by Peter Watt
Go to the Labour party website. Click on “Join Labour” and it says:
“Do you feel the same way we do about the kind of Britain you want to live in?
A Britain where there is a first-class health service free at the point of use; where education is always a priority; and where you and your family are treated equally and can feel safe and secure.
Join us and be part of our journey. Maybe you already vote Labour at election time? Maybe you have thought about joining but not actually done it? Maybe you think you are too young, too old or too busy? Maybe it’s because nobody has asked you. We’re asking you now.
Join us and help shape our country’s future”.
Stirring stuff and it was just such sentiment that made me re-join the party in 1992. I’ve been a member ever since. Through good times and bad; when I have agreed and when I have disagreed. I even stayed a member when the then party leadership decided to shaft me. And I have got no intention whatsoever of leaving. For me and for many members it is an emotional as well as an intellectual attachment. No, that is wrong; it is much more an emotional attachment than an intellectual one. It is why we can become easily stirred by things that non-believers barely register.
I mean, rationally, I would suspect that I would agree more with Tim Farron, Menzies Campbell and Vince Cable than I would with some members on the far left of the Labour party. But that doesn’t mean that I would join the Lib Dems. Rationally I agree with much of the government’s policies on international aid, and I am pretty sympathetic to some of their current education and welfare policies. But that doesn’t mean that I am going to join the Tory party. Because it is not rational for me, it’s emotional. The Labour party is my party.
But just because I feel that way doesn’t mean that feeling this level of emotional attachment is a pre-requisite for joining. If it was I would suspect that membership would be even lower than it currently is. Which is why the reaction of many members to the decision of my friend Luke Bozier to join the Conservatives has been uncomfortable.
Luke told me that he was thinking about joining the Conservatives a few weeks ago and why. I tried to talk him out of it. I didn’t agree with him but I understood his reasons. I am sorry that he has left the party and I wish that he hadn’t. But I respect his decision. What worries me more, to be honest, is the extent to which so many members have dismissed what he has done without consideration.
The reaction has been a classic “it’s entirely his fault”, “nothing to do with us”. And of course for many Luke represented a strand of thinking that was anathema to them. He used un-Labour language, talked about business and enterprise, criticised the quality of the state education and often went out of his way in his blogs to shock in order to make a point. If he wanted to make friends and influence people across a broad swathe of the party then he wasn’t very good at it. So Luke is not blameless in this relationship breakdown.
But on the other hand if we can’t attract people like Luke into our ranks of members, supporters and voters then in my view we have a problem. Luke is a working class lad from a Welsh council estate. He was brought up by his Mum, now has two kids of his own and has set up his own business. Young, aspirational and self-made, he felt that the Labour party was the party for him and joined in 2006.
Except five years later he feels that we let him and people like him down. He felt that we were anti-aspirational and he didn’t understand why, for instance, he was criticised for admitting to even considering private education for his kids. Although the truth is that plenty of our supporters would use private education if they could.
He felt that the party didn’t understand or care about business and small business in particular, despite the fact that they created wealth. But on the other hand the party was obsessed by the public sector and paying people to languish on welfare payments. You may think that on these things he was wrong, but you can’t just dismiss what he feels. Because I suspect that he is not alone in thinking this among the ranks of our supporters and potential supporters.
But Luke wasn’t “one of us” and so his concerns are dismissed as lunacy. He was a Johnny-come-lately; he was never in Labour students and didn’t have a trade union background. He didn’t fit, didn’t know the “rules of the game”, or the “secret knowledge” language and social norms. We only want pure bloods, no muggles need apply. Good riddance Luke we never liked you anyway. So everyone’s a winner and we can all pretend that Luke was a rogue who has finally gone home to where he belongs: the evil Tories. And so we are unable to even begin to think about the fact that maybe, just maybe, he had a point.
And then there is the nature of the reaction to his joining the Conservatives. There was always going to be a kick back, it’s politics, so we would have to say that he was wrong. We would probably also have to do the classic “Luke who”? Fair enough.
But if we are honest the reaction from many members went way beyond that. It was awful, patronising, personal and offensive. He hadn’t killed anybody or stolen from the charity box. No, something much worse it seems. Rationally he had made a reasonable choice even if we don’t agree with it. But emotionally: hell no. But just think of what that says to potential members: “Join us and help shape the future of the country. But God help you if you change your mind”. Yet millions of voters choose to vote Labour one election and Tory at another. But we are clearly not trying to attract them. Oh no, only those willing to give their soul need apply. Quite frankly, it’s why the Labour supporters scheme will fail. I wish it would succeed but it won’t.
And my final thought is this. We see ourselves as nice people. We say that the Tories are the nasty party. Now go and look at the comments on twitter from some Labour party members about Luke Bozier. I’m not sure that it is always that clear cut.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.