In a pair of short essays on the state of the party, Kevin Meagher casts a critical eye over the state of both the Labour Right and the Labour Left. First the Right.
Let me start with a counterfactual. The basic problem with the Labour Right is that there isn’t really a ‘Labour Right,’ per se.
What I mean is there are several tribes on the right of the party – and the bad news is they have less and less in common. For a long time, they overlapped, with the glue of winning elections and holding office binding them together.
There are big differences between those on what we usually refer to as the moderate side of the party, and the radicals on the left. But we need to appreciate there are also differences within these agglomerated wings.
So those on Labour Right may broadly agree on a sensible, moderate approach to politics, but the various strands of opinion within it still have different aspirations and priorities.
First, we have the neo-Blairites clustered around their ginger group, Progress. They pine for a return to the certainties of New Labour. Tony ‘n’ triangulation, so to speak. They are happy with winning for the sake of winning.
That perhaps sounds dismissive. It isn’t meant to be. Clearly, any successful political project requires electoral victory and the progressives, or neo-Blairites, have things to say that are worth hearing.
But there’s a self-satisfaction about their view of the New Labour era which is quite unjustified. Of course, many positive changes were made during the Blair-Brown years of 1997-2010, notably managing a gently revving economy for a decent period and investing a huge amount in frontline public services.
But for too many people, New Labour simply did not change the weather.
Steel works, coal mines and factories did not reopen. Perhaps none of that was realistic, but it was, however, emblematic of a bigger problem: The types of decently-paid industrial jobs that sustained the British working class simply never returned and New Labour had no response to that.
It is a failing that is now killing British social democracy. All the other welcome policy interventions come to naught if working people cannot earn enough to buy a home, bring up their kids and enjoy life.
In the New Labour universe, a job is a job is a job. So this left us with the ‘hourglass economy’ of comfortable professionals at the top and those struggling with crappy leisure and retail jobs or chronically insecure work at the bottom.
Labour ministers sat back and trilled a never-ending encomium about the wonders of globalisation, without ever explaining why a formerly well-paid steel worker in Rotherham should be content with his job going to low-cost China, while he is left to collects trollies in a supermarket car park for the minimum wage.
This neglect of working class economic concerns has fed the anger about free movement and mass immigration which, again, New Labour bequeathed to these areas without a by or leave. Aided and abetted, it has to be said, by the gentrification of a parliamentary party that simply lost touch.
So depressed towns in the north of England remain depressed. People there feel they have little to thank Labour for. (As the party may now find to its cost in the Stoke Central by-election). In so many towns in the Labour heartland, social mobility has halted and now reversed, with a generation doing less well than their parents.
The fun always seems to take place somewhere else, usually in London, which benefits from the institutional advantage of having a powerful elected mayor to fight its case in Westminster, Whitehall and the dining tables and salons of north London, the quintessential New Labour milieu.
Moreover, many of New Labour’s principal achievements were entirely reversible. So while the neo-Blairites cry into their flat whites over the rise of Corbyn, they remain utterly unable to see the role they themselves played in their own decline.
New Labour simply was not transformational, either in design or outcome. Blair reckoned his election victory in 1997 was a call for Labour men and Tory measures, so governed accordingly.
Consequently, Blairites never showed much interest in economic inequality. Peter Mandelson was, of course, ‘intensely relaxed’ about people becoming ‘filthy rich’. Safe to say, Hardie, Attlee, Crosland and Smith would not have been.
For that matter, neither is the party’s grassroots, which is why members defenestrated Blairite Liz Kendall in 2015 (with her now seemingly insane campaign pledge for more defence spending) and flocked to Corbyn and the comfort of a pastor of the old religion.
Mandelson’s questionable suggestion was at least sustainable while the economy continued to grow and Blairite ministers showered our parched public services with Gordon’s billions. Yet there was a basic lack of ambition about New Labour ministers.
Terrified of falling out of favour with the overly-centralising Number 10, they didn’t innovate or drive change enough. They just spent an awful lot of money appeasing vested interests, with few leaving behind any real legacy to speak of.
And because everything was rooted in public spending, it was easy for the Conservatives to come in, turn off the red tap and turn on the blue one instead, diluting Labour’s achievements in office with the ice-water of austerity.
This has left them free to dial-up their own ideological fervour; so much so, that we are now seriously facing the prospect of a return of grammar schools. Governing so cautiously for so long has left the field open for the hard left to shout, not ‘traitor,’ but ‘pointless’.
