by Kevin Meagher
It’s clear from the leadership election that Labour is now a collection of disparate, occasionally overlapping and increasingly rancorous tribes. There is an argument that it has always been like this; that from its earliest moments the party has been a fusion of radicals and moderates, working-class self-interest and middle-class altruism. However the shifting sands in recent years, not to mention over the past few months, requires an updated assessment. So here goes:
The princes have become the paupers, or more specifically, the modernisers have become the traditionalists. Unable to convince the party they once dominated to let them run the show, they instead find themselves rejected, marginalised and unloved, pining for the good old days. Always a White Commonwealth and without deep roots, massed battalions or decent organisation they were always going to struggle post-Blair. Yet the scale of Liz Kendall’s defeat in the leadership contest – a derisory 4 per cent (sorry, 4.5 per cent) – has seen tribe members resort to pinning ‘We are the 4.5’ on their Twitter profiles. Irony or defiance?
‘But why’, they ask, ‘does this ungrateful party not accept we won an unprecedented three election victories?’ Why indeed. Perhaps they assume that left-wing politics is a cool, rational experience. It isn’t, as the Neo-Blairites are finding out. Their lack of emotional connection with the party’s grassroots, avoidable during Blair’s long, hegemonic reign, is now killing them.
They are dealing with a party that wants to believe in something again. Can they find someone gutsy and lucky enough to champion their cause? But who? Liz was too brusque, Tristram’s too posh and Chuka’s an airhead. They also need to pick their moment, as Peter Mandelson warns. Will 18 months of Corbynite shock therapy (and ropey election results) earn them a fresh hearing?
More pragmatic than the Neo-Blairites, the Neo-Brownites are not happy with the drift to the left under Corbyn, but they are prepared to work with the grain. They were evident around the new Shadow Cabinet table the other day: Dugher, Ashworth and Watson.
This is the dividing line between them and the Neo-Blairites. They understand the grassroots and the art of political management. They take time to oil the machine in order to make it bend to their will. More than anyone else, they will help to keep the show on the road. Tough, resourceful, adaptable and tribal, they will continue to exert a powerful influence.
If any tribe has a claim to be the party’s centre of gravity, it’s the Gritty Realists. Usually found in the party’s northern and midlands’ strongholds, they are pragmatic and sensible. Politics here is more a class thing than anything ideological, per se. It’s about working-class identity; a politics of the ‘seed and the soil;’ community, solidarity and tradition. The Gritty Realists were never won over to New Labour, but could work with it as they recognised (and still do) that politics without power is futile. It’s also about addressing the fundamentals: jobs, housing and decent services.
Respectful to the leadership, they are the loyal of the loyal, although they hate all-women shortlists and the parachuting-in of acolytes into ‘their’ seats. They were more likely to break for either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper in leadership contest and while most are not overjoyed at Corbyn’s victory, they are glad to hear a tonal difference, with greater urgency put on reducing economic inequality. The solid back four of the party’s team.
Similar to the Gritty Realists, but acknowledging their preoccupation is increasingly with their devolved bodies, not Westminster. As the name suggests, they are a diminishing breed within the party and will exert only a marginal influence in future. This is a big change.
After all, the party’s first five leaders were born in Scotland, while six recent leaders in a row either represented Scottish or Welsh seats, or were born there: (Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown). And while Scots alone made up nearly a third of Tony Blair’s first cabinet in 1997, the decline of the Celtic Marginals from Labour’s upper echelons is now precipitous.
Apart from shadow Welsh secretary, Nia Griffith and shadow Scottish secretary, Ian Murray, the only other Celtic Marginal in today’s shadow cabinet is Owen Smith, who represents Pontypridd (despite being born in Morecombe). As for the Scots, well…
The New Old Left
If Neil Kinnock could exclaim “we’ve got our party back” when soft-left Ed Miliband won in 2010, presumably the same sentiment could have been made by the ghost of Tony Benn when Jeremy Corbyn triumphed last month.
The emergence of a New Old Left has certainly caught everyone by surprise. The signs of a revival were not much in evidence. Founded in 1982 with 21 MPs, the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour backbenchers, inevitably referred to as the ‘hard’ left, were reduced to just nine in May, (with that number set to fall in subsequent elections given their age profile). Yet three of them now sit at the head of the Shadow Cabinet: Corbyn, McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
In a recent essay for the New Statesman, the political theorist John Gray chided Corbyn for views that have “always resisted contact with reality.” And while he may sound “so invigoratingly unorthodox today” his is a politics of the past with little to say about the modern world or economy.
So how did he win then? It seems that it was precisely that constancy and unflinching unfashionableness that has rallied support from so many on the left and among the party’s grassroots. A generation of bloodless, triangulating baby-leaders misread just how precarious their grip on control really was. Corbyn was reassuringly authentic; red meat for a party weary of its ideological crash-diet. The test for the New Old Left, is, as ever, whether the impulse to kick mainstream politics in the nether regions is enough when harsh electoral reality kicks back.
These are the achingly modern, rootless, elitist, metro-liberals. Having flirted with life outside the Labour party in Green or leftist parties and among social campaign groups, their support is conditional and heavily concentrated in London and other city centres milieus. Unlike Gritty Realists who regard equality as principally about economic redistribution, the Urban Modernists are more interested in maximising personal autonomy, attaching themselves to whatever voguish cause is doing the rounds.
So its identity politics all the way; gender, sexuality or race or any of the increasingly esoteric subsets of these. (To which you can add-in the obligatory atheism and vegetarianism). As political purists, the Urban Modernists are disdainful of mainstream politics and its endless compromises. Being right is more important than being electorally successful. They are the ‘three quid Trots’, responsible for propelling Jeremy Corbyn to power, although they will tire of him eventually and gear up to surf the next #zeitgeist.
The smallest, newest and perhaps most interesting are the Unembraced Alternatives. Perhaps the most potent of these remains Blue Labour. Taking its inspiration from Catholic Social Teaching, it offers an alternative to state spending as the sole means through which Labour achieves its aims. Instead, Blue Labour emphasises non-state solutions and is genuinely devolutionary (in a way that’s alien to the rest of the party), seeking to foster a genuine sense of place, community and responsible, virtue-based capitalism.
Its leading protagonist, Jon Cruddas, made a typically thoughtful speech the other day, pointing out the grave situation the party is in while coining a neat phrase about the “politics of conservation”, preserving what is good and valuable in society from both a rampant market and overburdening state. It also has things to say about faith, patriotism and family, which, apart from the Gritty Realists and Celtic Marginals, no-one in the party is much interested in listening to.
Other Unembraced Alternatives include the Radical Devolutionists who long for the day that Labour sees the world from the bottom-up, not the top-down. Then there are the Realigners. At the moment they are invisible. But like dark matter you know they are there. They are the ones who will call, in due course, for Labour to do electoral deals with the Lib Dems, the SNP or the Greens, either to ‘keep the Tories out’ or because they see no future for Labour as it is currently constituted.
The problem for the Unembraced Alternatives is that Labour’s inherent intellectual conservativsm, the power of tradition and the resistance of the party’s many vested interests militate against them. So they will remain, well, unembraced.
So, for now, the Tribes of Labour are led by the New Old Left and Urban Modernists, with help from the Neo-Brownites. But will the pragmatic Gritty Realists put up with ‘being right but losing’ and open up a window for the Neo-Blairites to return?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut