Labour’s in a mess because the soft left has disappeared

by Trevor Fisher

The Labour leadership election is becoming a gift to the Tories, because of the Corbyn surge. The politics of Corbyn now dominating the agenda has revived talk of the soft left, which commentators including Luke Akehurst think is capable of intervening. Dan Hodges in The Daily Telegraph, rightly bemoaning the disastrous new electoral system, commented that “pragmods” wanted the current individualised membership plus “many elements on the soft left of Labour.” Pragmods may be right, but where the elements of the soft left are, is another matter.

As someone active in the Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC), the main soft left group in the 1980s, I can endorse what Luke Akehurst says about its grassroots effectiveness in tackling the hard left and shifting the national agenda. But the successor organisations are now dead, except for Compass which is now outside the Labour Party orbit.  Luke Akehurst wants to bring the remnants of the soft left into action, Dan Hodges believes they already are. So something needs to be said about the soft left and whether it has any role to play in the current drama.

As Akehurst has said, the soft left of the eighties had much policy agreement with the hard left. But there were at least two major differences.

Firstly, the soft left did not believe the barrier to political progress was the party establishment. Though there were sharp differences with the leadership through to 1983, the real problems to advance were seen as the Tory party and the deep roots in popular culture the Tories had and still have. From this, the second big difference was the soft left wanted to work with the leadership, the hard left to replace it.

It is sometimes said the hard left do not want power. They certainly do. In the eighties they controlled a number of local councils. But they did not want compromise. They shared with the far left the desire for purity, but unlike the far left Trotskyists’ sects, the hard left did want elected position.

The gap between the establishment and hard left, in which the soft left worked was tight, and eventually collapsed. Many or most exited the party, disgusted by the party establishment in the triangulation era. There seemed no limit to how far the establishment would go in appeasing the Tories, and it was increasingly incompetent.

We now see a backlash far beyond the possibility of entryism. The tripling of membership to 600,000 is not entryism. There are not that many hard left entryists.

It is the behaviour of the party establishment which matters. While people like Margaret Beckett claim they were “morons” to nominate Corbyn, it was their failure to understand how deeply alienated the party and union activists were that caused the problem.

Thus the establishment and the grassroots are polarised in ways not seen since the 1980s. Corbyn  benefits from the surge in membership especially among the young. The elephant in the living room for the party establishment is that Corbyn reaches the parts they do not reach. The establishment argues that Corbyn will not win power, which is almost certainly true.

But the dominant response of those involved in the Corbyn surge is to argue that Labour has to be principled whatever the consequences

At the root of the polarisation is a false dichotomy, summed up by Martin Kettle’s article in the Guardian of June 25th, which made its pitch in the headline – “For Labour the choice is stark; purity or power. The party establishment at heart believes that winning is all that matters. The soft left response would be that winning is the first essential, but it is not the heart of Labour’s purpose. Power and principle are two sides of the same coin.

Tragically, the response from Corbynites is the mirror image of the establishment position. Dave Ward in announcing the Communications Workers Union would back Corbyn talked of him providing “a party that stands up for the workers again, that stands up for the the disadvantaged… and puts those principles first without compromising those principles just in pursuit of an election victory” (emphasis added).

This is the mirror image of the Kettle view, and is just as much a cul de sac. No advantage is gained by arguing that principles override seeking power.  Purity cannot be the objective which over rides everything – principle is no use if it cannot be put into practice.

The reason the party establishment is on the back foot is that it still embraces the idea that the pursuit of power meant abandoning principle. This corrosive belief was embodied in the New Labour theory of triangulation. Triangulation means adopting the Tory perspective as the template, moving towards accommodating Tory positions thus seeking to operate in smaller and smaller margins.

Dave Ward is right that the traditional interests of the party are always neglected. It is the rejection of this devil’s bargain which is fuelling Corbynism. And there is no soft left to provide an antidote to dangerous polarisation.

The old soft left cannot be revived, but whatever happens in the remaining weeks of a bruising and divisive election, the medium term challenge is to create a new strategic tendency to replace the old soft left. Power without principles has led the party establishment to its current paralysis, while the alternative of principle without power is as useless as a chocolate teapot.

It’s the absence of a soft left current that can force a different view onto the agenda that is currently definitive. Without going beyond the crude power versus principle equation, which a centre left current would make the priority, the future is going to look very bleak.

Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007

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25 Responses to “Labour’s in a mess because the soft left has disappeared”

  1. swatantra says:

    No such thing as ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. If you’re talking about soft then you are referring to the wet Tories and Limp Lib Dems. Neither is there ‘new’ or ‘old’ Labour. There’s only ‘Labour’. However Compass are right In promoting working together. Because no one Party has the solutions, not even Labour.

  2. ad says:

    But the dominant response of those involved in the Corbyn surge is to argue that Labour has to be principled whatever the consequences

    Pol Pot would doubtless agree…

  3. Delta says:

    Lol I think the time for words is almost over.
    “Soft left”?
    You simply squeezed out the fairly normal community orientated people.
    And a few dozen very capable and organised activists. But I reckon just two very capable activists are worth any ten Labour MPs any day of the week and when this is done I will prove it.

  4. Kat R says:

    Delta has a point about activists being squeezed – out, activists are now seen as mere leaflet – delivering cogs in a machine. You can deliver leaflets and doorknock for an MP all you like, but if you want to have a conversation with the MP you just delivered a thousand leaflets for then forget it! The inner circle of activists are important, the rest of us are seen as leaflet – delivering machines, sooner or later activists ask why they are working so hard for someone they can’t discuss anything with and shortly afterwards they stop doing it. There are lots of former Labour activists out there who are now furiously ‘Against’, why? Because they have been chewed – up, exhausted, and spat – out by a callous Party machine which then takes in its next batch of fresh meat. After 4 years of dedicated campaigning you’re back where you started and when you do stop nobody cares. I have delivered over 7000 leaflets for this Party and in the end I’m left explaining to my colleagues why I couldn’t raise a shared issue with our local MP after all the campaigning they know I’ve done for him. I ask them to vote for him and they wonder why they should when a hardcore activist like me can’t even get heard.

  5. For all their triangulation what the leadership has failed to answer is that on the doorstep Labour is accused by the public perception that “they are all the same.” It needs to break out of this position otherwise something far worse will come along and claim those votes.

    None of the other three candidates has offered anything to prove that perception wrong. The Blairites like Liz, Chukka and Tristram revel in being close to Tory positions. Cameron and Osborne for their part enjoy being the heirs of Blair. If those opposing Corbyn could come up with an argument against this perception then they may do better than they are right now.

  6. Richard says:

    Don’t worry, you’ll soon get your soft left if Corbyn wins. As the Overton Window inside the party shifts leftwards then no end of careerists looking for front bench and ermine robe will ‘rediscover’ long held principles, just not as ‘extreme’ as Corbyn’s. Whether it will be possible for this group to gather around Progress’ ‘resistance’ is doubtful as the policy shift required there will be absurd, so Lord Sainsbury will need to re brand or create a new organisation, but it will come, as the SDP and Progress did the last time it was required.
    Were it not for the damage being done to the Party as the right wheel out grandees; brief; threat; purge; squabble; and scheme like Mandleson whilst blaming the left for all of the damage then this would be funny. As Thatcher said, her greatest achievement was the Labour Party (triangulation), but the project, begun by Kinnock is now coming apart at the seams and the right are fuming as they watch their hard work go up in flames. Not for these people an honest acceptance that they lost an election and the mood in the party has changed, they like Machavelli begin to scheme an opposition that in your own argument state is non existent (soft left), not from any point of principle, simply to stop the left, or, to give the group social substance, thr working class in the Labour movement.
    Well, I hope you’re proud of the damage you are causing but I know that Thatcher, in her special place in hell at the right hand of the devil will be fuming that you allowed all of that hard work to come to nothing.

  7. Mike Stallard says:

    Here are some statements:
    The EU is the real government of Britain and it is heading towards a Federal Republic with us on board.
    Scotland and Northern Ireland are no longer parts of the United Kingdom.
    Young Brits are kept at school far too long: they ought to be at work.
    The House of Lords is a scandal.
    We are something like £1.5 TRILLION in debt and this is increasing fast.
    The Civil Service is not fit for purpose.
    We have not got any defence or foreign policy.
    Universities badly need looking at.

    Please could some kind person tell me what the Labour Party policy on even one of these is?

