Michael Dugher blasts the inward-looking new Bennites

When the Labour Government lost the no confidence vote in Parliament in 1979, many cabinet and other ministers at the time expected Labour to lose the following general election, but they believed that Labour would bounce back quickly.  The tragedy that followed was, of course, a generation out of power, and it was Labour’s traditional areas that paid the heaviest price for our electoral failure.  Now is not then, but lessons can be learnt.

The aftermath of Callaghan’s defeat at the polls was a full scale civil war inside the party, with tensions that had simmered around the Cabinet table for many years in government finally boiling over.  The party pushed the self-destruct button in electing veteran left-winger Michael Foot to the leadership and, despite narrowly losing the deputy leadership to Denis Healey, the influence of Tony Benn was ubiquitous and destructive.

A lurch to the left and an unhealthy obsession with ourselves and with party structures dominated Labour’s approach.  The treachery of the SDP, partly driven by a despair of Tony Benn’s approach, sealed our fate and it took Labour a generation to recover.

So far, thankfully, the disunity is not repeating itself.  The battles between left and right are long gone.  The Leadership contest has not, as many feared, descended into a second generation battle between ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’, with all the candidates signalling a determination for Labour to move on.  Maintaining that unity and discipline will be vital, whoever is elected as the next leader.

But there are worries for Labour.  I supported the longer Leadership contest.  I felt that deals made in Islington over plates of pasta, or coronations made with the best of intentions, did cause many of our problems in the past.  A proper contest enables Labour to have the debate we need about why we lost and what our future offer should be.  Though exhausting for the candidates, leadership hustings meetings have proved popular with party members.

The main danger with the Leadership election is that candidates focus inwards.  We have already seen a tendency to obsess about ourselves and our internal workings, just as happened after Labour’s defeat in 1979.  Yes we need to strengthen party structures – some are no-brainers like ensuring that the shadow cabinet is proportionately representative of the Parliamentary party.  But much of what is required is also a cultural change.  Our members are our greatest asset – we need more of them and we need greater diversity – but the key cultural change is that party leadership has to start valuing our members and has to listen to them more.

We have to use, to much greater effect, the tools we already have at our disposal.  The national policy forum process is potentially a good way to involve the party membership in policy-making, but too often the meetings were a talking shop or in the end a fix.  The trade unions were seen by some in the past as merely as an uncomfortable source of funding, as opposed to what they really are: a direct line into working people that, if properly utilised, could have helped Labour avoid many of our mistakes in office.  Our local councillors, far from being seen as our great strength, were simply denigrated by certain ministers, particularly in our first term in government.  All this has to change.

But the answer is not look to tokenistic changes in the party’s organisational structure and constitution, or gesture politics, something that defined the Bennite approach.  Ill-thought out, naive attempts to change things for change’s sake, without understanding the consequential effects on the party’s effectiveness, would be unwise without proper consultation with the party.

Clause IV was a major change in Labour’s constitution and it did play an important part in our march back to power. But it was not about our internal structure or organisation.  It was a big change in the party’s rule book, but it was entirely outward-looking.  It was a statement to the public that Labour was rooted in values, but relevant to modern Britain.  This was not an internal reorganisation to simply make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

A swing leftwards would be even more of a disaster, but seems unlikely.  The ideological leftism and self-indulgencies that typified Tony Benn’s approach to politics in the early 1980s won’t win back a single vote for Labour from hard-headed and hard-pressed working class voters who abandoned us – and our manifesto – in their droves last May.  Most candidates understand that.

But the one thing Labour must do is to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time.  As well as having an election for the leadership of the party, all the Labour frontbench must get down to the day-to-day business of opposition and do so with a real sense of urgency.  Notwithstanding the media honeymoon the coalition is enjoying, many party members are already frustrated that our focus is too much on ourselves, meaning that too few people are challenging the Tories and the Liberals on the big changes being introduced by the Government now.

There are significant opportunities for Labour.  The new government has overstretched itself in their proposals for reorganising the NHS.  Their over-confidence in office, together with their blind ideology, is seeing them make changes to the health service that could be the first step on the path to privatising the NHS.  We need to keep saying so.  In education, the cancelling of the Building Schools for the Future programme has done significant damage to the new government.  We should keep up our fight against the cuts, and against the Academies Bill that is the biggest attack on comprehensive education we have ever seen.  On the economy, Labour needs a strong but credible economic policy that has alternative strategy for reducing the deficit, but one that demonstrates that deflationary cuts hammer public services and put jobs and growth at risk.  We also need to argue for fair taxes and campaign against the VAT rise (Labour frontbenchers giving the impression in TV studios that there are merits in increasing VAT is a total disaster for us and a complete gift for Government).

So far the leadership contest has been largely positive.  The Conservative and Liberal newspapers are complaining that it is not interesting enough – a sure sign that we are doing something right.  It has been a showcase of talent that has demonstrated a unity of purpose.  But we do need to avoid the self-indulgent auto-obsession of the past.  We must look outwards.  We also need to resist the temptation to offer up changes that, at best, distract attention away from the hard slog that lies ahead or, at worst, make Labour look naval-gazing or irrelevant.  This leadership election is all about our future.  All the candidates have been clear: we don’t want a Blairite or a Brownite.  But neither do we want some sort of new Bennite either.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East (and he writes with sincere apologies to Hilary Benn, whom he believes is infinitely more sensible than his father).

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5 Responses to “Michael Dugher blasts the inward-looking new Bennites”

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  2. As you yourself admitted, there is no Bennite insurgency now. Continually warning against one just makes you sound unhinged.

    You also need to substantiate the claim that a swing leftwards wouldn’t win us a single vote. I stood as a candidate for local council this year, and had to conted with an independent socialist candidate who got 400 votes, most of it from solidly working class voters.

    Much of our support has either gone leftwards or stopped voting since 1997 and it’s important to seriously address the question of why this has happened. It’s not enough just to claim that those votes are all from useless middle-class lefties with no conception of the real world. Even if that were true (and I’ve yet to see evidence to support such a claim) their votes still count and they’re numerous enough on the ground in a lot of swing constituencies for us to need to appeal to them.

    That said, I’m all in favour of increasing the role of the membership (even if I doubt you really are.) For starters, let’s restore some control over selection contests so that we don’t get outsiders parachuted in at short notice with minimal debate just because they have an inside line to the party elite. Mentioning no names, of course…

  3. Harry Barnes says:

    Michael Dugher : Clause 4 starts – “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party” and it is possible to work for that position in and via the Labour Party without being a Bennite. See my own democratic socialist reasons for not being a Bennite (it was posted nearly 3 years ago) – http://threescoreyearsandten.blogspot.com/2007/10/7-reasons-why-im-not-bennite.html

    And unless you think that this would produce five suicide notes, why not give it a chuck on – http://dronfieldblather.blogspot.com/2010/06/calling-those-with-voting-rights-in.html .

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