In the late Spring of 1979 I attended the Scottish launch of the Labour campaign to retain in power the Labour Government which had lost the confidence of the House of Commons in a vote but a few weeks before. A vote in which the SNP had notoriously lined up with the Tories.
I was then a “super activist”, alongside so many others in that now lost time. So, having spent my day knocking doors or delivering leaflets or whatever, it was no sacrifice at all to head east to swell the numbers at the Usher Hall to hear Prime Minister and Party leader, Jim Callaghan, rally his northern troops.
Except Jim wasn’t there.
The hall filled, the banners were draped over balconies and the bannermen, from Constituency Labour Parties, youth and women’s sections, trade unions, miners’ welfares and miscellaneous co-op and retail societies waited to play their part by cheering our champion to the rafters. Almost irrespective as to what he might actually have to say.
Except that he had nothing to say. Because he wasn’t there.
Seven thirty came and went. So did quarter to eight. Eventually Helen Liddell, then the Party General Secretary, appeared from behind the draped curtains.
“We are all here to hear from Jim Callaghan” she informed us. Presumably for the benefit of anybody who was expecting to see the Bay City Rollers.
“Unfortunately Jim has been delayed by fog at Heathrow” (a few boos) “but his plane has just taken off” (cheers) “so we are just going to start the rally and Jim will speak when he gets here.” (lots of cheers).
And with that Helen left the stage and the depleted platform party trooped on. The troops cheered (albeit not entirely wholeheartedly) and the rally began.
Except that two minutes into proceedings Helen reappeared by the side of the stage, realising her own error, and started making various cut throat gestures across her neck. But it was too late. The die was cast and she eventually concluded that herself and retreated quietly again behind the curtains.
For the first speaker was Sammy Gooding, a stalwart of the Transport and General Workers Union, and the current chair of the Scottish Labour Party. And he was to deliver a speech of welcome to Jim Callaghan. Helen knew that because she had written it. Except Jim Callaghan wasn’t there.
Now, the position of Chair of the Scottish Labour Party is normally a sinecure. While in office you get your name recorded in.....the record. You get to make a speech at the Welsh Party Conference and you get to chair the Scottish Executive Committee. And that’s generally it. Except in election years. When you might actually come to the notice of the general public. So outwith election years it can be an award for long service but, by virtue of various smoke and mirrors, in election years it generally turns out to be somebody fit for purpose.
So back to Comrade Gooding.
“Jim, it is great to see you back here in Scotland” (pause) “Or it would be if you were actually here”.
“Can I say how well you are looking” (pause) “Wherever you are”. “And your smile is well justified” (Pause, pause, move on) “because you can be happy with the result we are going to deliver for you here in Scotland”. “But we know how much you appreciate that in turn, as we can tell from your presence tonight ..............or will be able to tell when you get here”.
And so it went on, reaching a particularly low point when reference was made to Callaghan’s son “Not such a wee boy now as you can see...............or at least as you would see if he was actually present”
Now, no harm to Comrade Gooding but he was clearly inadequate to the task of chairing the Party in an election year. Except that 1979 wasn’t meant to be an election year. Until comrade Callaghan had (actually) turned up to the TUC to make his “waiting at the Church” speech the previous September, the assumption had been that the election would have taken place in 1978.
And then, in 1978, the Chair of the Scottish Party would have been a young activist more than capable of ad libbing the late arrival of the Party leader. He would have been Gordon Brown.
You see, that’s how far back Gordon goes. Not just ‘til then but to before then. To his service on the Scottish Executive that led him to the chair. To the Red Paper on Scotland. To his election as first student Rector of Edinburgh University.
Tony Blair famously said that he was not born into our Party, he chose it. And it was that sense of slight detachment that made him such a formidable electoral asset. But it was never, ever going to make him loved. With or without Iraq.
Gordon was born into our Party.
And for all his moods and vendettas and fucking, fucking indecision he never ever made a single call he did not think was in the interests of the Labour Party and of the cause of working people that we serve. Even when he made the wrong call. For what it’s worth I think he was wrong to defer to Blair in 1994 but wrong again to think that call could be retrieved once Blair had proved so spectacularly electorally successful.
But have I ever thought Gordon was consumed by personal ambition? Never. He believed a Brown led government would be more radical than a Blair led Government. He wasn’t wrong. But his motivation was never who would get the credit but rather who would see the benefit.
When the dust settles on this era delegates to the Party conference not yet born will quote Gordon Brown in their speeches knowing that the hall will cheer in response.
For we are best when we are Labour.