Beware Labour’s rainbow warriors

by Kevin Meagher

SO let’s get this straight. New Old Labour, in the shape of so-called Blue Labour, wants the party to return to its rosy red roots while new New Labour, in the shape of the soon-to-be Purple Bookers, wants the party to mix red and blue (but that’s old blue, not new Old Labour’s new Blue Labour blue).

Meanwhile, some of the old New Labourites remain green with envy at last year’s leadership result, hoping that Ed Miliband ends up in the brown stuff.

At the same time, old Old Labour sees things in black and white and simply wants to put clear red water between the party and the true blue Tories and their yellow Lib Dem sidekicks.

Have I got that right?

Labour’s efforts at renewal are starting to resemble a Jackson Pollack painting, with tins of political ideas hurled across the canvass.

But beware. The abiding lesson of Labour’s fraught history is that internal groupings have always been little more than artillery to support the militias fighting the party’s periodic civil wars (an oxymoron, to be sure, given the incivility of Labour’s periodic bloodletting). Their very existence is evidence of competing groupthink within the party, usually wrapped around titanic egos grappling for control.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with writing a pamphlet or holding a seminar. Nothing wrong, either, in publishing a series of essays and calling it The Purple Book. But the title is, of course, a provocation; an echo of the orange book that senior Lib Dems produced five years ago, which underpinned the ditching of their social democratic heritage.

The Purple Book is an idea by progress, the “Blairite” party grouping financed by former science minister, Lord Sainsbury. Once a generous Labour benefactor, it is said that Sainsbury no longer donates to the party. Which begs the question: what does he think he is buying in bankrolling progress rather than donating to Labour proper?

Suspicion is inevitable. Fratricide is woven into Labour’s DNA. It has been like that since the social democratic federation flounced out of the fledgling Labour representation committee in 1907.

And it’s been like that ever since. The Bloods and Crips. Mods and Rockers; bicycle chains and knuckledusters at the ready. Actually, given the often inflated sense of purpose that has characterised Labour’s internal battles down the years, perhaps the dispute between the Big Endians and Little Endians about the correct way to slice open a boiled egg in Gulliver’s Travels is more fitting.

If the Tory party’s very lack of intellectual ferment won it the title “the stupid party”, Labour takes the spoils when it comes to being the bad tempered one; with each row and split down the years leaving a nasty residue.

McDonald’s betrayal in ’31. The Gaitskellites and the Bevanites. The Bennites. The soft-left tribunites. The hard-left campaign group. The gang of four. The Kinnockites. The solidarity group. The modernisers. The Blairites. Old Labour. New Labour. The Brownites. There are no Milibandites yet (or perhaps that should simply be The Miliband?) but give it time.

Whatever contribution each of these cabals has made to the party’s fortunes has been offset by a good measure of grief they have caused too. And, all too often, Labour’s cliques and counter-cliques have been little more than personality cults. In fact, Labour’s internal power-cabling often resembles the anatomy of a cosa nostra family, rather than a political party.

Of course, all parties in a majoritarian electoral system are roughly-hewn coalitions generating their own internal power battles. But there is something different about Labour; the party revels in internal torment.

The worst excesses occur when it loses power. Bevan’s resignation in 1951 over chancellor Gaitskell’s imposition of NHS prescription charging resulted in personality cults surrounding both men that kept Labour out of power until 1964. Ironically, it was a new generation that took over as both men were by then dead, with absolutely nothing to show for a decade’s worth of mutually destructive behaviour. Perversely, the thing that united them in the end is that both had, by then, let down many of their own supporters. Gaitskell by his unremitting anti-Europeanism, Bevan with his volte face on unilateralism.

Following last year’s general election defeat, it had briefly seemed that more virtuous habits were forming. The leadership contest may have been an excellent cure for insomnia, but better that than the solipsistic navel-gazing which characterised earlier Labour leadership contests. We were treated to a bunch of talented and decent people finding elaborate ways of agreeing with one another. A courtliness briefly descended over this raucous party. For goodness sake, David Miliband lent support to Diane Abbott to ensure that she had enough MPs to nominate her candidacy; an inconceivable gesture by a candidate in any previous contest.