  8. john P Reid says:

    danny Speight ,Cameron may claim to be heir to blair he presents himself on the middle using Austerity and the needs for cuts to push his Thatcherite agenda, Blair poured millions into getting crime down the NHS education ,but presented himself as being in the centre when on those issues he was on the left,

    as for whether they’d do better if Liz won no one will know but history shows swinging to the left is electoral suicde,at least Healey saved the Party by beating Benn for deputy

  9. Robert says:

    Trevor is right of course. It could also be added that there are no longer moderates like Hattersley and Crosland.

  10. @Robert

    It could also be added that there are no longer moderates like Hattersley and Crosland.

    I would agree with that except now ‘moderate’ means something entirely different, as does ‘social democrat’. I’ve been told that words mean what people want them to mean, although they stole that argument straight out of Wonderland. Now when someone in the party claims to be ‘moderate’ we expect to see someone who is far to the right, a Blairite ultra. Now they will interchange ‘moderate’ and ‘modernizer’ when it suits them.

    I feel for Hattersley when he found himself on the left of the party without changing his ideas at all. When Blair’s bag carriers told him there were words like ‘inequality’ that he should no longer use in campaigning, he must have wondered if he was still in the same party. Of course in may ways he wasn’t.

    I doubt my views are much different from what Hatersley’s were a few years ago. I have sympathy with some of the Blue Labour ideas in spite of the stupid name. I have made the standard transition from youthful hard left to being an old social democrat, but I haven’t been able to move fast enough to keep up with the rightwards momentum of New Labour. When I listen Chukka or Tristram I cringe a little.

    @John Reid

    I see you too cannot find an answer to the public perception that they are all the same, John. At least Brown can still talk ‘labour’, an ability Blair never had.

  11. John P Reid says:

    Richard,dint know why I’m bothering to reply, but thatcher in hell next to the devil, and it was Kinnocks fault that progress the SDP and lord Sainsbury,came into the Labour Party,
    As for thatchers greatest achievement being ,the quote was ‘new Labour,’ alternatively, we couldn’t have swung the party to the centre, kept on losing, a thatchers greatest achievement could have been 36 years of continuous Tory victory

    As for Corbyn, well thatcher won’t see her project come undone grim the other side if Corbyn wins, it’ll be Kinnodks work come undone as we head for permanent Oppostion, they who will be laughing.

  12. Camerblair says:

    Mike Stallard Please could some kind person tell me what the Labour Party policy on even one of these is?

    The EU is the real government of Britain and it is heading towards a Federal Republic with us on board.
    Indeed – and mission accomplished may I add. Of course we are a bit slow in joining Schengen and the Euro but we’ll get their in the end, an inch at a time. It looks like the most important foundation of the next phase – the convincing of ‘undecideds’ for the referendum has met with success – we’ve conned enough of the daft bastards into believing that the EU can be reformed without the threat of leaving if it doesn’t, to reforms acceptable by the people. You’ll notice of course that the timeline now dictates that no reform talks can even be concluded before the referendum and certainly won’t ever see the light pf day after it.

    Scotland and Northern Ireland are no longer parts of the United Kingdom.
    The power rests in England – always has, always will. Project UK is really England and vassal states. The Scots have always been trouble and that stupid Treaty of Union was badly drawn up and allowed them far to much say. They should have reduced to little more than an English extension like Wales has been. Mind you those bastards voted for devolution as well – then reported me to the rozzers for calling them bastards! Northern Ireland is just a paradox and a drama. Luckily demographics is on our side and we can ditch the place as soon as the nationalist community finally out breed the unionists. On current trend no more than two generations. I say paradox for two reasons – despite me in both my guises being outwardly pro-Union that of course doesn’t include those bog-hoppers on the otherside of the Irish sea. F*** me, do the unionists over there not realise when we ditched what is now the Republic it was done without any bloody referendum whatsoever, after high level talks with the bloody IRA. You think they would have seen the writing on the wall then rather than drag out this loyalist nonsense for another century like they have. I reckon the bowler hats constrict the blood supply to their brain. It’s even reached the insane position whereby the only political party in the north that has any progressive vision at all is the bloddy ‘Shinners’. The second paradox is that even though in my red guise Labour are Unionist, and condemn nationalism (despite the fact wanting the UK to remain whole makes you a nationaist on a higher level), Labour’s allies in the Province are – a nationalist party and the two main unionist parties are totally anathema to Labour values anyway (whatever ‘Labour values’ eans these days). Here’s a strange one – all the hoo-haa about these three quid entryists. Was only a few weeks back that the irrelevant SLab election took place won by that Hamed Kazi or whatever her name was. used basically the sam system except they only charged their entryists a quid. Value for money – or are the jockos just a bunch of stingy gits and how come of Labour is a prty of the union, they aren’t kicking of about that. See, even in Labour it’s England that is all that counts and everything else is just a colony inhabited by grumbling serfs. Longshanks had the right idea.

