Having survived one by-election relatively unscathed whilst simultaneously suffering the embarrassment of losing another on the same night, the Labour Party is now confronted by the prospect of yet one more by-election at a time when it could have done without further scrutiny at the hands of the electorate. This latest return to the local hustings hasn’t been brought about by a resignation, however, but by the death of Gerald Kaufman at the age of 86. The Father of the House held the safe seat of Manchester Gorton with a majority of 24,079, so for Labour to lose this one would be little short of a catastrophe.
Kaufman, along with Dennis Skinner and Kenneth Clarke (who now succeeds Kaufman as Father of the House), was one-third of the trio of survivors from the 1970 General Election, a Parliamentary presence for almost half-a-century. Never coming across as the most cuddly of personalities, Kaufman was memorably portrayed as a Hannibal Lecter-style character on ‘Spitting Image’ in the 80s, though he himself was well-versed in the art of satire, having been a contributor to ‘Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life’, the BBC’s successor to ‘That Was the Week that Was’ in the 60s.
Hailing from the sizeable and influential Jewish community in Leeds, Kaufman followed a familiar path for many Labour MPs of his generation – grammar school, Oxford, the Fabian Society, and spells of journalism for both the Daily Mirror and the New Statesman. After two previous failed attempts to enter Parliament, Kaufman successfully stood for Manchester Ardwick in 1970, holding it and then its constituency successor Manchester Gorton at every General Election up to and including 2015. Although he never held a senior Ministerial post throughout his career in the Commons, he was a Junior Minister under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan and then served in the Shadow Cabinets of both Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.
Kaufman famously referred to Labour’s 1983 General Election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, an epithet revived at the last Election when Ed Miliband’s notorious ‘Ed Stone’ was referred to as ‘the heaviest suicide note in history’. A vocal opponent of the Tony Benn concept of socialism, Kaufman found the move towards the centre ground begun under Kinnock and completed under Blair more to his taste than the far-left rhetoric of Michael Foot; he was rewarded with the jobs of Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Foreign Secretary during Kinnock’s leadership of the party. However, he withdrew to the backbenches after Kinnock’s resignation in 1992 and was never offered any post in Blair’s Government.
Kaufman may have been implicated in the Expenses’ Scandal (hardly marking him out as unique), and he voted for the Iraq War; but he also opposed fox-hunting and ignored the opposition whip ordering abstention when voting against the Welfare Reform Bill in 2015. He was intensely critical of Israel and was once labelled a self-hating Jew by the Board of Deputies of British Jews; his continuous criticism of the Israeli state’s Palestinian policies even ironically brought him into conflict with Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s shift leftwards in the wake of Corbyn’s capture of the party’s leadership was not something that met with Kaufman’s approval, though the expected tributes from the opposition frontbench following his death will temporarily paper over the ideological cracks that were so prevalent during his lifetime.
The main consequence of Kaufman’s death on the Labour Party is, of course, the upcoming Manchester Gorton by-election. This development arrives on Jezza’s doorstep the same day that his closest ally and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has declared a ‘soft coup’ against Corbyn is afoot; although individual members of the enemy within are unnamed, it’s fairly evident McDonnell is accusing the anti-Corbynista MPs, who he claims are in cahoots with the Murdoch media to undermine the Labour leader at every turn and eventually topple him from his position.
Considering the vice-like grip the Corbynistas now have on both the Labour membership and the NEC, it’s difficult to see how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP can dislodge the leader, whichever tactics they opt for. But paranoia and a persecution complex have marked Jezza’s leadership from day one, so even if McDonnell’s comments were more of a response to the intervention of Tony Blair in the Brexit debate, they are nothing new where the current Labour frontbench are concerned. One would imagine the priority for the party right now should be to focus their attention on another test of their mettle in their once-impregnable northern strongholds.
The Tories, who finished runners-up to the Greens in Manchester Gorton at the last General Election, may well be buoyed by their triumph in Copeland; but Kaufman’s majority is one hell of a winning margin to overturn; ditto UKIP, who may think twice before pushing Paul Nuttall forward for the seat this time. It’s probably safe to say Labour will hold it, but betting men best avoid politics at the moment and turn to easier ways of making money, such as putting their life savings on the next Grand National.
© The Editor