Hopi Sen asks the leadership bright boys some hard questions

In the leadership election campaign, there will be a lot of talk of telling ourselves “uncomfortable truths”. Quite often, these “uncomfortable truths” will be a rhetorical trick to tell the audience what it wants to hear. Like that it’s all someone else’s fault, or that the party lost its way and got out of touch.

So I thought we should perhaps make a habit of proposing some uncomfortable truths that the Labour party, and even the candidates themselves, really don’t want to hear.

Here are two to start us off.

Don’t throw the machine away. Mend it.

The current crop of leadership contenders are the products of the most ferociously successful political machine in Labour party history. It was a machine that won three general elections, reduced the old left of the Labour party to irrelevance and made the country we live in a fairer, more open and safer place to live.

These are not bad things.

Of course, the machine had faults. It was close knit, hard to access from outside, willing to deny people it thought was dangerous access to power. It was perhaps overly loyal to its members.

Look at this way, there is not a single serious candidate for the Leadership of the Labour party who was not a special adviser to New Labour in 1997. Of the shadow cabinet, you can see three groups – Labour veterans who were established pre ‘97 (Straw, Darling, Harman, Hain, Mandelson, and to a lesser extent Jowell and Denham); new MPs who were ultra-loyal to and linked with the new Labour project (Johnson, Alexander, Cooper, Murphy, Bradshaw); and ex-advisers, raised to the top table by their patrons (Miliband, Miliband, Balls, Burnham, Benn, Byrne).

It is from this last group of political prodigies that our next leader will come. It will be very easy for this group of politicians to dismiss the value of the machine that brought them to prominence.  After all, it is their brilliance and hard work that must seem to them responsible for their success, not the machine’s grunting labour.

Dismissing the machine will also be dangerous, both for the candidates and the party they seek to lead.

Much of politics in opposition is decided by organisation. Who decides the timing of Shadow cabinet elections, who runs NEC election campaigns, who manages the process of selecting good people to key seats – and, crucially, who manages the policy process so that the new party leader doesn’t get saddled with unworkable policies. Political machines aren’t glamorous or sexy.  They don’t get a good press.

The Labour machine can, it is true, be made better. It can be made more accessible, less exclusive, more forgiving.

But without it, the politics of the new leader will be very hard to deliver.

It’s still the economy, stupid.

What’s that on the news?

Oh yes, it’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer, talking about how the Labour government reduced the economic landscape to rubble with millions out of work and taxes too high, and how the government left every citizen saddled with debt, and that it will take huge efforts and painful cuts to get the country out of the awful mess.  He’s got a liberal deputy with him, nodding, and a respected economist on side.

What’s the next item? A Labour leadership candidate talking about how we need to  reconnect with voters.

I think the first item might just have an impact on the second.

Every successful Labour election campaign has had an economic message at its core.

In 1945 it was the importance of planning and nationalisation more fairly to distribute the fruits of the workers’ labour. In 1964 it was the hunger to use new technology and technocratic methods painlessly to modernise the economy. In 1997 we promised that we would run the market economy more fairly without hugely increasing tax.

To win the next election, we will need an economic argument strong enough to withstand the onslaught from the government, one which will be reinforced by the Liberal Democrats, much of the media and large portions of the business community. What we’ve seen over the last week is just the start.

So: given that the next few years will be dominated by attempts to reduce a deficit for which we will be held responsible, a hugely tight public spending review, unemployment rates that remain persistently high, and growth that will help some but not all, our leadership contenders will need to set out rather more about their economic focus.

Hopi Sen worked for the Labour Party for most of the last decade, but doesn’t now.


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14 Responses to “Hopi Sen asks the leadership bright boys some hard questions”

  1. Diane Abott is the best thing that could have happened to the Labour leadership race. At least people might take notice of it now….

    P.S. You have noticed haven’t you?

  2. antigone says:

    Actually what is interesting about Hopi’s list is the way he groups the protanonists from the new labour projects. To the “veterans” group (Straw, Darling, Harman, Hain, Mandelson, Jowell and Denham) you could add Charles Clarke, David Blunkett, Jacqui Smith, Caroline Flint – with the exception of Straw and Darling they all came through the party in the 80s when it recognised that it needed root and branch reform, that it needed to wrest control from factions, modernise its structures and that if the electorate kept on telling you they didn’t like you at some point you had to listen and not just shout louder. Many of them got to know each other through anti-Trotskyite student politics, the LCC or Neil Kinnock’s leadership campaign and subsequent battle to modernise the party and render it electable.

    Blair and Brown were part of that generation although very much its parliamentary wing rather than out-on-the-trail evangelists. For those who can’t remember, read Robert Harris’ The making of Neil Kinnock to see just how hard it was.

    Those who think that winning the next election is about who can best Jeremy Paxman face a painful awakening. We are not in the market for another Blair, although it’s worth remembering he did boost membership – but people like a winner. We are in the market for another Kinnock who can do the graft, take people with him (or her) and who understands that if we do not reinvigorate our base we are going nowhere.

