Baroness Armstrong: ‘Pidcock was used by the party and by Len McCluskey. The Conservatives didn’t win her seat. We gave it away.’
Labour peer Hilary Armstrong talks to Gary Connor about witnessing the loss of her former constituency to the Tories for the first time in its history
Election night on television is all about drama. Broadcasters are desperate to be there when the first constituency changes hands. Then there’s the quest for that elusive ‘Portillo moment’, when a prominent figure is unceremoniously rejected by the electorate. It happened to Ed Balls in 2015 and Nick Clegg in 2017. Arguably 2019’s equivalent was Labour’s Laura Pidcock.
With a healthy majority of almost 9,000, to send a camera crew to her count would seem on paper to be a waste of resources. It was one of the great shocks of the night when the Conservatives took North West Durham for the first time ever. Since nobody had predicted her loss, Pidcock was spared the humiliation of that moment being captured for posterity.
Someone who definitely wasn’t there that night was Hilary Armstrong, who held the seat from 1987 to 2010. Members of her local party had voted in July 2019 to expel her from Labour, when she backed an advert accusing Jeremy Corbyn of failing the test of leadership over anti-Semitism, although it had no practical effect. Now Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, she spent the election split between Brighton and Redcar, helping the campaigns of her old Cabinet Office advisors Peter Kyle and Anna Turley. She was braced for a bad result. “I still thought we’d hold North West Durham. But as the night went on, I was getting messages saying that it had gone.”
Armstrong still maintains strong links to her former seat, and initially predicted Laura Pidcock would cling on, but with a much reduced majority. We hail from the same part of the world, so I recognise the characteristic north east bluntness in her assessment of exactly why it turned blue.
“She was used by the party and by Unite, by Len McCluskey in a way which I think was unfair to her and unfair to the electorate. The Conservatives didn’t win that seat. We gave it away.”
“Laura wasn’t well known enough in the constituency and Jeremy’s office began to rely on her to do things,” explains Armstrong. “She was pulled out of it and seduced by all this talk of her being leader or deputy leader.”
In the past, Armstrong had offered support and advice to Laura Pidcock, though reveals her successor never spoke to her again after that vote for her expulsion.
“When I was chief whip, I’d insist the prime minister gave new MPs the chance to learn to be a backbencher. Laura was just never given that chance, she was on the front bench straight away.
“Social media was always full of her being at this rally or that rally. That’s not how you make your constituents feel that they are your main concern.”
A few days after the election, Armstrong found herself in Portcullis House, talking to one of the many Labour MPs who found themselves out of work after 12 December. Corbyn joined in their conversation; the first time the two had interacted for a long time. She told him that pulling Laura Pidcock away from her constituency so frequently had contributed to that defeat. “He didn’t say anything to any of this,” she says.
“If Tony Blair had allowed me to discipline Corbyn we wouldn’t be in the trouble we’re in”
Corbyn’s assertion that Labour had “won the argument”, despite its crushing election loss, was an “insult to the way people voted and an insult to the Labour Party and its history”.
“Labour has never had the press on its side, for crying out loud. We now have ways of communicating with people that are far in excess of anything in the past. To blame the mainstream media is absolute nonsense.”
The fact that Corbyn remains in post is something that continues to surprise her. “I thought that he would have enough integrity to accept responsibility and leave,” she says. With him still in place, she argues, Labour cannot properly learn from its election defeat and find a way forward.
More than anything, Armstrong is angry on behalf of voters who she feels have been taken advantage of by her party, and by its obsession with a “red mist of how wonderful things were in the sixties and seventies”. Does she think the leadership fundamentally misunderstood what voters wanted, I ask.
She sighs deeply. “Absolutely.”
“When the Labour Party was founded, largely for the skilled working class, they were the people who were the ones that were socially mobile.”
“They knew about aspiration. If you looked at what we were saying at the last election, we’d forgotten what that means.”
As chief whip, Hilary Armstrong was used to dealing with the left when members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, such as Corbyn, were merely an “irrelevance”.
“They never knew, but I used to have two or three members of the campaign group that would come and talk to me when there was a difficult vote coming up, and tell me what the debate had been, so that we could make sure we had the right amendment to split them. I used to do that.”
She once approached the prime minister, after realising that Jeremy Corbyn was voting against the government more often than the Conservative opposition. Blair was reluctant to pick what was then an unnecessary fight and the issue was dropped. “Had he allowed me to discipline him,” she laughs, “we wouldn’t be in the trouble we’re in.”
Armstrong believes that elements of her party need to accept that the last Labour government was a force for good if it is ever to move on: “You can go through a long list of the things that we did, and they’re not against any of them. But we didn’t do them purely enough.”
“Democracy is not democracy unless you compromise. And if you don’t believe in the parliamentary road to socialism, then you shouldn’t be involved in the Labour Party.”
I bring up comments made by the new MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, who apologised after it emerged she had previously said she would “celebrate” the deaths of world leaders like Tony Blair.
“That is the tragedy, that politics and discourse has come to that level. I find it even more unacceptable that a woman has said that because of the level of abuse women get on social media. I would have thought a woman with political aspirations would understand that being more tolerant generally is a very good thing.”
With a whip’s instinct for the battles ahead, Armstrong senses that things could soon get tricky for the Tories. She cites the forthcoming local government funding settlement as a flashpoint. Recent analysis by the Local Government Association suggested more than £320m could be redirected from the so-called ‘red wall’ seats recently won by the Conservatives, in favour of councils mainly in the south east. It should be an opportunity for her party to fight back – but she thinks its currently unprepared.
“Labour needs to understand what the issues are, but nobody is describing to council taxpayers in the north east what’s going on. Labour in Parliament at the moment is not coherent.”
Looking to the future, Armstrong predicts that the path back to government will be tough. She’s not publicly backing any of the candidates now Jess Phillips has dropped out of the race, “I'm not sure it would do them any good.” Rebuilding, she says, must be done in a way that engages with people, with Labour rethinking its core values and what the party stands for.
“It’s a really difficult time to become leader because there’s so much to do. You need to sort the party out and sort out your relationship with the electorate.”
“The only way you can do the second is by effectively holding the Tories to account – and at the moment the government are getting away with murder.”