Where is Liam Byrne headed?

by Jonathan Todd

Liam Byrne is nothing if not industrious. After a hotly contested by-election, a minister five minutes after becoming an MP. The hard work continued on the opposition front bench, even if he felt too Blairite to be in vogue during the Miliband years. When he might have been expected to back the more Blairite Liz Kendall, he enthusiastically supported Yvette Cooper.

Cooper outperformed Kendall but Byrne’s candidate was left to eat Corbyn’s dust, as a much changed party from the one that Byrne was first elected to represent was created. Back then Byrne was the poster boy for Blair’s ability to win by-elections in the face of impassioned campaigning by parties, the Liberal Democrats and Respect, opposed to the Iraq war. Now Labour has a leader who can seem to be willing Blair toward the Hague.

No defeat or indignity, it appears, deters Byrne. The grafting just persists. He wants to make the best of Corbyn, as he made the best of Blair, Brown and Miliband. But not from the frontbench. No longer does he defend the leadership on all fronts. A big olive branch was, nonetheless, offered in his recent Policy Network speech.

This conciliation was Tony Crosland shaped. In the 1950s, a civil war waged between Bevanites and Gaitskellites. Europe and nuclear deterrence loomed large. As, oddly enough, they did during the convulsions of the 1980s. And they do again now. There must be something about these issues that brings them to renewed prominence at times of heightened Labour flux.

Crosland’s The Future of Socialism sought to cut through these differences by appealing to a shared commitment to equality. What divided Bevanites and Gaitskellites was merely the means; the end of equality united them, argued Crosland.

“I love Jeremy’s passion for tackling inequality,” Byrne insisted at Policy Network. “He is not a Trot. I am not a Tory. We are both Labour.” Reaching beyond the differences, like Crosland sixty years ago, to find the common conviction.

But on the terrain of policy, as oppose to underlying values, Byrne does have disagreements with Corbyn. He doesn’t, for example, like People’s QE. That is certainly a highly unconventional monetary policy tool. But so is QE itself. And it is not clear that QE has worked as effectively as other tools, such as People’s QE, might have.

We should, though, only reach for such extreme medicine in extreme circumstances. John McDonnell – in a speech to Labour party conference so sober that it wouldn’t have been a massive stretch to imagine Ed Balls delivering it – has been clear that these circumstances no longer prevail. Labour is not, therefore, calling for People’s QE to now be deployed but to be added to the Bank of England toolkit and used in sufficiently dire circumstances.

In other words, Byrne was attacking a straw man of McDonnell, whose views on People’s QE have become more nuanced. As he picks at a straw man of New Labour by equating it with neoliberalism in the Guardian.

With the straw man of McDonnell to his left and the straw man of Blair to his right, Byrne seeks to define himself by that most Blairite of methods: triangulation. Using McDonnell and Blair as props in this way, however, leaves Byrne in a place that he has not traditionally been associated with: the soft left.

Byrne titled his Policy Network speech ‘entrepreneurial socialism’, which sounds a lot like the ‘aspirational socialism’ that Andy Burnham spoke about in the 2010 leadership election, as he was beginning a journey from Blairism to soft left. In the Miliband years, the soft left held the commanding heights of the party, while the decision of soft left members to veer further leftwards this summer was integral to Corbyn’s triumph.

The past five years have reminded us what was more widely understood pre-Blair: the hearts and minds of the soft left are the battleground upon which the right and left of Labour contest the party’s direction. Byrne is stepping away from the Blarism that he rode to the Cabinet and seeking to place himself at the centre of this battleground.

In so doing, he recalled many of the core themes of the Miliband years: an emphasis on long-termism over short-termism, with strong Germanic undertones; a strong rejection of the “old rules”, very Milibandite rhetoric; an insistence that a more robust form of equality than equality of opportunity is required; and a hint of Blue Labour with a Pope Benedict quotation.

What Byrne mixed, therefore, was a cocktail of Crosland’s equality, Blair’s triangulation, and Burnham/Miliband’s soft leftism. The real question is what Byrne thinks he gains from serving this. His ceaseless hard work has never been its own reward. It has always served some ambition.

Byrne often has the urgent air of someone keen to impress at a job interview but where he sees himself in five years time is the unanswered question.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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14 Responses to “Where is Liam Byrne headed?”

  1. John P Reid says:

    I can imagine a few at left futures foaming at the mouth now,

  2. Richard says:

    It’s obvious what is to be gained with the new ‘soft left’ identity Byrne is cultivating, in fact you stated it yourself in the article, “the hearts and minds of the soft left are the battleground upon which the right and left of the Labour contest the party’s direction”.