    And should there be a woman on the ticket? Yes of course. It’s an indictment both that none honestly wants it (either perhaps than Diane) but that despite the warm words we’ve propelled so few women into positions of responsibility and recognition. But what we can’t now do is co-erce someone into standing who won;t get the support and will simply look a patsy. we are where we are. We must do better but lets not pretend.

  3. Hopi Sen says:

    Really intereting point Antigone. I think you’re right about the importance of being able to graft and carry people along.

    Much as I wish it didn’t it feels like the party needs to be soothed and comforted by its next leader, and _then_ taken with them as the leader deals with the journey back to electoral success – is that the sort of thing you mean?

  4. Hopi is absolutely right, and we failed most badly in the ’80s when we couldn’t convince the electorate on the economy, and this time when we have had to struggle to maintain the economy from depression by massive borrowing.

    In comparison the Tories did not do well this time because they didn’t convince on the economy, and won handsomely in ’59 and ’79 because they did, and moderately in ’70 because Jenkins tried to squeeze inflation from the economy, stupid!

    If anyone follows my twitter feed by reading it, they will see that I have a bit of a down on fellow Labour “activists” who tend to want to prioritise welfare, and imagine anything can be done if it is willed hard enough.

    In days of yore one might have added foreign affairs to welfare as obtaining unduly disproportionate activist attention, now its guilt over Iraq, Afghanistan and “our liberties, our liberties!”

    We must address the anti-democratic Tory – National Liberal Coalition as strongly as we can, for they have more fiddles than a monkey incarcerated in a small cage.

    They plan more supposedly Direct Democracy, and we must meet them head to head in that battleground, with more than praise for their cancellation of the inevitable National Identity Card scheme, and what will be portrayed as whinges about the poor.

    We must elect a Leader who will convince the electorate that Labour is the Party For our Economy too.

  5. @epictrader says:

    For what seemed like an eternity, I was feeling dismayed about the lack of candidates standing in the leadership contest other than the Miliband brothers. Then I watched the David Miliband interview with Jeremy Paxman and felt reassured.

    Miliband addressed and explained something that, as a complete novice to the workings of the Labour Party, had been troubling me for a very long time and which has been touched on in the above article.

    Here we have a party that champions working men and women and battles at every turn and with genuine intent to improve their lot. Yet, the Labour Party has, in a very fundamental way, stifled the expression of that same intent in ways that its core support can relate to.

    So, the big question is, why? Well, according to David Miliband, it was because of the party’s command structure, discipline, organisation and unforgiving demand that all its politicians adhere to certain rules and forms of expressions. This paranoia, he implied, was borne from the historic battle of Neil Kinnock v the then ultra left of the party, which threatened to make Labour unelectable ever again in the hearts and minds of the very people it was so desperate to serve and support. The argument goes, I suppose, if you can control what is said and who says it, you can get a consistent message across even if that message is one dimensional and is void of feeling and passion.

    As a Labour supporter very much on the outside looking in – and it doesn’t get any more outside than being a Labour supporter in Northern Ireland – that’s how it both looked and felt. Miliband’s revelation was a jaw-dropping, revelatory moment for me, if he has known all along that this was the case then surely the rest of the party must know it also?

    The fact that he brought the issue out into the open is an apparent indication that he, as leader, would ensure that those days are brought to an end and that the Labour Party will become what it was always intended to be, the place where its elected representatives and supporters can openly and freely express themselves; where they can participate in bringing the type of change and future that we all want for our country and for those within it whom we cherish dearly and, yes, where it can voice constructive dissent to its leadership without fear of sanction or retribution. This is what we are all about for goodness sake, we don’t need to worry about our past or rule our party in fear because of it.

    It’s time that we in the Labour Party bloomed into the contemporary political ideological force for good that we harbour in abundance in our blood and bones.

  6. james says:

    The narrative about electoral success and an economic argument is a little difficult to take seriously – after the 1997 victory it’s been downhill ever since in terms of voter turnout for Labour, seats won in parliament, and membership. Partly this is due to the secular decline in party politics – but it’s also due to the structure of the party machine. In a period of seeming economic success, why did our vote decline?

    After 97 there were incredibly high hopes, and some of the disilusionment is expected – but a big problem has been Labour becoming, perhaps for the first time, a party of the establishment. Sadly, much of the successes of New Labour will be wiped away in a few months as a result of what the Tories will do to reduce the deficit – a deficit run up through bailing out financial services. The debts of crooks will be paid for with school and hospital closures, with lengthening dole queues and cuts to benefit payments.

    Of course it was right to intervene to stop financial meltdown – and this should be defended from the distortions of the Tories and their press allies – but let us not forget why it was necessary to intervene. Because for a decade, Labour played by the rules of the opposition. Not having made a critique of capitalism – or even dared criticise City excesses before it was too late – the party desperately needs a critical approach to what is, and a practical vision of what could be.

