This is why Miliband prized unity in 2010. Hoped to break post-defeat cycle. Split merely deferred.
— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) July 31, 2016
George Eaton’s Tweets (above) made me think about the pattern of Labour history and how the current mess is part of a cycle that goes right back to the very first Labour government. Here’s roughly what happens:
- Labour forms a government – usually after a long period of Conservative rule – and does things. Often very good things.
- But all good (and most not-so-good) things come to an end and Labour eventually loses an election.
- Labour starts arguing within itself. The left vilifies the things the last Labour government did (for not being good enough) and the leaders who did those things. The right points to all the good things that were done refuses to admit that any things could have been done better.
- The left gain control of the Party’s policy-making and demands Labour do better things. Some of these better things are good things but they are also, everyone really knows, things the British public will not vote for, regardless of whether they are better and/or good.
- Divisions deepen – sometimes to the point of splitting the party entirely (1930s, 1980s) – and more elections are lost – often badly lost. This makes people more angry with each other.
- The Tories do horrible things.
- Someone from the Labour “soft left” starts to stitch the broad Labour coalition back together by suggesting slightly less exciting (but less scary for the public) new things. EVERYONE hates them.
- Tories do more horrible things.
- Labour elects a leader the British public feel isn’t too scary or weird and wins an election. The Labour government undoes some horrible things and adds some more good things some of which are better things and some of which are new things and some are just things.
- The cycle repeats…
Of course one of the great dangers is that people believe that this cycle is inevitable, that Labour will always, eventually, return to power so it is safe to indulge in this bloodletting. But there have been times when the divisions have been so deep and the defeats so bad that Labour was within inches of ceasing to exist as a political force. And no political party has any reason to believe that it has a right to power or that it is guaranteed to continue to enjoy the support of significant numbers of voters. And, of course, there are those on both extremes of the party who’ve always secretly believed that the eventual destruction of the Labour Party is both inevitable and to be wished for.
I suppose, one day (perhaps this time, perhaps the next) these vultures will get their wish and the Party will break itself so completely that it falls over dead and they will pick its bones. This current bout of bloodletting feels worse than the 1980s – the abuse is wider and more deeply felt (although perhaps less brutal and physical) and, being more personal, will be harder to forgive. In turn, I suspect (but cannot confirm from personal experience) that the 1980s were worse than the 1950s. Perhaps the spiral is deepening.
But also, there’s something profoundly broken about the way we repeat this cycle of abuse and hate and anger again and again, spiralling deeper and deeper. This relationships within the Labour Party are abusive and goodwill is in short supply. The atmosphere is damaging for those in the Party and for those who rely upon it. If we can’t change, maybe divorce is inevitable. For the first time, in thirty years of Labour membership, I’m not convinced that the Party will survive.