Labour approaches a tipping point

by Rob Marchant

“The future is unwritten” said Joe Strummer. He was right.  We really can change the future: really. Because politics is driven by people and events.

That said, many of these people and events are in turn, whether we like it or not, driven by power.

It’s significant that even the word tends to bring to mind thoughts of how power corrupts or how the wielding of power is somehow an undesirable act. But power can be good too. We need it. The just wielding of power is a wholly good and desirable act, whether or not we agree with the political outcome. Democracy would be meaningless without it, after all. Power is there to be used for good, even if that is not always the result as we see it.

Those who have it can choose to wield it, or not. And sometimes it can be about perceived, rather than actual, power, as well. The shifting of the political tectonic plates often happens because the balance changes between one side and another, and it is often these events, rather than the froth of the everyday media, which we should be watching.

So, let’s go beyond, for a moment, the day to day – whether or not Osborne will apologise to Balls (he should), or even whether the coalition is on the rocks (it’s probably not) – and take a little look into the Labour Party’s immediate future. It’s either entirely frivolous, or deadly serious: you choose.

And so we come back to the underlying story which manifested itself in Labour’s affiliated unions wanting to ban Progress. It hasn’t gone away, as many had hoped: the motion to conference has arrived from ASLEF, and it’s not clear that it was an “honourable peace” either, as Mark Ferguson  noted at LabourList on Monday.

That said, the motion will very likely fall – as Hopi Sen noted yesterday, if passed its scope would, risibly, include Compass, Tribune and LabourList as well – and even then it will not be debated and voted on until the following year. Everyone is now pretending that everything’s fine, and the issue will disappear.

But it will not, and everything is not fine. We cannot wish things away just because we would like them not to be so. The important thing is not ASLEF or the GMB, and neither is it Progress. It is the shifting of the plates.

Only a fool could have failed to observe the significant change in the relative power of British trade unions over the last decade or so, and their propensity to use it. The power is not from their membership numbers, which have declined, but from the proportion of Labour funding deriving from unions. It is difficult to support the idea that this will have had zero effect on their negotiating power.

It is also difficult to support the notion that the political leanings of the union leaders as a whole have not moved to the left. A decade ago, union leaders included amongst their number centrist “ballast” such as Ken Jackson and Roger Lyons; the TUC was led by the moderate John Monks.

Today’s leaders are not. This change in political positioning has moved the labour movement to a more critical stance of a centre-positioned Labour Party. You may like it, you may not, but it’s a fact.

There is a third factor, though, one which can be decisive in the balance of power between Labour and unions: that of perceived power.

If a child is bullied in the playground, it may not be because he or she is physically weaker, but because he or she perceives themselves to be physically weaker. In other words, people will often have the power over you that you let them have. There is a choice: you can choose not to be bullied. And choosing inaction is also a choice.

The Labour party currently has an opportunity to mark out a winning agenda for government, one which will be there for a short time only.

There seem to be three possible outcomes: the first is a consolidation of its position in the polls, a conversion of that soft, temporary poll lead into a sustainable poll lead, and finally a majority. It will take a sustained effort over the next three years, overcoming a number of other barriers in the process such as its relative policy vacuum and poor leadership polling. In particular, it will take Labour be seen to make some positive running on a major, game-changing issue. The Clause Four moment, if you like: although, contrary to popular opinion, it does not even require Miliband to “define himself against his party”. It requires merely a big, positive win which comes from within, which does not depend on a Tory mistake.

The second is that Labour muddles through without any major disasters and perhaps, if it is lucky, secures some kind of inconclusive poll result, a minority government or a coalition. But it does not win.

On the other hand, nature, as the saying goes, abhors a vacuum. Even with the Tories doing their best to undo any advantage of their incumbency. Politics, like many other subjects described by Malcolm Gladwell in the Tipping Point, seems not to like unstable equilibria.

The balance of power between parties has a nasty habit of flipping from one side conclusively to the other, in the end making it abundantly clear to the world which side the public was really on. You may not see the reality immediately from the signs – as happened in the run-up to the 1992 election – but it persists there underneath, and you will see it ultimately at the ballot box. In 2010 the coin landed, unusually, on its edge. Labour needs, self-evidently, not to be on the wrong side of any flip.

So there is another, third scenario: the meltdown scenario. The tectonic plates move slowly towards the point where there is enough pressure, and – boom! – we see that the gradually rebuilding Labour edifice we have all seen turned out to be a house of cards, which collapses quickly into its old unelectable self, almost without warning. It could be a scandal, as yet unknown. But the most likely cause, as ever with Labour, is that it will be seeded from the far left.

It could be unions: a few well-placed hard-left activists goading their more moderate leaders into pushing on the levers of power just a little too hard. Or it could be that the press finally turns on Labour as a pack, as Nick Cohen has predicted it one day will, over the party’s tolerance of extremism, another a favourite of the far left.

