The last time the Labour Party lost its place as the “natural party of government” at the end of the Wilson/Callaghan era in the late 1970s, the party descended into internal chaos and a state of open warfare existed between three poles in the party – the left and right of the Party hated each other and would do anything to see the other embarrassed, no matter how badly it damaged the Party in the eyes of the voters. Between these grinding stones were the bulk of the Party’s members in the centre, loathed by both sides as compromisers and traitors.
The 80s saw the publication of a plethora of manifestos and each side had ever-lengthening lists of non-negotiable demands. There was a myriad of prescriptions for reconnecting the Labour Party with its lost voters but little of the energy expended on these policy debates went towards convincing voters or blocking the depredations of Thatcher’s Tories. Almost everything was done in the name of winning tactical victories over enemies within the Party. Left, right and centre were guilty of plots and counterplots. I joined the Labour Party on coming to England in 1987 in Hillingdon, West London. Even then, after eight years in the wilderness, the atmosphere was often toxic. The political had become intimately personal and there were people on all sides who were able to channel extraordinary levels of spite.
I have always believed that I belong to the centre of the Labour movement (although, increasingly, I seem to hold opinions that place me on the distant left of the parliamentary party) and I had little time either for the far left or the far right in the 80s. The departure of the “gang of four” and the creation of the SDP did as much to keep Thatcher in government as Nick Clegg is doing today for Cameron. But if you asked me to identify the faction that did the most to damage Labour in that era, my view is that it was the left. In my experience they worked within the party to block or delay every institutional and organisational change that might have created a more effective election fighting machine. In terms of policy, their agenda was entirely backward looking, focused on defending past successes rather than finding new ways to make the party appealing in a changed world. Their constant, Quixotic, attacks on the leaderships of first Foot and then Kinnock, their determination to fight the policy battles of the 1950s over and over again and their refusal to face the fact that the principles they claimed to cherish most dearly were no longer being served by the policies they espoused did at least as much damage to the Party as the splitters who formed the SDP.
But, beyond all that, it was the left’s fundamentalist tendency to divide the world into “us” (the holders of the true faith) and “them” (the traitors) that did the most damage. Gradually the groups of “us” got smaller as impossible standards of ideological purity took their toll and attitudes to “them” hardened resulting in vituperative outbursts of self-destructive rage. When it became clear that the public were siding with “them” and rejecting the left’s policies, the left turned their back on those they claimed to represent. Increasingly marginalised they found comfort amongst fractional groupings with ever narrower ranges of ideological diversity. They dismissed non-doctrinal thought and ignored all evidence that challenged their credo whilst doing whatever damage they could to the Labour Party.
Having held positions of power in the party and, in some cases, as ministers or senior advisors in government the left reacted appallingly to having all this taken away from them. Like spoilt children they stamped their feet, they lost their head and they did their best to destroy the things they loved, driven by a mixture of a genuine belief that they possessed unique insights and a spite born of a profound (and utterly uncomprehending) sense of abandonment.
The situation in 2012 is different, but no one should be any doubt that, unless some groups exercise restraint and common sense, there is going to be another war in the Labour Party. The early skirmishes have already begun, forces are being mobilised and battle plans are being drawn. Like Europe on the eve of The Great War, the momentum towards a hugely destructive and essentially pointless conflict is growing and to stop it, if that is possible, is going to require extraordinary effort on all sides.
Once again there exists in the Labour Party a group who have been accustomed to having power, who believe the exercise of that power is their right and who have been stung by their rejection by both the Party and the country. There is a group who believe that they have unique access to the right answers to any question based upon a set of policies from previous decades. They are mobilising against a Labour leader they believe is weak and who they condemn for compromising the “true faith”.
But this time, of course, it is not the left of the labour movement who possesses the potential to really damage the Labour Party. The remnants of the left in the parliamentary party have no real traction and the most determinedly aggressive union leaders have removed their organisations from positions of influence inside the Party by surrendering membership. Where once large sections of the radical left sought to express their politics through control or influence of the Labour Party, today’s direct action of groups (like UK Uncut and the Occupy movement) only tangentially engage with the parliamentary, national and local structures of the modern labour movement.[i]
Today it is the right of the Labour Party, and specifically the rump of the Blairite clique, who will do great damage unless they restrain themselves.
When Ed Miliband’s victory over his brother was announced the reaction of David’s Blairite supporters moved rapidly from disbelief to fury. Subsequently, unable to come to terms with the rejection of the candidate they considered the natural heir to power (despite obvious weaknesses), some Blairites have embarked on a sustained campaign aimed at undermining the Labour leader. Their efforts have been far more damaging to Ed Miliband as leader than any attacks by the Conservatives. At the same time they have sacrificed reams of paper to setting out philosophical positions in colourful manifestos (purple, blue, and black) that do nothing to address the real, practical concerns of ordinary voters but which are entirely aimed at establishing dominance within the Labour Party.
They demands “caution” – insisting that today’s party sticks rigidly to the policy framework that saw New Labour establish its hegemony over mainstream British politics after 1995.
- Labour must be business friendly, doing nothing that might upset vested interests. Yet New Labour’s failure to regulate the financial sector, precisely because of this mantra, made a significant contribution to the economic mess we’re now in.
- Labour must be financially prudent, accepting the austerity of this government while ignoring the glaring evidence (as Keynesian economists predicted) that the pursuit of austerity during this crisis is making the economic situation worse, not better.
- Labour must be socially conservative, colluding with the agenda of making the poor and the vulnerable pay disproportionately for the social and economic ills caused by the corruption and stupidity of an elite who, financially, are accelerating away from the rest of us.