    The question of ownership and control has not been seriously asked – by rightly rejecting bureacratic and rigid forms of state-owned industry, our party forgot that there are democratic market-oriented alternative. I think that whoever leads “Next Labour” will need to make the case for an expansion in private sector employment through cooperative enterprise – the “step change” in the role of employee-owned firms that the GE manifesto talked about achieving.

  7. Red Bandits says:

    Dont recognise this party your describing

    Labour the party of PFI and PPP
    Labour the Party that privatised NHS Services
    Labour the Party that brought back the Conservatives NHS Internal Market
    lABOUR THE party that attacked the Firemem,the Posties and the BA Cabin Staff
    Labour the Party that takes Trade Union money then privatises our jobs,attacks our pay,conditions, pensions
    Labour the Party that kow towed to Murdoch
    Labour the Party that failed to democratise the Lords
    Labour the Party that backed the mad Neo Con rampage in Iraq
    Labour the party that lost 5 million vote
    Labour lost 100 seats and finished up back in 1981
    Labour the Party of anti union laws
    Labour the party that wanted to reduce civil servants redundancy pay
    Labour the party that crawled to the Bankers and Hedge Funds
    Labour the Party of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power
    Labour the Party that brought in workfare
    Labour the Party that scapegoats immigrants and asylum seekers
    Labour the party that allowed torture,rendition and detention
    Labour the Party whose Lords sell influence to Corporations and still hold the Labour whip
    Labour the Party of Machine Gun Blunkett
    Labour the Party with no internal democracy
    Labour Party of widening inequality
    Labour Party of tuition fees
    Labour the party of Royal mail privatisation
    Labour the Party of QINETIQ scandal
    Labour the Party that served the wealthy few at the exspense of the many
    Labour the Party ofexspense fiddling,house flippin MPs
    Labour the Party who MPs use Private Schools and Private Medicine
    Labour whose ex minister pimp the NHS to the wealthy
    Labour the gutless party
    Labour the Party of Blears,Purnell, Digby Jones, Murdoch,Mital,Hinduja,Mandelson.
    Labour whose leaders admired Thatcher
    Labour the Party that never supported Trade Unionists in struggle
    Labour the Party lead by Public Schoolboys

    Thats Labour, the party that sold out to the wealthy and privatised more than Thatcher

  8. People are Very impatient: even before the extension to the nomination period there would be time for the far left, for example, to get its act together and decide whom to nominate, if they have 33 supporting MPs.

    The next three months for the debate will be both a trial and an instruction to many.

  9. I agree with James, to some extent. What’s really interesting about the New Labour machine (of which I’m a proud member) is that it might actually not be very good at winning elections.

    There’s a possibility that Labour support is endemically over-stated and that it’s all the pollsters fault. But it is also possible that actually one of the reasons why Labour’s share of the vote always under-hits its polling numbers (particularly dramatically the closer we get to polling day) is that the machine isn’t quite as good as we’d like to think.

  10. james says:

    Matthew – the gap between polling and turnout is because you can’t get out the vote without members, and the party has lost a large number of members. If there really had been “partnership in power” the party would have made fewer policy mistakes and perhaps would have lost fewer members and MPs.

    The machine was never merely about winning elections – it was about in the first instance winning the acceptance of elites in business and finance that the party would not reverse Tory economic policies. It was trickle-down politics – win over the elite, including the owners of newspapers, and the party could get an unadulterated message through to the public. Consider Blair’s first act as leader – changing Clause Four of the constitution – of little practical concern to the man on the street, but of great importance to those with wealth and power.

    Looking at those seats that Labour held against the odds, and those where majorities were increased, it’s clear a motivated actvist base made all the difference – as did the independence of the local candidate from the party line.

  11. […] word of agreement: I fully agree with Danny Finkelstein and Tom Harris. (Actually, I said it first, here and here, so they agree with me! Ha!) It’s early days, but our Leadership candidates have had […]

  12. […] gone on about this several times- especially in my question for the Labour leader candidates, and I note […]

  13. eric joyce says:

    Typically intelligent piece from Hopi and Uncut. And the intelligent comments above (‘Red Bandits aside, obviously) are something you won’t find in the pages of any newspaper. Food for thought in themselves. Tony and Gordon did an amazing good and I think that’ll be reflected in the textbooks. For us lesser mortals, and it’s a kind of minor postscript, they left behind a culture of patronage. That’s where we are now. Hopi said that better than I could and I hope we can read more of his thoughts over time. For now, perhaps Labour can win the next election, but it won’t be by being Tony-minus. And if we don’t win, then we’ll be released from the post-Blair-Brown period and a new leader will emerge. Someone who’s ascent wasn’t wholly dependant on The Boss. Well, I think so, anyway.

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