But, as the good man once said, the future is unwritten. This is all conjecture, and any one of these scenarios may happen. Perhaps there are others, not yet visible. We have the ability to change it, individually and collectively. The signs are that we’re still in time to decide which one we want it to be.

But only just. Only just.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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13 Responses to “Labour approaches a tipping point”

  1. swatantra says:

    As Sam Johnson might have said : Sir, the Unions dictating what the Labour Party can and cannot do is rather like the tail wagging the dog.

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    Well, dictating is putting it a bit strong, I’d say. But influencing, yes.

  3. Henrik says:

    I don’t necessarily think union power exerted on the Labour Party would necessarily be a bad thing. A massive lurch to the left would guarantee a meltdown in 2015 – which, even the most optimistic comrade must admit, you’re not going to win conclusively, even if the Coalition has massive bad luck and continues its current policy of shooting itself in the foot – and a proper bloodletting immediately after, leading to a Labour party interested in gaining power, rather than indulging in Left-wing self-abuse.

    That’ll give you five years to put together a proper HM Opposition and a set of policies and visions for the future which might actually convince folk of your competence and insight. An added bonus would be that the current, somewhat toxic, Front Bench would be safely tucked away in Brussels or on the international lecture circuit somewhere and some of your rising stars could actually be showing what they’re made of. Hell, if Major Dan becomes Labour leader, I might actually hold my nose….

  4. Are the tectonic plate references an intentional homily to Chris Morris’ famous and fantastic Andrew Morton interview? I find it impossible to read them as anything else.

  5. Rob Marchant says:

    Careful now, Hendrik. Don’t go all socialist on me…

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Jonathan: no, sorry. No idea who Chris Morris is.

  7. Is it my imagination or does the hard-left within the party and unions tend to turn on others within Labour the wider the gap between Labour and the tories is in the opinion polls?

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @Peter: interesting point. I’d say yes and no: yes in that I think the hard left sees its opportunity, and perhaps has a little more support than before as more left-leaning members return to the fold after the Blair-Brown years. That’s to be expected.

    But it’s not the whole story: the other issue is how Labour reacts to them. If it is with accomodation, or – as Atul Hatwal put it in his piece here – appeasement, they see themselves stronger and try harder. That’s what I mean about perceived, rather than actual, power. They have as much influence as you let them.

  9. Henrik says:

    Not much chance of that, I’m afraid, Rob, but then I live in a constituency where my cat would attract a landslide if it stood with a blue rosette – and a long and misspent life has led me to draw fundamentally different conclusions to the comrades’.

    I was at least partly serious, mind – Labour has in the past created compelling visions of how things could be better – and how the process of making them better might work – in such a way as to appeal to the ordinary working Joe, who, after all, is the guy you want to vote for you. I fear the party has lost any emotional connection to those guys (note uni-gender use of the terms ‘Joe’ and ‘guy’) and is essentially now the party of the public sector worker and the Guardianista.

    An extreme lurch to the left will alienate the great British public even more. There’s a mood abroad that Labour embraces and celebrates the workshy and the parasitical; I realise that’s not true, but UK politics nowadays is all about perception and soundbites and absolutely not about ideology and substance – and that’s just one of the many things I blame you guys for.

  10. Ray_North says:

    For Labour the future, may, and whisper it quietly, include having to consider some kind of pact with the Lib-Dems.
    I’ve been musing about how things might have worked out if Labour and the Lib-Dems had formed a coalition in May 2010 – follow the link and have your say:

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    @Hendrik: aw, you shouldn’t blame us for that…seriously, ideology can be good in focusing a party, but the Thatcherites’ conversion to ideology was the worst thing that ever happened to the Tories, and caused some of the obsessions that still haunt them today. They were successful for most of the 20th century precisely because of their pragmatism.

    @Ray: any party would be foolish not to consider a coalition as a second-best option. But looking for one because you haven’t enough confidence in yourself is another thing.

  12. Mike Homfray says:

    There is precisely no chance of the ‘hard left’ taking over. The Labour position next time will be closer to both Compass and the best aspects of Blue Labour – which is the position Ed has always held from his voctory speech on. There is a clear theme and pattern.

  13. Henrik says:

    Oh, I’m a pragmatist – but then we folk tend to be. Ideology, though, is the historic motor of Labour and a failure to cleave to it tends to produce perfectly OK right-deviationist social democrats like Blair. I didn’t have too much of a problem with Blair, apart, obviously, from the total ignorance of history, the failure to see value in things which have served the country magnificently for getting on for a thousand years and, you know, the warmongering thing – but he was so good at winning elections that it was always going to be a tightrope walk for him inside the Party.

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