The problem with the Labour Right

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

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18 Responses to “The problem with the Labour Right”

  1. Tafia says:

    Labour is fucked.

    There are four lots of two splits and every voter and member belongs to all four groups but only one of each split.

    Split One
    Pro-Brexit or Anti-Brexit

    Split Two
    Pro-Corbyn or Anti-Corbyn

    Split Three
    Working class or middle class

    Split Four
    Socialist or Liberal.

    That makes far far too many splits and sub-groups (16?) who all hate each other and have irreconcilable differences.

    And if you don’t believe me, tell me how you would bridge the gap between a pro-BREXIT, anti-Corbyn, working class, socialist and an anti-BREXIT, pro-Corbyn, middle class, liberal. You can’t. It is impossible. They have more in common with other parties than each other.

  2. John. reid says:

    I’ve carefully read through this and can’t make head nor tail of it, although I must admit I’ve n re heard of David Crausby MP, even if I follow Michael cashman on Twitter, for the record, Gavin Shukar and Steven Timms, Catholic argument you can’t legislate for faith(Something Peter Tatchell agrees on) regarding same sex marriage ,and his opposition for Iraq and supporting our troops sounds good, And I don’t follow games of thrones..


    I’ve Ben looking at some Libdem policies I appreciate under Charles Kennedy they were too the left of us, but if they are a ‘Liberal party’ something labour has never been, then their support for Abortion law to be relaxed in Britain, Abortion in Northern Ireland to be the same as the Main land, straight people giving civil partnerships, the Main parties fielding candidates in Borthern Ireland 4 year fixed term parliaments, letting women set up their own brithels and Anonymity for rape accused, are policies I could agree with


    I can’t see some of the blue labour people agree with them, apart from th Labour standing in northern Ireland and NI having the same abortion policy as the mainland

    Ion the other hand some blue Labour socially conservative policies, the MOD not being exempt from corporate manslaughter when they dont give squaddies the right equipment in peace time operations and one dies, or a soldier dies in a training exercise where health and safety aren’t met, or merging the country police forces, or clamping down in the RSPCA for melicious prosecutions where if a human was put down for arthritis, there’d be a out cry but when a pet isn’t out down yet has arthritis, they say it should gave been and is animal cruelty.

    I can’t see the average Libdem voter caring about the latter

    So the problem is how does labour keep socially conservative types and get liberal votes

  3. Is Sir David Crausby right-wing? He voted against the retrospective legalisation of workfare, he voted against the Iraq War, and he supported Andy Burnham for Leader. Ronnie Campbell initially fell into all three of those categories, and he, too, voted against same-sex marriage. Few people would describe Ronnie Campbell as being on the Right of the Labour Party.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head with the description of the Blairites, not even Social Democrats and opposing the whole direction of travel. Much of their behaviour from the moment Corbyn was elected has been to destroy him. It is no coincidence that Labours poll ratings nose-dived after the coup. A part of me wonders if they are scared of a Corbyn government showing up how little lasting Blair achieved. Also if you look back at pre-Blair Labour the policy position of this group is well outside the envelope so much so that Roy Hattersly was a fierce critic.

  5. Roy says:

    I hope the Blairites do all go.

  6. John P Reid says:

    Tafia,i fit in you first category, a couple of friends of mine fit in the latter ,of the first friend we both backed Andy burnham for leader in 2010,(before he disgraced himself in 2015) the other shares a love of Doctor who with me, your absolutely right ,on having nkthung in common

    but we share admiration of various MPs, john Cruddas and john Cryer and mayor Sadiq
    David and Graham’s. Comments are spot on

  7. Ian says:

    People who signed up to a socialist party in order to advance liberal principals, presumably because they thought this offered better career prospects, have made a mistake, which slowly they will come to realise.

    For the remaining machine politicians of the Labour ‘right’, they need to do some hard thinking to work out what their philosophical and policy platform actually might be. The experience of seeing Cooper, Burnham, Kendall, Smith and Eagle all struggling to some up with a single new insight or proposal between them hardly inspires much confidence.

  8. madasafish says:

    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.”

    Corbyn will not resign. That is evident.
    The membership will vote left wing.
    38 (?) MPs have to nominate a MP to be in the . Which means a Corbyn supporter could just about get onto the ballot.And win an overwhelming majority.

    So where do you go? What is the plan?

    There is none..

    Tafia is right. Labour ARE fucked. And it is all their own doing.Not once, or twice but by design.

    A Party so stupid needs to be put down and replaced by something better.

    (See the choice of Labour candidate for Stoke. A woman beater and obvious misogynist. Any Party which picks such an unsuitable candidate has got to have a death wish . All his misogynism was free to view on Twitter. I can only assume Labour want to lose )

  9. Peter Kelly says:

    Scottish Labour?

  10. John.P Reid says:

    Just thinking of Tafias, graph, of who in the PLP could appeal to a non liberal, anti corbyn and a brexiter, but also be liked by a pro EU Liberal, Cobynista,

    Ok no one, Frank field, appeal to the first group but that’ll never happen, then I though Gloria de piero, and Jon Cruddas also appeals, and up to point they weren’t anti Cobyn enough, and due to their religion, despite,it being socially conservative, have respect for liberal people beliefs,
    Trouble is both useless

    Then a pro EU liberal who’s a Cobynista ,who a blue labour person ,could get behind,the way, Callaghan and Healey got behind Wilson, say Hedi Alexander or Gareth Thomas

    Of course if a liberal pro the EU who had up to this point had been loyal to Corbyn ,became leader andsaid meet Blue labour half way, then th unite union boss would say ,yiu want our money, we’re not going to say stuff that may appeal to Ukip people

  11. paul barker says:

    This is a very odd article on a site that seems to have no discernable point.
    How can anyone talk about Labour divisions & not mention Brexit ?
    Tafias list is an oversimplification but he has a point. In fact he could have added an extra 2 Splits, North v South & Big City v Samall Town.
    Meagher is simply wrong to to say that Labour only had one Core Vote – the old Coal Fields/Industrial North. In Scotland & Wales Labour was The National Party & in London The Party of Progressives & Liberals. Scotland is gone, The Industrial North is split over Brexit & The London Progressives are appalled by Labours attempts to copy UKIP.
    Where does Labour go from here ? Into the dustbin of History I hope.

