by Trevor Fisher
The idea of a ‘soft left’ is currently popular, with commentators seeing it as crucial to Labour’s future. I agree, but its not an easy option. Spencer Livermore, in calling for the publication of the Labour report into his former bosses’ election defeat referred to Miliband’s ‘soft left policies’; clearly incorrect – Miliband rose through the Brown machine. More sensibly, Jonathan Rutherford wrote on Labour List in October that “only the soft left can build a winning coalition”, accepting that the ‘soft left’ had given Corbyn his victory as the hard left did not have enough support. Others have made the same point. The soft left dominates the membership.
However the soft left majority is unorganised and has no leadership or structure. While the hard left and the hard right have websites and organisations, the soft left do not. In the leadership election, soft left votes went to the hard left candidate precisely because they did not have a candidate, though I myself, firmly soft left, voted for Burnham and Cooper as unity candidates. Though they were certainly not soft left, no soft leader leadership figure has existed since the death of Robin Cook.
Now we read Atul Hatwal seeking to co-opt the soft left as “getting rid of Comrade Corbyn will take time”, despite the fact that most soft left voted for Corbyn. He outlines a strategy which will produce a civil war which will aid no one but the Tories and SNP. So a few thoughts from a veteran soft leftist who spent most of the 1980s fighting militant (in the Labour Co-ordinating Committee), and most of the 1990s through to 2007 fighting the Hard Right, aka, New Labour (in Labour Reform and then the sadly prescient but largely unknown Save the Labour Party).
The key point is that the Hard Right, which most of this website’s contributors belong to, has lost its control over the Party – demonstrably so in the shift if votes from the 2010 and 2015 leadership elections. But more fundamentally, it has lost control because it no longer wins elections and its strategy is clearly delivering Britain to the hard Right. Not something Corbyn can be blamed for. This is the crisis of New Labour.
The phrase ‘soft left’ can only mean the people outsider the hard left and hard right organisations. The hard left was marginalised till it was given a chance to win…. by the hard right. Corbyn could not get on the ballot paper through Hard Left M Ps, and Establishment M Ps were crucial in allowing him to run, particularly Beckett and Field. They now regret it and Field in particular wants mass resignations and a civil war. Apologies for this stupidity are nowhere to be seen.
One of the key background themes for any Labour discussion is that the hard right aka New Labour has been politically incompetent on a massive scale. Who lost Scotland? Not Corbyn. Wales and Southern England are very bad news, and the electoral trend since 2001 has been downward in most areas of the UK. Does New Labour ever admit it is the cause of Labour’s recent disasters?
Soft left members swung in behind the Corbyn campaign as it offered a change from a failed politics. It is this that Atul and others in the anti-Corbyn camp do not grasp. Taking his argument point by point, he argues (a) ‘the soft left needs to wake up to what is happening’. (b) ‘new terms of trade are required within Labour’s internal debate’ and (c) ‘a viable alternative leader must emerge’. The obvious responses are as follows.
(a) the Hard Right needs to wake up to what is happening. Its policies, notably triangulation, have been a disaster and after the landslide of 1997 it threw away a commanding position. Accept that all that is happening comes from the failure of the New Labour Project, or take up pure theology.
(b) the new terms of trade start by accepting democratic decisions. While I did not vote for Corbyn, I accept he won fairly and without significant entryist activity. He has a mandate and he has to be allowed to try it out. The Hard Right has lost elections inside and outside the party, and should confront a deeper truth. The Labour Party is not trusted. Blair was not trusted. Brown was not trusted. Miliband was not trusted. It is not difficult to see why, they showed no sign of being principled politicians. And if the democratic election process of the Labour Party is to be undermined by factional activity, trust in the party will not regained.
(c) A new leader must emerge? This is clearly factional, and why exactly should the soft left back this? To keep the failed Hard Right in business? There are indeed leadership issues to be confronted, the rule book is dangerously badly written and in need of revision. And Corbyn himself has said that a mid term election process is desirable. So first things first. Get the rule book sorted. Secondly, keep the Party united.
The bottom line in all this is there is no attempt to start a civil war. Dave Prentis of UNISON is right to argue that Labour must not ‘degenerate into infighting’. To avoid this, any attempt to set up a party within a party, whether from the Hard Left or the Hard Right is unacceptable.
Organisations are welcome, as long as they do not seek to overturn the democratic procedures of the Party, including the elections for leader and deputy leader. Atwal mentions the Hard Left attempt to expel Progress. This was rejected so why raise a dead issue? Pressure groups are part of the scenery as long as they do not act as a party within a party.
Naturally situations may occur where there have to be decisions on the immediate issues facing the party, and this is the remit of the NEC. Not back bench parliamentarians, who should respect party decisions. There is much choppy water ahead. But if there is to be a recovery for Labour, then it has to operate as a united party through due process. Not small factions operating off their own agendas.
The tipping point has been reached and the domination of New Labour is broken. Its project failed, leading to instability. The old left has not had any real clout for thirty years, since the soft left and allies won the last civil war in the 1980s. The majority of party members have since then been broadly soft left and remain the distinctive group that decides the leadership, Which they have just done emphatically. There is no future in giving soft left members orders any more. How that soft left majority behaves in 2016 will be crucial: but one thing is clear. Back stairs plotting is not and cannot be the way forward. Dialogue is welcome. Factionalism is anathema.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007