change. I have been mystified why the Lib Dems have not been able to offer more, whatever the the right and wrong side of Brexit, we nethertheless of the same view as 40% of the country, but only 10% of the country want to vote for us, so there's some problem there. On the other side, with Labour, Jeremy Corbyn is in many ways a teflon leader, regardless of what the message is, he seems to be able to gain empathy from a very dissatisfied public. Can the Labour Party reform, recover? Yes of course it can, but these periods take time and I suspect, as with '83, the Left will want to take it's case to the country and it will be more difficult because it is now in control of the Party machine, and reform is more difficult, and the trade unions do not seem willing to buck the trend, although there are the odd signs they are getting a little bit frustrated by the populism of the hard left against the realities they face in doing their job. It's not impossible that forces of reform could succeed in all three parties and get a response from the public. But what I don't know is how hard the Labour Party activists will push on deselection, because deselection certainly was a recruting officer for the SDP in '81 and '82. It also depends on whether Europe will be a breaking point.  This is a pivotal moment in party politics, I mean Brexit is about what country we are and the role we should play in the World! I think Ken Clarke got it right a few months ago when someone asked a question similar to yours, that if anybody can tell you what happens next is daft. I mean what will happen next? Certainly as a country we are dealing with, and certainly what the Conservative Party under Theresa May is trying to deal with and doesn't understand, what the emotions, passions, and objectives over Europe are? Something that keeps Europe at peace and removes old emnities that bedeviled Europe for centuries, that is the real triumph of the European adventure and which many in Britain have not brought into. Getting back to De Gaulle's old answer that when Britain is faced with a choice between Europe and the Open Sea, of course it will always choose the Open Sea. It's something I hoped that, over a period of time, we would lose. Plus a grandstanding national scale of delusion about the negotiations that we are in. If you are in negotiations where there is 8% of your trade and over 40% of their trade, it is alright to grin into the camera and demanding mutual respect, but whose holding all the cards! I do think the debate Nick Clegg had with Nigel Farage where every kind of objection is raised. Farage said they need us as much as we need them. No they don't! The French President called the Brexiteers liars, but that's what they were. The other thing is whatever the prospectus that was delivered to the British people in 2016 is now on offer, it's so absurd to therefore say to blindly go on it. I said recently in the Lords, we are not the light brigade, charging toward Brexit, half a league, half a league, half a league onwards. We have a responsibility to look at the facts as they become available."
I then asked in conclusion whether, in light of Theresa May's statement, a No Deal is more likely? "I think it is more likely, but I still believe the most likely outcome will be something that the EU is quite good at, is a five to midnight fudge, which allows us to stumble out of Europe with lots of loose ends and jagged edges, but which will get us past the March exit, which is what some of the Brexiteers want anyway. We are not going to get a good deal, we may get a fudged deal. This is not just another trade negotiation, if they (the UK government) get it wrong, they could, in their view, undermine the European project. The Conservatives underestimate the importance of the Franco German relationship. In the end it has to be cleared by France and Germany and France and Germany will stick together in formulating that, so any idea that Mrs Merkel will play the role of Blucher at Waterloo and come to our aid is wrong. The tone of that statement, from a negotiating and domestic reason, was beligerent, it certainly makes the chance of a No Deal much higher, and whatever the government may say, a No Deal really would be a catastrophe.

And there the conversation ended. Certainly it brought up the fact that while there are plenty of oppurtunities in UK politics at the moment, we are in a precarious place


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