One of the many weird things about the Labour leadership election has been, as a member for nearly 30 years, getting lectured about Labour values by people who – to my certain knowledge – have never been members of the Labour Party, are not members of the Labour Party, have spent a great deal of time attacking the Labour Party, but who now feel that they have some god-given right to instruct me on my “duty” in this election.
At the start of the campaign most of this pontification was coming from the right and it was in support of Liz Kendall. As the campaign has gone on, increasing amounts of it has come from the left and is in support of Jeremy Corbyn. As the weeks have passed the debate on both sides has become foam-flecked and ranting. Anyone who dares to disagree is a “red tory”, a “crypto-communist” or a “traitor” – a selection of the more friendly epithets thrown at me lately by both sides.
I’ve never voted for the winner of a Labour leadership election. I didn’t vote for Smith or Blair – I could afford to be contrary in these elections, to be sure, since their victories were assured but in both cases my vote went to the candidates I thought represented Labour’s left-of-centre (Gould and Prescott). I didn’t vote for Ed Miliband as my first choice either. So I don’t suppose Kendall or Corbyn’s campaigns will be particularly fussed that I’m not voting for them.
My main reasons for not supporting Corbyn are historical – his attempts to claim that his support of Sinn Fein in the 1980s was a contribution to the peace process turns my stomach and is an insult to those (Catholic and Protestant, Irish and British) whose lives were taken or destroyed by the IRA in those times. Kendall? Well I can’t understand how anyone can look at how deeply unequal our society has become and decide that the problem with our last manifesto was that we weren’t doing enough for those who already have the most.
But I want to address one thing about this campaign that has particularly annoyed me – and that’s the notion that “ideological purity” (either Blairite or neo-Bennite) and a refusal to compromise is somehow reflective of the real history of the Labour Party and that anyone who believes otherwise is somehow exercising cynicism or is just plain traitorous.
So let’s be clear. The Labour Party is the party of Ramsay MacDonald, Clem Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – for good and bad, compromisers all – every bit as much as it is the party of Nye Bevin, Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone and as much as it is the party of Hugh Gaitskell, Charles Clarke and John Mann. I might not agree with (or much like) many of the people in the Labour Party but it has done things that transformed ordinary people’s lives for the better – even the very worst Labour governments. For all its flaws and shortcomings (of which I am very much and very painfully aware) I am also, frequently, immensely proud of the party to which I have belonged all my adult life.
There are plenty of parties in Britain that have put purity of ideology ahead of getting elected. There’s still several different shades of Communist Party, there’s Left Unity, there’s the SWP (god help them) and TUSC and The Socialist Party and The Scottish Socialist Party. If you long for a life of comfortable obscurity surrounded by a small clique of likeminded people who will never make you think too hard about your assumptions or force you to sully your hands with compromise, I commend these havens of impotence to you.
But that’s not what the Labour Party is for. That is not what it has stood for the last hundred-odd years. And that is not what the people of Britain who are being hammered by this Conservative government in the here-and-now need it to be over the next five years.
The job of The Labour Party is to get elected and to do what it can, when it can. Sometimes those are small steps, sometimes there are big leaps – sometimes we go in the wrong direction entirely. But we do what we can, and if we can’t do everything, we do something.
Does that sound too modest? Well it is modest. But it has also been rather effective – because moderate, dull, compromising Labour has done infinitely more in its own half-arsed, sometimes infuriating, frequently faltering way to improve the practical conditions of ordinary British people than the firebrands and ideologues and pure-at-hearts on the rest of the British left combined.
Recognising this is not the same as giving up on the Labour Party’s ability to be radical but it is understanding that it is a party that works in a democracy where hope of getting elected and delivering a programme of change requires building a coalition of people who have very different interests. To paraphrase the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, the purpose of our democratic institutions (of which The Labour Party is one) is to find ways in which we can rub along together in our disagreements without those differences of opinion turning into antagonisms that tear us apart. The result is that no one is really happy, but the purpose of democratic institutions isn’t to make individuals happy – voting isn’t a mechanism for self-actualisation – it’s about developing a community that can encompass all of our different demands and desires as much as possible. Even, apparently paradoxically, if that makes most of us miserable, most of the time.
The idea that a party of hundreds of thousands of people seeking the votes of tens of millions of people – all of whom have individual experiences leading to specific sets of interests and demands – could or should somehow deliver exactly what every (or any) individual within those millions wants (except by pure chance) has always seemed to me slightly bonkers. I also find it disturbing that so many people so easily assume that their (or their acquaintances) individual demands somehow reflect the desires of “everyone” – it belies a childish narcissism.
Of course there are plenty of organizations (from Greenpeace to Shell, from Class War to the CBI) that campaign to change what people want, to mould their desires and to direct them into the political process. I’m a member or supporter of plenty of those groups myself – CND, Greenpeace, Compass a couple of unions, a bunch of other stuff – and I consider the work they do important. These groups can afford to be exclusionary. Their job is to bring together relatively small groups of very like-minded people to campaign for specific things. This is good. This is vital for democracy. But it’s not what the Labour Party or parliamentary democracy is for. Politics designed to put the interests of an organised minority, however well-intentioned, ahead of the many is elitist – and it will lead to disaster.
In the democracy that we have, the Labour Party’s job – whether people like it or not – is to bring together diverse threads of (broadly defined) progressive thought and to find a compromise that appeals to the most possible people. That means sometimes working with people you don’t much like. It means trying to strike a balance between what you’d like to do, what needs to be done and what you can realistically achieve. It means that the edges of our Party are fuzzy and often we don’t share a lot in common with people we sit beside as allies. It’s sometimes dirty, usually unsatisfying, and it’s not something that most people regard as particularly noble but it’s also absolutely essential in a nation as large and diverse as the UK.
So by all means vote for Kendall or Corbyn, but don’t tell me that the Labour Party’s job is to magnify your personal ideology and impose it on everyone else. It isn’t. And it never has been.