Blair’s gone, Lord Owen, it’s safe to come back now

John Rentoul

Lord Owen 299x300 Blairs gone, Lord Owen, its safe to come back nowTalking of David Owen, how uplifting it was to see him back in the gateway to the Labour fold. (He’s not actually rejoining the party, he told BBC radio today, because he is too old to submit to the authority of the party whip, but he has donated “more than” £7,500.)

As I say in The Independent on Sunday today, Ed Miliband’s reform of Labour’s leadership election rules brings the party back to 1981, when Owen left to form the SDP over, among other things, the creation of the electoral college for leadership elections. Strictly, Owen should have returned to the party in 1993, when John Smith democratised the trade union section of the college, taking the votes away from union general secretaries and giving them to trade union members voting individually.*

However, Owen had just endorsed John Major in the 1992 election, so perhaps he thought that might have looked inconsistent. His reason for withholding support for Labour in 1997 – that Tony Blair wanted Britain to adopt the euro – was, instead, a model of consistency.

He was sounded out to be a “goat” in Gordon Brown’s Government Of All the Talents, but decided against it. He became a “gnu” instead, an advocate of a hung parliament and a Government of National Unity. His position in the 2010 election was, I think, a perfect straddle of expressing a preference for neither Brown nor David Cameron.

His main complaint about New Labour seemed to be that Blair was far too similar to him and far too successful. Therefore he disliked Blair intensely.

After all those opponents of the Iraq war “legalised” their disagreement with the policy by describing the war as “illegal”, he, having supported the war, “medicalised” his later opposition, diagnosing – he is a qualified doctor, so trust him – what he called “hubris syndrome”. It was the sort of quackery for which the GMC ought to strike someone off, and with the author of which the Labour Party ought to have nothing to do.

Forgive me if I skip the welcoming party.

*That still left the problem, which became pressing only in 2010, of trade unionists voting through their unions, which meant union bosses could send out “Vote Ed” leaflets with the ballot papers and could deny David Miliband access to contact details of their members, so that only Ed’s campaign could canvass them. If that is what held Owen back from supporting Labour in 1993, it was jolly prescient of him.

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  • Pacificweather

    Did you walk out because you saw the direction of travel or because you didn’t? I confess to have been slow to see what was happening. It took me another decade.

  • mightymark

    Hated Benn – still do, thought Foot worse than useless – still do, not prepared to subscribe to a unilateralist party (still wouldn’t) and (still quite) pro Europe. Probably wrong choice (certainly from the point of view of any career I might ever have had in politics) though I think the fact of the SDP shook Labour up and at least started it on the road towards New Labour. The party will return to a broadly “New Labour” stance either as the only way to govern a society of our type from the left, or as the only way back to power.

  • Pacificweather

    I kept the faith and supported the party including Kinnock in 1992. I still blame John Humphreys for the Today programme interview and the weather (a beautiful sunny day after weeks of grey skies). I thought Blair was the man until the dithering and dilution of the FOI act made me realise he did not believe in democracy. This was followed by the subsequent fear agenda legislation which confirmed it. He was a good Prime Minister as they go but, like JR, I expected more of him. Naive and unfair on the man. Like all of us he had his demons and his albatross. Your last sentence is spot on target.

  • Pingback: David Owen nearly endorsed Labour in 2005 | John Rentoul | Independent Eagle Eye Blogs

  • sonic

    John, Goat can also mean Greatest Of All Time…

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