I’m in Manchester a lot. Two of my children live and go to school there, the football is good, as are the curries in Rusholme – the famous Curry Mile. Gerald Kaufman the late MP for Manchester Gorton was a friend of mine for more than 30 years and every time we sat down for a Ruby he’d crack the same joke. “This is called an Indian restaurant though it’s almost certainly owned by a Bangladeshi and the cooking is definitely Pakistani”. Like on so many things, Gerald was right.
Gerald’s demise, even at 86, impacted on me strongly. He’d had a good innings to be sure and spent more than half of his life in parliament – 47 years in fact. And before that he’d been in No10 Downing Street as a press advisor to Harold Wilson the 4 times Labour prime minister! I became a friend of Wilson and of Gerald Kaufman at roughly the same time – in the early 1980s. I used to visit Harold in his gloomy flat behind Westminster Cathedral and so I think did Kaufman. He and I used to eat curries in the nearby Horseferry Road near parliament – sometimes eating with another colourful card the Tory MP Alan Clark.
Sir Gerald Kaufman’s passing occasions of course yet another parliamentary by-election. On the face of it, with a majority of 24,000 that shouldn’t trouble the Labour Party even in its current position. But it does. Second place last time went to the Green Party with just 4000 votes. The Liberal Democrats got just 1700. Their candidate then has now been mercifully forgotten but in 2010 with Qassim Afzal as the Liberal Democrat it was very different. Then they were in second place and with more than 12,000 votes reduced Gerald Kaufman’s majority to just 6000. Five years later Kaufman’s lead had quadrupled and the Liberal Democrats polled about nine-tenths fewer. This said a lot about Kaufman but more about the Lib-Dems. Inexplicably though Afzal was available for selection for the forthcoming by-election he has been passed over again. A little known woman ex-councillor Dr Jackie Pearcey has been preferred for the yellow ribbon, a decision which the Lib-Dems may have cause to regret.
But their travails are as of nothing compared to the chaos in Labour. More than fifty hopefuls are in for the Labour nomination and one would pity the party’s large membership having to sift the sheep from the goats amongst that lot. Except the membership are suspended en-masse and will be given nothing to do with it. Their by-election candidate will effectively be chosen by…..Keith Vaz.
And therein lies a story.
Last Monday morning (having failed to reach agreement the previous Friday) Labour’s National Executive committee which decides these things picked an all-woman panel of five to pick the Gorton by-election candidate. Corbyn had a three-two majority on this panel and hopes were high amongst the Corbynistas that, finally, a by-election candidate who actually supported their leader might be allowed to take the field. Hold that result. By the early evening the NEC had reversed their decision and removed the most prominent Corbynite, the MP Rebecca Long-Bailey (hotly tipped to be Jeremy’s anointed successor) and replaced her with the talented Mr Vaz.
Vaz’s oleaginous skill-set is too wearily familiar to rehearse here. Suffice to say that the party-loving parliamentarian has led a charmed life. Now that he has the casting vote on the selection panel the man who famously said “Lets get this party started” may just be the man who ensures that Corbyn’s party has finished.
Complete chaos at the top of the party is easily matched by what the Manchester Evening News’s estimable political correspondent Jennifer Williams described as a “febrile atmosphere” in in the local party. Who will be carved out of the forthcoming contest, and how? What will their attitude be thereafter to whomever does catch Mr Vaz’s keen eye? We must wait and see…