Labour’s choice of its enemies

Labour Party in Northern IrelandTo understand the British Labour Party properly, we need to know about its two great struggles; the fight against the Tories, and the fight for its own soul.

To win the former, it first needs to win the latter, because the Tories have certain important advantages that I’ll come to in a minute.

Let’s take the ‘soul’ question first. The party is a democracy. It is also “….a moral crusade or it is nothing” as Harold Wilson put it. Because people who belong to other, revolutionary, parties voice the purest version of that ‘crusade’, this can be a big problem.

Unlike democratic socialists, a very committed bunch of our fellow travellers have long been determined to destroy bourgeois reformist parties and they’ve always enjoyed the fact that our internal democracy presents them with endless opportunities to do it. In Lenin’s comments about the British democratic socialism, he offered to “support Labour in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man.”

This tension creates the same problem that it creates for any organisation that is ‘open’ at the same time as having rivals.

The struggle to solve this problem has often defined us over the past sixty years.

In the 1950s, the party fought Communist interference and the back-door to political influence that they exercised through the unions. In the 1990s, John Smith’s defining row was also with the unions over OMOV.

1990s Labour – our most successful electoral manifestation – was at the end of a long wave that started in the late 1970s. It’s hard to understate how central the fight against Trotskyist ‘Militant’ was to the formation of New Labour. By the mid-1990s, recently-shaven repentant radicals (Milburn, Byers, Darling) and ex-Communists had brought some of their Polytechnic Leninist discipline to create the most on-message party machine we’ve ever seen.

Politically, it worked, and – paradoxically – it has dragged the party to the left and not the right. The party had a democracy that was robust in the face of those who would disrupt it, and there was very little internal doubt about what we stood for. If anything, the losers were often the voters who could have had a more progressive Labour Party, if that machine didn’t need to be so dedicated to self-protection.

It passed the most important political acid test though: The Tories hated it. We danced in their tears.

The downside is that it was a shallow sort of democracy. Those further to the left of the party (I’d include myself there) live in constant frustration with this need for party discipline. We just struggle to prove that it isn’t needed.

Diversity in the party largely died in those ‘control freakery’ years. You were either on-message, or on-the-way-out.

It was a very short-termist approach. Darwinian ‘natural selection’ didn’t point to a ‘survival of the fittest’. It suggested a survival based on the ability to adapt. No-one could look at Labour over the past 20 years and say “there’s a vibrant and competitive market for new ideas and different approaches”.

The machine lost the ability to deal with internal insurgency because, largely, there wasn’t much of it. The Tories helped lull us into this complacency. They almost stopped bothering to make a fight of it prior to the financial crash.

Meanwhile, Labour got stuck into abstractions. As someone who watches these things more closely than most, I’d struggle to explain the dispute between the Brownites and the Blairites. To me, it looked like a pair of very-similar personal entourages running around accusing each other of being ‘nutters’.

Yet this was the big scrap of the second and third term!

And now, Labour is a hollowed out bureaucracy with hollowed out political positions that even their own backbenchers struggle to articulate. The incompetence around the Welfare Bill vote and the management of the party shows this.

Sooner or later it needed a kick up the arse. Instead, it seems to have opted to have a head-transplant. Or, as some of the Anyone But Corbyn supporters would have it, we’ve had a heart grafted on where a head used to be.

It is costly to be a democratic party. Labour will always go into any fight with the Tories carrying a handicap even when they’re able to adjust the democratic mechanism to get the pragmatic/principled balance right. In recent years, we’ve not bothered to take that risk or make that investment, and it shows.

This brings us to the second – bigger – defining battle that Labour has always had; beating our real enemy.

Every Labour activist can rattle off the electoral injustices that we face with the Tories. The press bias, the big-business finance, the short-termist electoral bribes that the they offer the voters at every election.

I’d add to that the fact that The Conservative Party isn’t very democratic. Sure, they have the odd internal election, but they don’t carry most of our burdens in this respect.

Where we’re exhausted dealing with internal troublemakers before we even start fighting them, they turn up with a structure that is much more opaque and manoeuvrable.

Where we have processes, they have ‘men in grey suits’. They may have their own ‘diversity’ problems, but if someone in CCHQ suggested that they should copy Labour’s ‘affiliates’ scheme, they’d be taken to the Senior Common Room and roasted in front of the fire.

A lot of Labour people think it’s funny to keep repeating Aneurin Bevan’s line about the Tories being lower than vermin. It’s not our best trait.

In this unnecessary and superficial form, it’s also a bit counterproductive as Lord Ashcroft pointed out recently.

Yet the Tories do define us. Saying that we hate them is the quickest way of explaining who we are. We are for what they’re against, and vice-versa.

That used to be the case, anyway.

The biggest criticism the Labour establishment has had to face from the Corbynite insurgency is that they are now just Tory-Lite.

I don’t believe this – it’s an argument that lacks nuance. But it wasn’t until Corbyn provoked it that the first authoritative rebuttal finally arrived from Alan Johnson. Even then, it wasn’t that convincing.

We look like a managerial party. We sound like we’re using sophistry to excuse policies that don’t look, sound, or feel progressive. We kept doing this without hearing the alarm-bells because there was no critical climate inside the party.

When Corbyn is now desperately attacked for his morally bankrupt alliances with murderous anti-imperialists, it’s because it was also allowed to fester, unchallenged, for years. It’s the other side of the same coin.

James Bloodworth makes one half of the case against bland NuLabbery here. Chris Dillow’s masterful ‘End of Politics’ makes the other. Labour has been a party that was often not prepared to champion its own substantial, if sometimes saccharine, progressive achievements. Ed Miliband even seemed to be trying to distance himself from them some of the time.

Parties win elections when they hate their external opponents more than their colleagues, and at the moment, a Blairite draws greater spite inside the Labour Party than any Tory does.

There is another post to be written here about what Labour could have – and could still – chosen as a radical direction that can motivate the activists without handing the Tories yet more ammunition.

Personally, I’d point the party at the bizarre cult of managerialism, particularly in public services. Employees hate it. I’d promote a more progressive and participative ground-level politics and I’d work to rehabilitate New Labour’s economic record and make it an asset once again.

I’d like to see a party that has a much deeper dialogue with the unions – where good local union reps are given a more rewarding role in the party, and where unions aren’t just hastily bought off during the policy deliberations.

I’m sure every Labour wellwisher has their own list, but this last one is a biggie because, on this count, Labour has nothing to apologise for. It’s also the key to getting back into the race. It allows us to take votes from the Tories, and that is the most important task the party faces.

But at the moment, that’s going to be very hard because Labour’s hard-left has never appeared to have been interested in any of that, and the wider liberal-left is obsessed with totems and relative trivialities.

As James Bloodworth put it,

“…whereas Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are willing to overlook many of his unpleasant associations, too often his critics see virtually nothing wrong in modern Britain. Not only have they made their peace with capitalism, but they are more likely to go into a frenzy over the latest identity politics brouhaha than worry about nearly a million children reduced to poverty.”

Labour has a lack of clarity about its own morality, its own purpose, and what it needs to do to become a united fighting force again. At this moment, without a real investment in a proper democracy (and not a shallow ‘lets let everyone vote on everything’ version) it’s hard to imagine it trying to solve these problems any time soon.

*My own fault for arguing with people on Twitter.

Disclosure: I am a London-based member of the Labour Party. This is written entirely in a personal capacity and reflects only my own views.