Labour split risks handing Tories unfettered power, says Margaret Beckett

A split in the Labour party would risk repeating the Thatcher years of “unfettered power” for the Conservatives, Labour’s former foreign secretary Dame Margaret Beckett has said, amid concerns that the battle for leadership of the party could create an irreparable divide.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Beckett said she believed most MPs and party members opposed a split, “not least because we have been there and done that, and what it did was give Margaret Thatcher unfettered power for a very long time.”

She continued: “Most of us do not want to repeat that experience. If there are those who think it doesn’t matter one way or another … I hope they think very carefully indeed.”

She said some in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle appeared “perfectly happy” for a split to happen, adding: “I’ve got no idea what they think is going to happen in the future or whether they actually don’t care at all what happens in parliament.”

Corbyn has publicly fallen out with his deputy, Tom Watson, over Watson’s claims that hard-left activists are infiltrating the party. On Sunday Watson produced documents from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty conference that he said proved his claims.

Beckett sits on Labour’s national executive committee, which last week won a court of appeal ruling over who can vote in the leadership election. Around 130,000 members who joined in the past six months, most of whom are believed to back Corbyn, are now excluded from voting in the election.

If Corbyn won the election against Owen Smith, Beckett said, “we shall all have to consider how we go forward from here”.

But she cautioned against viewing the contest as a personal attack on Corbyn. “This is not about persecuting some innocent little saint who happens to have become the leader of the Labour party,” she said. “This is about whether or not we have an alternative to the present government who otherwise will be set free to wreck people’s lives, as I fear that they will.”

She said Corbyn’s popularity among the Labour base reflected the fact that many people had been dissatisfied with the party’s message. But those who said they would only want to be members if Corbyn was in charge were “not members of the Labour party, those are members of a fan club,” she said.

”It’s a perfectly nice, legitimate thing to be a member of a fan club, and they may get a great deal of satisfaction from it. But that doesn’t mean you belong to the Labour party and I would be sorry to think that vast numbers of those people in fact do not really want to be in the Labour party, they just want to support Jeremy.”

Deselecting MPs who opposed changes in the party risked damaging Labour’s popularity with the wider voting public, Beckett said. Even if a “couple of hundred” suitable candidates could be found, she said, “do they imagine the electorate are going to be happy with that and we will still have the same level of electoral success, or do they not care one way or the other what happens to the party in parliament?”

Beckett was among the MPs to nominate Corbyn for party leader last year in an attempt to broaden the debate, although she quickly voiced regret about it, and in June she begged him to stand down in a tearful interview with Today.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alice Ross, for theguardian.com on Monday 15th August 2016 09.06 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010