  12. Delta says:

    Well it was an entertaining article I thoroughly enjoyed the description of the “working class old Labour”. Before this point the article was very accurate.
    Truth is…well we will see how “loyal” they remain to the party that has repeatedly crapped on them comes begging.

    They have options now. Some are getting on and many do not like the state of things. Their sense of fairness has been flattened. Its taking time but they will leave…May will do this for Britain…and they will respect her for it or wander over to UKIP.

  13. John P Reid says:

    This is what one Corbynista thinks of ex labour woking class voters who now vote Ukip,orbtory. they’re not real working class, they’re racist

  14. John P Reid says:

    Paul Barker, I’d say Swansea or Newcastle are cities, and they would fit in with Chelmsford in Essex,which is now a city and Essex blue labour or ukip voter fits in with the northern Blue labour stuff

    Just thinking Tafia I believe, a supporter of lsbour in the 69’s and 70’s accepted the sea change, in 79′ where the public wanted a end or the post war Cincensus, and the public devout high unemployment wanted a party with ideas

    Now when I joined labour in 1988 ,persuading the party to junk, the closed shop ,and support multilateralism, and my main reason for joining was I dislike the Toey view in Apartied ,section 28 and the state of the NHS,we were still a protest group,who thought we could win,by appealing to special interests,to win,but it was never enough,we had to have policies, not just the liberal,or civil liberty, socially conservative ones I mentioned in my first comment ,above, but ideas in education, taxation, regionalism

    It’s no good just saying we need another kinnock, be it , Tom Watson, Sadiiq ,or Dan Jarvis who are going to have 10 awful years fighting both wings to bring us to a place where we’re a fighting force, but even then with one of the above candidates, or having a serious party,we still wouldn’t look like a government in waiting

    As well as the plan get a few ex Tory votes back, use Blue lsbour to get Ukip votes,and manage to hang on to liberals who’ll go to the libdems, if the Tories get a fair share of ex Ukip votes too(some from ex labour voters who went Ukip, who initially said they’d never go Tory) then it still wouldn’t be enough
    laBOUR needs a few people who currently vote SNP, and that would have to include offering even more devolution than at the time of the referendum…the frank afield idea.

  15. John. P reid says:

    To use a cliche a Middle clas pro Corbn remain, Liberal, who disagrees with a working class anti Corbyn brexiter, probably feels the working class don’t understand politics because they didn’t go to university, it’s a Cliche that Corbyn is a ex Georgraohy teacher, but some “liberals don’t even realize that some Corbynistas Trotskyite views mean the depth they’re prepared to go to min terms of breaking the party rules, intimidation and vitriol to stop non Corbynistas, so when a Working class Brexiter, points out that Corbyns party is driving away our core vote, not just because we’re a protest group, not just because, we are infighting and are not a serious opposition, not because there’s no realization that we are so far away from, having policies to give us a reason to exist, to give us offer the public, a reason to vote for us,and for us to argue why we offer a better way of life for people.

    It doesn’t even occur to Corbynistas that Ed miliband realised,new labours mistake of saying the W/C had no where else to go, we ‘need the middle class vote’ had alienated our core vote and that Ed miliband had done quite well getting back middle class votes, yet the Left view that winning doesn’t matter it’s a moral victory is ,insulting as middle class Coynistas aren’t the ones suffering under austerity,and the WC crying out for a opposition to the Tories, being told ..but it’s better to be Cobynistas, than socially conservative, party that appeals to people not interested in integration

    It will take until, certainly after the 2018 council elections and labour doing bad, before in 2019 labour would be even prepared to Do a Attlee last minute get in a leader like he replaced Lansbury,and the we would still have a 1983 defeat, and will the Cobynistas accept that they’ve. Caused it

  16. John P Reid says:

    Further to Tafias test Just thought of something that linked W\C socially conservative socialist, Brexiters who wanted Andy Burnam as leader, and Middle class remain liberals, who wanted a far left leader ,in Essex

    In 2013 we had a council by election, hope not hate, were linked to the UAF ,a couple of middle class Peo EU liberals,who wanted D Abbott as leader, said they didn’t want the UAF/Hnh to come down help at the by election as they were linked to the rape cover up SWP, we also has another by election, in May 2016 and again they were backing Jeremy at that time, and didn’t want the UAF to come and help, and some of the blue labour labour leave ,W\C anti cinrbnistas agreed with them,

    Just after the by election, wh n the referendum was going on Jenny jones the only main green Brexiters who had her followers in Essex,agreed with the Corbynista ,and blue labour view of not having the SWP on the left leave side

  17. John P Reid says:

    Just thought of something else that unites Middle class liberal Corbynistas remainers, with working class anti Corbyn socialist Leavers, we all can’t stand Shami Chakrobarti

  18. Mathiasalexander says:

    New Labour don’t realise that Corbyn’s popularity is entirely because he is not New Labour. Their project finally crashed and burnt in 2008 but they carry on as if nothing has happened.

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