    Young Brits are kept at school far too long: they ought to be at work.
    A masterful policy of reducing young unemplo yed. It will bite us on the arse sooner or later as we will end up with a dramnatically over-eductaed workforce, which will of course become beligerent (Oh hang on, could that be Corbyn-Mania?). We intend to boost youth unemployement even further by sending more and more of themto University. Of Course we can then embark on phase three and encourage more and more of them to then do a PhD. That way by the time they become unemployed they will be horrendously in debt to the State, too old to count as youth unemployed, young unemployed or NEETs or whatever nonsense we’ll be calling it by then and can learn life the hard way – we will have the finest educated bog cleaners the western world has ever produced. Of course there is a binus – they’ll be of an age where they will get the higher level of minimum wage. That and being reliant on tax credits will keep them obedient to the State.

    The House of Lords is a scandal.
    Isn’t it just. Did I tell you I’ve been measured up for my ermine? I’ll look stunning.

    We are something like £1.5 TRILLION in debt and this is increasing fast.
    Yes. Isn’t it marvellous? Then each time the wheels wobble we can further reduce Satate involvement, increase Sate subsidised third sector rubbish and privatise even more and even faster on the grounds of ‘the future of our young’.

    The Civil Service is not fit for purpose.
    Oh contraire. It’s very fit for purpose – we’ve spent the last three decades totally immersing it in Common Purpose bilge and the f***wits even believe it. They have served their purpose well and have been re-moulded to serve our purpose even better. Just that gobby creature Mark Serwotka and his ilk to destroy and that will be job done. Another centrist success.

    We have not got any defence or foreign policy.
    And nor should we have. It will only get in the way of what Washington wants militarily and what Brussels wants economically. It’s easier to let them do all the leg work and formulate policy anyway. We can have a nice few weeks off and come back and just nod our heads and tag along. The public (bless them) are too pig ignorant and fearful anyway – just pump out a few scare stories and they’ll even vote against what they actually want. Turkeys one and all.

    Universities badly need looking at.
    Yes. They need to be churning out far greater numbers of graduates with pointless degrees, at a far far greater financial cost to the graduate themselves. Need to pull their fingers out. Letting the side down.

    Just that distraction Corbyn to stitch-up and the army of young that follow him to disillusion properly so we can continue with the marvellous strategy of alternating governments of a bluer shade of red and a redder shade of blue. Legalising soft drugs should quieten them down anyway – or at least make the creatures apathetic and compliant and dumb enough to think we’re listening (why should we listen? They have’nt got sod all to say that we’re interested in).

    More of the same all round I say. It might not work but it’s better than anything we’re going to let you have. We just need to finish discredting the Chilcott and it’s authors, lay off blame etc before it sees the light of day and that’s job done for this summer. Roll on to destroying the referendum next .

  13. Camerblair says:

    That’s the thing you see. When you go around fighting elections in an ever diminish centre ground, you have to destroy everything outside of it.

    Redder Blue can’t win without Bluer Reds voters, and Bluer Red can’t win with Redder Blue’s voters – and all the time, despite the potential electorate increasing in in size line with the population, both Redder Blue and Bluer Red are shrinking. So in the world of symbiotic blandness it’s in neither of our interests to oppose each other to much anymore – rather than distinctive differences we now both rely on the blurring of differences – clear magnolia water LOL.

  14. I am pleased to see Robert agreeing with me. The other comments look at other issues. The big lack at the moment in the Labour Party is a grouping which is neither hard left nor New Labour. And the quality of New Labour is very poor. The old Social Democrat right like Hattersley and Crosland could and did write books which were major contributions and in the case of Hattersley were entertaining.