    Byrne is no more “soft left” than Corbyn is Blairite, it’s politics. Byrne is desperate to unseat Corbyn, as are the media, the PLP and other associated groupings, and they would all like this to happen before some fundamental reforms of the Labour Party make a right wing return arduous.

    However, a coup needs to be supported by a significant proportion of the membership and the bulk of the rest need to acquiesce else a premature coup will cause civil war in the party, and not the asymmetric civil war currently being conducted by the PLP. This support for a coup currently isn’t there and support will clearly not be given to the right wing just now, this is where the “soft left” come in.

    Corbyn, we are being told constantly, is unelectable, is hard left, has extreme ideas and so on. This will now be contrasted with the ‘soft left’ alternative. Leftist radical rhetoric disguising the old right wing thus providing a home for disenchanted Labour members who supported Corbyn but are worried that the party will not win power.

    This is the point of Byrne’s strategy. Of course some of you will claim that I am simply a conspiracy theorist, fine. Those of you without an ideological axe to grind ask yourself if you can actually trust Byrne’s transformation?

  3. paul barker says:

    Wherever he sees himself going its fantasy, The Left will use people like as long as they feel hes useful, then he will be dumped.

  4. Byrne is damaged goods.

  5. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Perhaps he is heading towards writing a letter one day.

    Dear Comrade Corbyn

    I’m afraid you fucked up the British Labour Party completely, made a complete mess of it and I’m afraid it will never hold power ever again in the future.

    Kind regards and good luck!

    Liam Byrne


  6. historyintime says:

    Tosser. Part of the problem not the solution.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Akira Lol.

  8. Danny says:

    Liam Byrne is on a mission of self-preservation. He’s enjoying the Westminster gravy-train and is prepared to sacrifice his principles and values to maintain his position.

    It’s quite obvious really. His constituency will cease to exist based on current boundary review proposals so his sustained position in Parliament is going to be in the hands of members who overwhelmingly voted Corbyn. What chance does he have of success as the idiot, fawning Blairite who literally did more to help the Tories win in 2015 than he did his own party?

    He is going to spend the next four years re-branding himself as all things to all people in the vain hope that he may cling on to a seat in the House of Commons for yet another five years.

    Given the compassion and opinions shown by the Labour membership in the leadership election it would indicate quite clearly that he is on to a loser.

  9. Janice says:

    @Akira Origami

    wouldn’t the follow up note be one in which deposed leader Corbyn leaves a note to new leader Liam Byrne that says

    “There’s no voters left”.

    However, I am not persuaded Liam Byrne has leadership ambitions, if his activity is fueled by ambition I assume his assumption is that Corbyn will be removed at some point and he is engaging in damage limitation, and keeping the faction alive.

  10. Richard says:

    Oh no Akira, the dubious honour of fucking the party went to the right wing.

    You might have noticed how appallingly we did in the last GE? How we lost the once mighty Scottish LP voters? Even worse than we did in the one before that, you know, the first one we lost after our failure to control bankers whilst in government which contributed in no small measure to the economic crisis.

    You might remember that crisis, some year afters the illegal wars our Labour PM took us into, which reduced the number of Labour voters?

    I wish the right would wake up, it’s them that fucked us up. All the left are trying to do is prevent a complete pasokification, you know, the way Pasok went in Greece and fell to Syriza after Pasok went further and further to the right and lost the confidence and support of the working classes?

    Yet some on the right wing, still smarting from the landslide victory of the left as the membership told them to fuck right off, have the temerity to predict a future when they cannot even see the consequences of their own past.

  11. Will says:

    I would t care if a few more ex Blairites followed his example and started some coherent opposition to what looks like being the most destructive Right Wing government ever preparing to go where Thatcher didn’t dare!

  12. La Resistance says:

    Bryne’s ideas are very good but, yes, he’s playing to Corbyn’s tune. He’s making a political mistake by trying to copy Burnham. Blairite triangulation won’t convince anyone: the party know he’s a Blairite, he knows he’s a Blairite and Corbyn knows he’s a Blairite. Time for authenticity.

  13. Chris says:

    Byrne needs to be careful, he’s not walking the right wingers party line – the men in Paul Smith suits will be after him.

  14. Mr Akira Origami says:

    @Janice Lol

    Liberals had their 1906 landslide. Labour had their’s in 1997. Both displaced within 20 years by start up parties?


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