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by Andrew Whitaker
18 August 2016
Roy Hattersley says Jeremy Corbyn is not up to the job of leading Labour

Roy Hattersley says Jeremy Corbyn is not up to the job of leading Labour

Credit - Photo by Chris Boland /

Roy Hattersley has said that the policy platform of Jeremy Corbyn is too “extreme” to win an election on and that he lacked the competence to take the party back to power.

The former deputy Labour leader also said the approach of his party in Scotland had at times “bordered on the disreputable” by taking the electorate for granted, something he admitted had laid the ground for the SNP’s electoral success.

Hattersley made the stark claims at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where he delivered a talk on former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who finally led Labour to victory in 1964 after 13 years in opposition and three successive election defeats in the 1950s.

The Labour grandee, who was first elected as MP when Wilson came to power in 1960 Britain, warned that there was no prospect of Corbyn repeating any of that electoral success.   


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Wilson is known for his maxim “the Labour Party is a broach church”, a phrase that certainly creates a current talking point with the fiercely contested leadership contest gripping the party.

Hattersley, who was Labour’s deputy leader from 1983 to 1992, is now in his 80s, appeared on the festival speaker’s stage sporting a white suit and beard. 

However, Hattersley, who is a veteran Labour ‘moderate’, was quick to point out that his facial hair was “not a tribute beard” to Corbyn.

He told the audience that he was “desperate for a change of leadership” and stated his backing for Owen Smith who is seeking to oust Corbyn.

Hattersley has had a ‘moderate’ and ‘Old Labour right’ stance since throughout his political career, that included decades of service on the frontbenches of numerous Labour leaders.

However, in his hour-long talk about Wilson that also included polemics about the SNP, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the demise of Scottish Labour, Corbyn was singled out for particularly scathing criticism. 

Hattersley said that even Corbyn’s backers in some of the big trade unions “must “know he can’t win" as "they are not stupid”.  

Now a Labour peer, Hattersley said that he had never met Corbyn despite the two men’s decades in parliament, but claimed he was leading the party towards electoral oblivion.

He said that Labour under Corbyn would be unable to attract enough voters to win an election due to what he said was an “extreme” policy approach and because he was “insufficiently competent” to lead the party or be PM.     

The talk focussed on a ‘Labour giant’ in Wilson and the legacy of the politician who won four elections – more than any other leader of his party including Blair.

Hattersley talked about how his “closest friends” politically had been the late former Labour leader John Smith and Scotland’s inaugural First Minister the late Donald Dewar and how it was “scarcely believable” that the party now had just one MP in Scotland.

He said that another former Labour leader Blair had to take a hefty proportion of the blame for the rise of the SNP by abandoning a ‘progressive’ left-of-centre approach that Alex Salmond was then able to lay claim to.

He also said the attitude of Scottish Labour had at times been perceived as “disreputable” or had “bordered on the disreputable” in taking the electorate for granted for decades.

There was a claim by Hattersley that the SNP’s overwhelming electoral support and ongoing success owed more to its support for social democratic “radicalism” rather than its reason for being of independence.  

The premise of the talk by Hattersley, a sometime internal critic of Wilson, was asking why the late former PM is viewed as being not especially principled and “shifty” despite presiding over a period of critical reform in the UK such as the abolition of capital punishment, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of abortion.

Hattersley also highlighted the introduction of the Open University by the government of Wilson, who also brought in changes like comprehensive education and moves towards equal pay.

What followed was almost like a ‘score card’ discussion about Wilson from Hattersley, whose career included stints as a junior minister in the former Labour leader’s governments.

On social reforms, Hattersley said Wilson’s Labour passed the test, as he claimed it did by resisting pressure from the Unites States president of the day Lyndon Johnson to actively support the American invasion of Vietnam.

However, he claimed that relatively early in his premiership Wilson’s decision to devalue the Pound in 1967 harmed Labour’s reputation for economic competence, an issue that rightly or wrongly has remained in the minds of sections of the electorate and arguably contributed towards Ed Miliband’s defeat in 2015.

Again on the plus side for Wilson, Hattersley argued that the politician who died in 1995 had been hugely successful in keeping Labour’s disparate factions together – something he argued was a significant achievement given the internecine warfare that has bedevilled the party for so much of its existence.

Hattersley, who once wrote that he initially believed Wilson was a politician without principle, summed up his argument with a claim that the former PM deserves a reassessment. 

Key among his reasons for this are Wilson’s four election victories, the passing of reforms such as ending Capital Punishment, as well as the delivery of key policies such as the Open University – with a radical admissions policy that did not insist on prior qualifications, giving those in later life access to higher education.

It’s probably here that Hattersley’s view on other former Labour leaders, that came out in a question and answer session, deserves an airing.

Again taking the form of a league table, Hattersley put Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government at the top for its delivery of a free National Health Service and the Welfare State, with Wilson coming a creditable and “close second”.

Wilson’s successor James Callaghan, who like Gordon Brown would have just three years as PM before leaving office without an election win, was described by Hattersley as a "good" leader who was unfortunate in that he was handed the leadership when the party’s time in power was drawing to a close.

Brown was in Hattersley’s words a “true Social Democrat” who would have taken New Labour in a different direction had he instead of Blair become the PM in 1997.

Blair, Hattersley said “comes nowhere at all” in terms of Labour leaders and how they fared in pursuing a social democratic approach of promoting equality and narrowing the gap between the rich and poor.

In truth it’s no great surprise that Hattersley should be so critical of Corbyn given his consistent and principled stance as a Labour 'moderate' going back to the days of Wilson or that he should as a 'traditional Labour man' have been alienated by New Labour's pro-market approach.    

However, despite his backing for Owen Smith, Hattersley admitted to not having met the man who hopes to replace Corbyn and interestingly said there were half a dozen or so backbench MPs who would be capable of taking Labour back to power in the way Wilson did after years in the political wilderness.   


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