All this must be done in pursuit of electability.
And yet this ignores the fact that the only time Miliband, as either candidate or Labour leader, has come close to connecting with the public has been when he has allowed himself to reflect some of the anger and the frustration that exist in our society. As a candidate Miliband successfully attracted enthusiastic and youthful support when he identified with issues that were outside (and sometimes in direct opposition to) the New Labour agenda. As leader it has been when Miliband has taken risks – the (initially derided) “squeezed middle”, attacking Murdoch, attacking irresponsible businesses – that he has set the agenda and looked most like a leader who might win an election and perhaps, even, achieve something in office.
New Labour had its flaws but it possessed two key insights that ensured its electoral success. First, it understood that parties who look divided will not succeed with the electorate and so it demanded absolute adherence to the party line. Second, New Labour was willing to cast aside any policy, no matter how strong the rank-and-file’s emotional attachment, which it deemed unfit for a new era or which might damage its electoral prospects.
There is a powerful irony, then, that the inheritors of New Labour have become the cause of damagingly open dissent and increasingly bitter division while their sclerotic attachment to the policies of the 1990s has created shibboleth’s whose currency is weighed by how thoroughly they demonstrate the strength of their proponents adherence to the true faith.
Today Miliband is making a speech in which he appears, more-or-less, accept the “in the black Labour” analysis that Labour must adopt fiscal conservatism if it is to appear a realistic party of government. Osborne’s disastrous twenty months in charge of the British economy have drastically narrowed the options that will be available to any Chancellor who comes to power after the next election, presumably (barring the sudden growth of a spine by Liberal Democrats) in 2015. But I am not convinced that the stifling caution of the “in the black” analysis is wise. Three more years of austerity are likely to lead to three more years of economic failure. By 2015 the appetite amongst the public for more of the same, more cuts, more uncertainty, further retreat from the social structures that are cherished as a symbol of the best of Britain, is unlikely to be strong.
And yet there might be reasons for hope.
In today’s Guardian article by Miliband’s advisor, Lord Wood, there at least seems to be evidence that those around the Labour leader grasp the fact that more of the same (but with a rose on it) is not enough.
“We’ll still tax and we’ll still spend, and in straitened times the politics of tax and spend – making sure tax is properly progressive, making sure spending is well targeted and efficient – will become more not less important. But these choices will be tougher… There cannot be anyone left who really believes that minimal regulation and tax reductions for the rich will create wealth which, guided by an invisible hand, will trickle down to those in the middle and below. It doesn’t work … And it has produced a country scarred by increasing inequality – soaring prosperity for a tiny minority at the top and a persisting decline in real wages for the vast majority … [But] there are limits to what redistribution can achieve on its own … To be really effective we need to intervene earlier – to reform markets so that economic power and rewards are more evenly distributed, even before taxes and transfers kick in. That is why it is right to take steps to curb excessive pay and bonus deals in Britain’s boardrooms, rather than resign ourselves to leaving markets alone and look to redistribution to bear too heavy a load.”
There is certainly the hint of ambition here and the potential for a genuinely radical programme of reform though, of course, the real accounting will be in the details.[ii] At the very least it seems to me to be an approach that recognises that the nostrums of the 1990s are no longer binding upon Labour and no longer meet the needs of this decade. Labour needs to move on. It has to offer something different.
The question is: How will the right react?
It can hardly be a coincidence that 2012 has begun with a number of Blairite shadow ministers setting policy directions that are distinctly unreconstructed. Take, for example, Stephen Twigg’s sudden reversal of Labour’s policy on the privatisation of schools and Liam Byrne’s wrongheaded attack on benefits.[iii] In parliament the press briefings and side-swipes at Miliband have become more intense with rumours of phantom plots and Machiavellian scheming. On the internet the right wing Labour blogs and certain think tanks ignore Cameron and Osborne and spend all their time picking at Labour’s internal scabs and attacking the Party leader.
No one expects these groups to suddenly give up on their convictions or stop campaigning for policies they believe in. Nor, I think, should they be expected to offer either unquestioning loyalty or sullen silence. New Labour’s shutting down of internal debate ultimately damaged the Party’s ability to develop new policy approaches when times got tough and the British political space is already too quick to shut down serious political debate.
However, for their own sake and for the sake of the Labour Party and those suffering under this government, these groups have to change their approach. They have to let go of their lingering anger at what they see as their unmerited rejection. They should give up their unquestioning attachment to agendas and policies that no longer match our current needs. Most crucially they have to let go of the personal bitterness that has marked their attacks on those who they believe have abandoned or betrayed their creed. Unless they change there is a real danger that those who once help direct the election-winning machine that was Blair’s New Labour will become be further marginalised, reduced to a bitter, irrelevant, self-obsessed rump capable only of prolonging the rule of the Conservative Party led by Cameron, Clegg and Osborne. Such a fate would be ignominious for the Blairites, but it would be much, much worse for the people of this country who need a government who will not abandon them to the ravages of a broken market.
[i] This is, I believe, a problem for both Labour and these extra-parliamentary movements – but not the one I want to discuss today.
[ii] Which, quite reasonably, Miliband cannot be expected to reveal in detail three years before an election, but he needs to demonstrate serious intent.
[iii] Perhaps Lord Wood could persuade Ed to point out that, as part of his reforming of Labour’s approach in an era of austerity, the £1.5bn or so lost to wrongly paid or fraudulently claimed benefits is as nothing to the £17bn lost to unpaid and fraudulently avoided taxes and encourage his ministers to make the positive case that a society with any hope of long-term wealth invests in its youth and with any pretence to decency respects the dignity of those unable to care for themselves.