But it was symptomatic of the fact that there was – and is – no great ideological battle to be had within Labour; no compelling new direction on offer. No fundamental disagreements over the role of the state or market. No clever analysis about why the party lost. Blue Labour’s focus on challenging the statist, top down fabian tradition? Purple Labour’s focus on devolving power to local communities? All sounds very mid 90s. And utterly mix and match.

So Labour MPs, members and voters will be forgiven if they appear nonplussed by this emergent ideological rainbow.  It’s a bit like when my wife drags me to buy paint. Eggshell white and rose petal white looks suspiciously like plain old white to me. The distinctions, such as they are, are too miniscule to spend much time poring over.

Even the differences in emphasis between established groups like compass on the party’s soft-left and progress on the Blairite right are pale imitations of previous epic battles.

So Labour’s dismal internecine history should serve as a warning to a generation that has a golden opportunity to limit the party’s period in opposition to five years; a sabbatical from power rather than a decade or longer in the wilderness.

Sure, let’s have a debate about how Labour wins and to what end. Let’s have our seminars and pamphlets. But our colour-coded crusaders must not let “debate” lead to schism. No more personality cults either. Or hostile takeovers, parallel leaderships or princes across the water.

Given that they are all dancing on the head of a pin, it’s frankly not worth falling out over.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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3 Responses to “Beware Labour’s rainbow warriors”

  1. Tokyo Nambu says:

    “Bevan’s resignation in 1951 over chancellor Gaitskell’s imposition of NHS prescription charging resulted in personality cults surrounding both men that kept Labour out of power until 1964.”

    Yes indeed, but that was a very long time ago, and Labour today does not echo to the conflicts of Gaitskellism. Far more pertinent is the disaster of the 1980s, from which the reverberations can still be felt: the idea that the Labour Party’s salvation lies in a tack to the left is still current. The 1983 manifesto was comprehensively defeated, in an era in which there was a much more homogenous “working class”, and the splits within the party that led it it left it unelectable for a generation. That cannot be allowed to happen again. Too often, given the choice between pragmatic government and principled (but futile) opposition, Labour chooses the latter, and the stakes for our society are too high for the self-indulgence of the 1980s to be allowed to smooth the path for endless Tory rule.

    Base strategies will not work, especially given the redrawing of the boundaries that the utter incompetence of the Lib Dem’s policy on electoral reform has allowed to go through unopposed. The Tories start the next election with a 40 seat advantage over 2010 thanks to this; Labour’s problem is how to make sure that its message reaches out into those constituencies. Labour also has to consider how, or indeed if, it has a future if it loses its Scottish MPs to either the SNP in the union or to the dissolution of the union; it has been incredibly reliant on Scottish votes to build a majority for the UK, and without those, what happens?

  2. doreen ogden says:

    Yes I agree – all these colour co-ordinated ideas and debates are really putting people off including me. Please can we just be Labour with the red rose having some great and some not so great ideas ?

  3. oldpolitics says:

    Interesting. As a blue-red I’m enjoying it, even if frustrated by a lot of the purples; I was worried that we’d forgotten how to debate as anything other than a proxy for debates about whether the Leader should resign, and it’s looking like in reality we haven’t. Fifteen years of having ideas emerge from the top and the party just expected to go out and campaign for them – the “massive but passive” dream – has been followed by a fast and healthy recovery.

    The description of the leadership contest as us being “treated to a bunch of talented and decent people finding elaborate ways of agreeing with one another” isn’t entirely fair, but insofar as it is fair, it was probably a bad thing. I supported, and still support, EdM, and he was right to identify the leadership contest as the start of a process of listening, debating, and changing – but a bit more ‘clear red water’ between the five candidates might have been no bad thing.

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