    The current crew are careerists who have no wider vision than aping the Tories to win over Tory floating voters, to the detriment of Labour’s core vote. That is why the SNP won Scotland and wiped out the Labour Party. Original thinking and writing is beyond their abilities, and with an unprecedented crisis facing the Party, of new ideas there is none.

    If Labour is to survive, it needs the soft left. NEal Lawson’s article in the Guardian in July said as much, and he was right. That he and I both argue a similar case is at least a start

    Trevor Fisher.

  15. Michael Worcester says:

    The new old Labour party will not get elected into parliament however they will take over councils which will be run on Chavist lines. There will be no end of scandals involving misappropriation of funds for political dogma eg Birmingham council spent 1 million pounds spent to set up a madrassa in Pakistan but cannot afford books for the new library whilst blaming Tories for not giving enough money. These councils will also start to be lost because in the end most British people are not that political they just want well run services not revolution and the hard left are incapable of being pragmatic and seem to do anything to disadvantage anyone who wants to improve their lives (of which high taxes are just a symbol) and hating English people (after all isn’t that is the purpose of multiculturalism) whilst doing everything to improve their family needs such as sending their kids to private schools and getting them into safe seats in parliament and the council

  16. Tafia says:

    See Labour is back to it’s traditional core values – ballot rigging.

  17. Robert, Danny Speight and I are having a conversation about the centre and soft left of the Labour Party, it is a pity others go off on other issues. I agree with Danny Speight that the old social democratic centre of the party has collapse, and the comments about ROy Hattersley are fair. A decent and honourable man and a good MP for his Birmingham constituency, The LCC could not support him but we had respect for him. His comment about standing still and moving left is an accurate comment on how the party moved right under New Labour

    Of the other comments, the only one I would take up is the one about words being irrelevant. Anything but. Social Democrat, for example, was once Marxist. In 1900 the Social Democratic Federation joined the Labour Representation committee and then left as it was not socialist enough. It later joined the communist party and the word social democrat was then taken over by the centre and the people who left to form the SDP

    The last knockings of that centerism went down with the Lib Dem ship on May 7th. THe term is now open for anyone who wants to reject the Corbyn or Blair tendencies in the Labour Party. Will this gauntlet be picked up in the months to come?

    Trevor Fisher

  18. madasafish says:

    The world has changed form the 19th century when Labour was formed.
    The world has changed a lot more since the end of WW2 when Labour created the Welfare State.
    Automation and the internet have changed the world of work for ever.
    The Conservative Party has changed .

    And Labour does not want to?

  19. joh nP Reid says:

    trevor ,who’ll pick up the centre ground tag?, the Tories

  20. Tafia says:

    Madas, The Labour party was formed in 1900 – which would make it the 20th Century.

  21. In reply to John Reid the tories no longer appeal to the centre, and after the Lib Dem collapse it is clear it is no longer an attractive proposition as it was for the period after 1983

    the tories have tried to remove their speeches from the before 2010 era to erase the memory of the time Cameron and co talked about hugging a hoodie. That no longer gets votes whereas bashing benefit seekers does.

    That is the challenge and Debbie Abrahams is making a good start on taking on Ian Duncan Smith

    Trevor Fisher

  22. John. P Reid says:

    Trevor, fisher, yes the Tories trying to get those to the left of labour on civil liberties to vote Tory,yet now the Tories are in, they realize some law and order policies are needed, but civil liberties is just one issue, the middle ground has always been the State helping those in society, who can’t help themselves, like distribution of wealth, which letting people buy their council homes, actually sees the biggest redistribution to the poor, that any government could

  23. Tafia says:

    John, right to buy is not the state helping those who who can’t help themselves. That is a ridiculous statement.

    The people exercising right to buy didn’t need any help – they were already housed.

    By suggesting that council tenats needed right to buy because they couldn’t help themselves, you are saying that everyone – no matter what their financial staus, has a right to buy a house and the right to expect the state to help them do that, which is total and utter bollocks.

  24. We’ve got to have a narrative that plays with the people who know that they are sympathetic to the people who can’t help themselves, but they also know that the best form of welfare is work. Left-wing Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn believes that the rebellion has “strengthened” the party because those voting against the welfare cuts had shown that the party still cares about those in need of help.

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