The anatomy of the modern Labour party

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:

Neo-Blairites

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?

Neo-Brownites

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.

Gritty Realists

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.

Celtic Marginals

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.

Urban Modernists

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.

Unembraced Alternatives

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


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8 Responses to “The anatomy of the modern Labour party”

  1. Delta says:

    The intransigence of the those clinging to their positions means that a radical overhaul will be attempted, at some point by slices of the pie described in this article….the only chance Labour has of ending its own funeral rights is if one or a collection of slices clears the board of opponents who are too toxic and who are starving and poisoning the body. The longer the tribes are mixed with a completely different view on almost every item of policy the longer it would take to end the end. Additionally the longer Labours few thinking leaders reside in policy shallow limbo the sooner its activist base will fully disintegrate having no message for the electorate and a lib dem fate awaits that situation. It’s pain now of slow death to irrelevance and well deserved oblivion.

  2. Mike Stallard says:

    A very acute analysis of the challenge here – much appreciated.
    Isn’t it perhaps more useful to ask what the major challenges are”
    1. The debt is skewing house prices, investment, the banks, the taxes, the welfare system. Nobody seems to care. But we are running on empty. One crisis and we are broke like Greece. France went bust and had a revolution. Spain went bust and declined slowly. Germany went bust and produced Adolf Hitler. Take your pick.
    2. The decay of traditional industry. This does NOT mean that we live in a fair society. Fat cats exist everywhere. Cheating is common too – banking, the people running services – bureaucrats, TU leaders taking home massive pay, while their members starve. Meanwhile international companies do the business while escaping all taxation. Society is more unequal that at any time since the eighteenth century. I think that twittering about the bedroom tax is not what people want to hear. We need a plan.
    3. The decline of a common religion/ethos/morality/society. Even the focus of our society – the flag, the queen, the parliament,the church, the armed services – are rubbished. Our streets are sharply divided into various groups especially in large towns.
    4. Allow me to ask: what part in reforming all this should the State play? Lots or little?

    These are all traditional Labour challenges. And none of them is being addressed properly.

  3. TB says:

    You forgot:

    Disinherited Dunderheads

    The vast swathe of Scottish Labour MP’s who lost their seats in the last election because of the sheer unelectability of the party (see “Neo-Blairites” and “Neo-Brownites”, etc.).

  4. Interesting collection of Labour tribes. I think you might have missed one. It’s the Labour Party that I know from West Cumbria and the North East. Where New Labour was actually pretty much Old Labour. Where the party has always been about pragmatic solutions rather than starry eyed idealism. A party that believes trade unions doing deals with employers to improve the security of the future of the business alongside improved terms and conditions for workers is better than going gung ho to get the most for workers regardless of long-term consequences. This is New Labour that exists outside the metropolitan elite of the Neo-Blairites. For more evidence of New Labour’s roots in northern Old Labour look at the number of Blairite MPs with North East or Cumbria seats – Blair, Mandelson, Byers, Milburn, Hutton. A tradition continued today with Jamie Reed and John Woodcock.

  5. David Walker says:

    If Corbyn keeps dodging questions, then this has all been a waste of time. He just needs to say what he believes, even if it is unpopular and entirely at odds with most of his MPs.

    Otherwise, he’s finished. He needs to ignore the press entirely, as well. All they will do is try and undermine him.

    If he is going to win, he needs to be completely honest and rely on his momentum coming from the ground up.

    It’s a long-shot, but it’s his (and Labour’s) only chance.

  6. Richard says:

    Interesting idea, though of course we could all add a little grouping drawn from our own experience which will eventually make the categories so numerous that the exercise would be pointless. So I think I’ll stick with analysis around groupings, you know, Progress, Labour First, Red Shift, Campaign Group, Fabians, etc., or those around websites like labour list and labour uncut. I think that for analysis there are ideas and statements from these various sources and an assumption that ‘followers’ have broadly similar perspectives. Much easier to have an understanding of the party as a whole I think, but whatever works for you.

    What I found more fascinating was your denial of Corbyn’s legitimacy. As I recall Corbyn won the support of over 49% of party members on first round count and large majorities of the two other sections of the selectorate, a mandate that eats Watsons for breakfast and you were seemingly supportive of him and the source of his mandate went uncommented. How this huge Corbyn mandate was propelled by the ‘Urban Modernists’ or £3 Trots as you so enderingly labelled them I am at a loss to understand. Self evidently ‘gritty realists’ and the ‘new old left’ and a host of other groupings besides supported Corbyn enough or hated the old guard more to elect Corbyn.
    I thought it was the Corbynistas who were the boggle eyed deluded types, at least that’s what I keep reading on this site, so imagine my surprise to see the swivel eyed nature of that comment.

  7. paul barker says:

    The article lists some Labour tribes but doesnt mention that some of them would fit better in other Parties than they do in Labour as it is becoming. Labour is changing & becoming ever less congenial to The Neo-Blairites & The Urban Modernists & its not going to change back because of a few lost Council seats. Both those factions would be happier in The Libdems.

  8. Chris says:

    @Kevin

    You forgot the tribe of sarcastic former advisers. You find them writing in the right wing press (their own blogs for the second rate ones) or on telly spinning for the tories. Together with the two or three ex-ministers, who all had to resign in disgrace at least once, they can be guaranteed to do all they can to fuck Labour up if their candidate isn’t in charge.

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