22nd April 2016
An Alternative View
I’ve been following the discussion among many good colleagues who are thinking about how to save the Labour Party by staying and fighting on. I wanted to give a perspective from someone who has left the party, after more than 40 years in my case, and I can’t see myself voting Labour at parliamentary elections. I’d stay and fight if there was a fight taking place, but all I see is people keeping their heads down and hoping for something to turn up.
I don’t say I’ve got the answer and like everyone else I’m struggling to make sense of the situation. But I’ve gone through the door and I must say it doesn’t feel at all unpleasant out here.
I write as someone who weathered the storms in the party in the 1980s, and pretty unpleasant it was too. But throughout that period I could see a way through. The unions would keep the party’s feet on the ground with the electorate and could use their role to anchor the organisational changes that were needed. And, allied to that, we would mobilise the individual membership that was always more sensible than either the left factions or the media believed. It took longer than we expected, but it worked.
Now, though, I cannot see a way through. The stabilisers are gone.
The unions are both less important and politically more out of touch with their members, the two things being of course connected.
The individual membership, meanwhile, is enjoying itself on the margins of politics. Corbyn’s election cannot be seen as a temporary aberration. He won convincingly among the party membership, not just among the newer members, and he’s consolidating that power on the NEC and in policy-making.
This can be traced back beyond our current troubles, and not just to Miliband. It is hardly a novel thing to say that Blairism never became deeply rooted within the Labour Party. The man himself said he’d know when he’d succeeded because the party would have learned to love Mandelson. Well, that didn’t happen, did it?
Even those of us who defend Blair don’t sound convinced of our argument. When we remind our listeners that Blair won elections, it simply reinforces the idea that we’ve chosen political opportunism over principle. When we do defend the Labour government’s record, we still tend to default to the things that pander to our left wing inner selves. We remind everyone of the minimum wage, civil partnerships, Sure Start. We don’t instinctively champion the moderate causes that were just as important to the electorate: a principled defence review, responsible (yes, prudent) management of the public finances, reform of the NHS and a revolution in educational standards, ASBOs (an absolute godsend for many working class families on problem estates), a respected voice on the world stage.
These things mattered to the electorate but the party still felt uncomfortable about them. Then we wonder why the party is distanced from voters.
Blair himself knew the enthusiasm of party members was only skin deep. He pandered to the Labour tribe by allowing a few safety valves for their leftish instincts, thinking that a few gestures would keep the party happy but not have much of a consequence: the ban on hunting being the prime example of how to combine negligible practical effect with maximum emotional drama on all sides. We can all come up with our own favourite examples.
If Blair did not succeed in making the mainstream of his party more like the mainstream of the country, his successors didn’t even try. The Labour Party has steadily become just another version of the Greens, and not just ideologically (although that as well); a gathering of urban, public sector, middle class people using their ideological beliefs to reinforce a group identity. And sneering at more or less everyone else.
The Guardian readership, in other words, writ large but not very large. Orwell would have no difficulty in recognising it.
Meanwhile, what are our moderate colleagues in the PLP doing? Waiting, as Jo Haynes said, Micawber-like, for something to turn up. Well, nothing is going to turn up. The local and Mayoral elections in May will not send anything like a strong enough message to the Party, which everyone now seems resigned to. So we’re now told that this is a long game, as if we don’t know what the message is already. And as if the party can afford to sink any lower.
The leadership and its apologists will not get the message anyway. In their world the Labour Party will always need to become more left wing to get elected.
I remember a moderate labour MP, in a debate about cross-party cooperation, dismissing the Liberal Democrats as a franchise operation: there are some decent types among them but the brand is spread so thinly that you don’t know what you’re getting.
That’s now the best the PLP can offer for Labour. We’re supposed to ask the electorate to vote Labour on the basis that they can get Hilary Benn’s foreign policy even they don’t like Emily Thornberry’s defence policy, that there might be some pragmatic coexistence of Angela Eagle’s pro-business business policy with John McDonnell’s anti-business economic policy.
There is no future for the Labour Party as a franchise operation. The electorate want to know what they’re voting for and they’ve got a point. They don’t like the fact that the Conservatives are split on Europe but Labour can’t profit from it because we’re split on everything.
Of course if moderate MPs were to re-assert a clear, moderate, definition for the party that would force a confrontation and they would almost certainly lose. But time is not on their side. Things will get worse rather than better. And they will carry on getting worse until they get fatal, which is not far away.
The objection will be that if the PLP were to try to do anything that would cause a split. But that means they have to choose between a spurious unity or doing the right thing by the electorate and, indeed, by their principles. There’s no point considering a confrontation if you’re not willing to contemplate a split as a possible, even likely, outcome. And who really believes that the party can be won back without a confrontation?
Splitting the Labour Party is not actually the worst thing that can happen. When you get used to it as a possibility it becomes a perfectly normal idea.
Where would this leave us? Not to a SDP-style alternative party; it’s difficult to see the mechanics of that working. Maybe those of us who are interested in using public policy to change the world for the better should just give up on the idea of a single party packaging it altogether.
Either way, the Labour brand is broken. Better to leave it behind us rather than to watch it being distorted to the point where it’s not worth anything.
By Chris Savage