20 May 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 16 May 2008

So, farewell then, Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, as Private Eye's resident poet E. J. Thribb would have it (though only if Mullin had died, which of course he hasn't).

Last week the former Tribune editor – that's Mullin not Thribb – told the Sunderland Echo: "After careful thought, I have reluctantly concluded that my useful life in parliament is over. I will not, therefore, be a candidate at the next election."

Mullin will be missed. He held only junior ministerial office, from 1999 to 2001 and 2003 to 2005. But – like Gwyneth Dunwoody, who has died – he played a crucial role in fearlessly chairing a select committee, in his case home affairs from 1997 to 1999 and 2001 to 2003. He has been one of the most effective backbench MPs of the past two decades and parliament will be the poorer without him.

But that's enough elegiac fawning – ed. Or maybe not, because another admirable thing about Mullin is that he's decided that it's time to quit after carefully considering how much he could achieve by staying.

As such, he's unusual among Labour MPs. There are now 351 of them sitting in the House of Commons. I have not kept a record of who is stepping down in 2010 – we can safely assume the election date, I think – but the pollster Anthony Wells has, on his excellent UK Polling Report website, which lists 26 Labour MPs as having announced that they are retiring at the end of this parliament.

If you add Mullin and Clare Short, who was elected as Labour but resigned the whip, the figure comes up to 28, but so what. The point is that very few Labour MPs have said that they are bowing out, and most of those that have are either very old or represent seats that will be abolished through boundary changes – or both.

It's true that the election is two years away. It's also true that on past form quite a few veteran Labour MPs will hang on until the last moment before announcing their retirements – a course of action that has historically been a good way of securing a peerage, because it allows the grateful Labour leadership to parachute favoured candidates into safe seats irrespective of the wishes of local Labour Party members.

Arise, I suspect, Lords Mitchell of Haddock and Chips, Skinner of Legover in a Baseball Hat and Meacher of Mad Conspiracy Theory.

All the same, the small number of announced retirements is noteworthy, even though it's easy enough to explain without reference to where we are in the electoral cycle or the cynicism of might/might-not retirees.

Labour won a landslide in 1997, in which no fewer than 178 of its 418 MPs were elected for the first time, and more than a third of the 240 others elected that distant glorious day have retired, died or been defeated since, most of them replaced by Labour members despite the losses of 2001 and 2005. I've not worked out the precise numbers, but the Parliamentary Labour Party now has a large majority of MPs first elected in 1992 or after. And those MPs think, some with justification, that they still have a way to go before they pass their sell-by dates.

But it's easy to get sell-by dates wrong. Labour's problem right now is that it is as appetising as the steak-and-kidney pie you discover at the back of the deep-freeze labelled "Best before July 2007". It might be safe to eat, but do you take the risk or make your supper from the stuff Sainsbury's delivered this morning?

It's most critical at the top: if Gordon Brown fails to turn round his and Labour's dismal opinion poll ratings before the autumn, he should take a deep breath, admit he isn't the man for the job and resign to let someone new – let's say David Miliband – take over before the next general election.

But it's not just Gordon who should be thinking he's not as fresh as he could be. There are several cabinet ministers with nothing left to give: Jack Straw springs immediately to mind, but there are others. And there are dozens of Labour MPs elected in 1987, 1992 and 1997 who have done a lot less in their time in parliament than Chris Mullin and who have no prospect of making any difference if they hang on.

Of course, getting new people in isn't a panacea. Rejuvenating Labour is much more a matter of new ideas, of which we've heard virtually nothing, than it is of new people. But people matter. The lot we've got are not, on the whole, very impressive, and very few of them would be missed. And in the worst-case scenario we'd be better-off losing with a bunch of hungry youngsters than going down with battling old pros.

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