However, like the Grand High Sparrow in Game of Thrones, Jeremy Corbyn has now stripped the Neo-Blairites of all earthly ambition and the trappings of power. Their response? General sulking and chatter that a walk-out of younger Labour MPs is in the offing.
Not smart, as the US president would say.
Of course there is another tribe on the Labour Right: Working-class, old Labour. Bigger than the cliquey neo-Blairites and more reflective of average core Labour voters with a narrower concern about reducing economic inequality.
So improving jobs, wages, training, housing and benefits.
They are no happier about Jeremy Corbyn’s stewardship of the party than the neo-Blairites, but recognise that Corbyn is still family and respect his mandate, even if they disagree with what he’s doing with it.
The Old Right doesn’t go in for existentialism. They are gritty realists. This is their party and they are staying put. There are good times and bad times but they are always Labour. There will be no defections. There will be no flouncing off to run museums.
But the Old Right is a support act. The party’s solid back four. More insular and lacking the élan of the neo-Blairites. The risk is that divisions between the two principal tribes of the Labour Right increasingly risk paralysing the moderates for a decade.
The conferment of a knighthood on the veteran Labour MP for Bolton North East, David Crausby, over the Christmas break was one such flashpoint. Michael Cashman and an assortment of neo-Blairite activists took to Twitter (where else?) to upbraid Crausby for his lukewarm record on LGBT issues.
It doesn’t matter that in the bigger battle for the soul of the party, Crausby is a natural ally of the neo-Blairites. He could, in fact, be a poster boy of the Old Right. A more solid Labour MP, grounded in his constituency and the fight against economic inequality, it would be harder to find.
He is exactly the type of Labour MP who deserves a knighthood (if we are to have these silly baubles). According to Cashman, though, (that’s Lord Cashman of Higher Bauble), Crausby’s thought crime is not to believe in ‘equality’. But, of course, that depends on what you think the term means.
It used to simply mean levelling the pitch for the poor. Now it’s code for advancing your group rights agenda. Fair enough, but different groups don’t always agree. Nevertheless, political parties need to absorb differences of opinion, even contradictory ones.
Yet if there is not room for the Crausbys, there is no hope, whatsoever, for the broader Labour Right congealing again around a shared prospectus. The neo-Blairite liberals simply don’t have the numbers. They never will have. How many times do they have to learn this the hard way?
If not oblivion, they certainly risk utter marginalisation. Crausby – and many more like him – are a lot closer to the centre of gravity of Labour’s electoral base in the North and Midlands, which is now under threat from a combination of Theresa May’s audacious bid to capture ‘Just About Managing’ voters for the Tories, the threat of a UKIP surge into these areas and plain old apathy.
But I suspect the key difference between the Old Right and the neo-Blairites is this: Blairites detest the Corbynite Left because they actively disagree with its direction of travel from first principles. In their marrow, they are not radicals. Fabian gradualists at best. In reality, many are liberals, not democratic socialists, nor even really social democrats.
They want Corbyn to fail on principle.
The Old Labour Right thinks Corbyn is well-meaning but hopeless. Their anger is more about the unreality of his politics rather than his intentions. If some of what the Left wanted to do was actually popular and deliverable, they would support it. It’s a question of practicalities, but the Old Right still has a radical soul.
So where do we go from here? In plotting a course back to political relevance, the broader Labour Right has to learn to put one foot back in front of another. All shades of opinion need to find common cause and to abandon their micro-grievances and refocus from the core vote up. Nothing can be taken for granted any more.
Part of this is to stop being ambivalent about the party’s performance. Simply standing aside and leaving Corbyn to struggle is a massive mistake. There is no benefit to be had in watching Labour fail in catastrophic terms.
After the botched plot to unseat Corbyn following the Brexit result, it’s clear he isn’t going anywhere unless it’s on his own terms. Princes across the water will never be rewarded with the throne. Nor should they be.
It’s time for putative future leaders from the Right to get back involved. The key priority is averting the electoral calamity in 2020 that the Fabian Society warned about recently.
Either the inheritance will be a smouldering heap of ash, or, more likely, the left will still control the grassroots and dictate any subsequent leadership process, blaming the Right for not helping. They will have a point.
A post-Corbyn Labour party is never going to rally for the Blairites and they need to understand that. A new political project, based in the party’s heartlands in the North and Midlands, is the first place to rebuild.
The Old Right is in this for the long haul, but can the same be said for the neo-Blairites? They need to tell us and show us. What is clear is that both need each other to win.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut