The fight for Labour’s soul is only just beginning

by Kevin Meagher

So that’s it then, we’re one big happy family? The outcome of the 2017 general election (assuming there’s just the one) is that the electoral catastrophe every piece of empirical evidence suggested was in the post ahead of polling day did not, in fact, arrive.

There is relief – plenty of it – that a big chunk of Scotland has come back home and that ‘feckless’ young voters are perhaps not that feckless after all. Yet despite noises off from the left, this government has every right to govern, given it won 55 more seats than Labour.

Caution, rather than exuberance, should be the prevailing mood in Labour circles.

The other permissible emotion is, of course, schadenfreude at the appalling mess Theresa May finds herself in. The past few excruciating weeks in the life of the Conservative party have been a sight to behind.

But back to Labour. It is not credible to simply forget about the past two tortuous years. A recent leader column in the New Statesman suggested that’s exactly what we should do:

In spite of his many shortcomings, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to lead the party into the next election, whenever it falls. He has won the Labour civil war.

There’s certainly been a lack of civility, but I’m not sure ‘civil war’ characterises the past 20 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s roller-coaster leadership. The sniping between Corbynistas and moderates (for want of a better term) has never really come to a head in a pitched battle.

Mostly the internal rows have been about the leadership’s lack of a political strategy and the string of unforced errors that has seen Labour branded as anti-Semitic, or just plain incompetent.

To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn has tried not to pick fights since becoming leader. Sure, there have been outriders floating radical ideas about policy and party reform, yet despite the fears among MPs that there would be a period of blood-letting following Owen Smith’s emphatic defeat in the second leadership election last summer, there has been no abuse of the party’s internal processes by Corbyn, evidenced by the failure of his supporters to secure berths in the pre-election carve-up of safe seats.

A row is certainly now brewing over the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’ to enact a rule change at the party conference, reducing the threshold needed for candidates to stand in a future leadership election, thus making it easier for the left to secure a nominee.

But in a spirit of ‘not meeting trouble halfway’, the focus now should be on how the party can best take things forward in the short term. For starters, it would be wise to develop a series of shared assumptions about the immediate future. Some ground rules, if you like. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Labour lost this election and must do better next time. The phrase ‘Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary’ should disabuse starry-eyed Labour folk of any view to the contrary. Clearly the mood is ebullient because Jeremy Corbyn defied all expectations. He did not recreate the coalition of support than saw New Labour win three large majorities, but he did fashion a new coalition, mobilising record numbers of young voters to the Labour cause.

    This was undoubtedly a huge achievement, but drain away the hubris and it’s a bit like being an Accrington Stanley fan, drawing Chelsea in the fourth round of the FA Cup and losing 2-0. We’re glad we got this far, but we still lost. How do we ensure the young turn out again in large numbers? Was this a paradigm shift, or a one-off blip: a response to bribing them with the prospect of cancelling tuition fees? Will the Tories simply match Labour’s offer and neutralise the advantage? Either way, Jeremy Corbyn still needs a strategy for a second election, which could come at any time. He must repeat last month’s performance and then go one better in broadening the party’s appeal to those sections of the electorate that have hitherto proven immune to his charms.

  2. Policy should not drift to the hard left. There seems to be a general acceptance that Labour’s giveaway manifesto, with eye-catching commitments around scrapping tuition fees, free school meals and nationalising the railways played well on the doorstep. Many of these measures commanded support far across the party and while the efficacy and affordability of some of them is moot, they are not entirely wild-eyed. The argument here is that the manifesto should be as far as Labour goes. If it’s a popular platform – as suggested – then the party should, logically, stick with it. No more talk, then, of unilateral nuclear disarmament and the like.
  3. There must be no purge of internal critics. Labour needs to be a broad church and continue to agglomerate opinion on the centre-left of the political spectrum. New party chairman, Ian Lavery disagrees and has suggested the party is actually ‘too broad’ and that sitting MPs have no ‘divine right’ to retain their seats if left-wing activists want them out. Likewise, Corbyn ally, Chris Williamson, the new shadow fire minister, this week warned mandatory reselections should be introduced to ‘concentrate minds.’

    Momentum activists in Luciana Berger’s local party in Liverpool Wavertree are apparently demanding she apologises for previous criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn, while putting her on notice about her future conduct. Such attempts to ‘purify’ the party will trigger the civil war that, thankfully, we have, thus far, avoided. Labour needs careful handling in coming weeks and months and the risk of a breakaway remains real. Equally, recent talk of a clear-out of officials at party headquarters is utterly counterproductive for Jeremy Corbyn. There is a not-too-subtle attempt to pass blame for not winning the election to party staffers and their alleged caution. However Corbyn’s people were as dumbfounded at that exit poll as everyone else. They had been hunkering down, preparing to gloss over a wounding defeat. It was entirely reasonable for staff to focus on holding what the party had; given there was not a shred of clear evidence Labour was going to actually increase its tally of seats.

  4. Labour needs to raise its trend level of competence. Eventually, Theresa May will regain her footing. As Prime Minister she gets to set the agenda and the visceral shock of the election result will subside. For Labour, it’s back to the hard slog of opposition: wrong-footing ministers while setting out a positive, credible alternative. Plainly, Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-election track record in this department was hardly stellar (that is, after all, why May called the election to begin with). The announcement of an underwhelming frontbench team the other day hardly inspires confidence that the leadership has learned its lesson. Labour’s ‘spend, don’t offend’ approach to ladling taxpayer’s money over every issue will do little to convince the millions that didn’t vote for it last month that the party can be trusted with the nation’s books.

We are fast approaching a fork in the road. Labour will either remain a broadly social democratic party, committed to a mixed economy and parliamentary democracy or it will evolve into a left-wing socialist party, committed to large-scale nationalisation and direct action.

The underlying question is this: can a more left-wing Labour party win a general election? Parked to the left of Tony Blair, a relatively more left-wing party probably now can.  But an absolutely more left-wing party, with Corbynism let rip, will not.

Recognising this important distinction will determine whether Labour remains a broad church, with a more radical prospectus than it has offered in its immediate past – but one that can still win an election – or whether it becomes a narrower sect, with a determinedly more radical Corbynite platform, that will plateau out, just as the party did last month.

The fight for Labour’s soul is only just beginning.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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25 Responses to “The fight for Labour’s soul is only just beginning”

  1. Peter Martin says:

    Labour will either remain a broadly social democratic party, committed to a mixed economy and parliamentary democracy or it will evolve into a left-wing socialist party, committed to large-scale nationalisation and direct action.”

    A mixed economy is what we once had in the 60’s. We don’t have one now. So we do need some renationalisation to compensate for what we’ve lost. So “social democracy” can’t just mean a continuation of the current status quo.

    Is that something we can all agree on?

  2. buttley says:

    two years into Labours un-Civil war & denial on the right, still reigns supreme.

    the membership wants change Kevin, it is coming.

    Democratic Socialism is the direction of travel.

    the right of the party, have 3 options now,

    get with the program, even though they are ideologically opposed to it.

    continue to act as open saboteurs, until they are deprived of the breakables.

    take their ideology off to a new venue.

    most will take the first option for now, but then they are essentially living a lie,

    it is not a good look, to be viewed by your peers as a closet saboteur & it is untenable in the longer term.

    there would be a certain irony to a breakaway by the “co-operators”.

  3. steve says:

    “There must be no purge of internal critics.”

    This is a most important priority as the future of the Labour Party and indeed, our Great Nation is dependent on those who are prepared to criticise and, yes, eventually move to oust Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

    Last week I was heartened to hear of Labour MPs who voted for Chuka Umunna’s ammendment to the Queen’s Speech. This provided a welcome distraction from Corbyn’s ever popular, headlne-grabbing antics.

    Chuka’s ammendment, and the 50 or so Labour MPs who backed it, provided a very welcome moment of Labour Party disunity. And of course, all mainstream commentators are in agreement that the ammendments only consequence was to ruin Labour’s three week old internal truce. This was its true value.

    In the face of popular and growing support from an ignorant electorate (Corbyn is now topping May in the polls and Labour’s electoral prospects appear to be extremely promising) our sensible Labour MPs need to disrupt, disrupt and disrumpt again in a relentless campaign to prevent a Labour victory at the next genearl election.

    So, well done Chuka. The electorate, and Labour’s membership, may not know what they are doing but you certainly do. With your disruptive intervention you’ve made a very good start and are leading the way.
    Let’s have more of the same. Much, much more!

  4. Tafia says:

    Social democracy and democratic socialism are and always have been mutually exclusive.

    Labour can be one or the other but not both. It’s through trying to be both for decades that is the root and cause of all it’s problems.

  5. Janine Edwards says:

    It probably is time for the Tory-lites to come clean and join the proper Tories. Why not?

  6. Ian says:

    Insofar as this site ever secured a mojo, it has clearly lost it now that you cannot run threads every other day predicting the end of the party under Corbyn’s leadership.

    He will surely need to make a major misjudgement in Parliament soon, in order to rescue Uncut’s driving narative….

  7. george silver says:

    sorry but while corbyn is in charge, I’m not voting labour.
    he’s a terrorist sympathizer, he hates the west, he thinks Venezuela is something to emulate and his chancellor supports murderers. dress that up any way you like … but I wont support that even in the party I love.

  8. I for one don’t agree.

    If we had no NHS, no welfare, no public education, etc, we’d no longer be a mixed economy. We have less that’s nationalised than in the 70s. We’re slightly below average for OECD countries, so I’d be content if we raised it a bit, but we’re still a mixed economy.

    In contrast, government spending in China has been around 26% or so, and Russia around 36%.

    With about 41% of GDP being government expenditure, I can’t see how we could be called anything but a mixed economy.

  9. So Labour MPs do not think they should have to get continued confirmation from their local party. Of course they don’t. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

    Why should an MP in a safe seat have a job for life? Why should we have a PLP which is so far away from the views of the majority of the party members?

    For two years Corbyn has offered the right of the party compromise, but what has he got in return, knives in his back. (Or front if we believe Jess Phillips.)

    The democracy bit of social democracy starts at home. In Labour that means real internal democracy, not a party run by its elite. What do we have now? We have Yvette Cooper defending Laura Kuenssberg rather than her victim of false reporting, Corbyn.

    Cleaning out the Augean Stables which is today’s PLP is well overdue.

  10. Keith says:

    But Corbyn’s Labour party is hardly an absolute Left wing party. The manifesto was more Social Democratic in its aims – even with regard to its spending commitments and market intervention proposals. New Labour was Thatcherism with tinges of compassion rather than having anything in common with the spirit of Social Democracy.

    Even so, Blair’s Centre politics has been totally discredited with no lasting legacy and a wasted 13 years. That is why we had Brexit and Trump. This is partly the appeal of Corbyn.

    If, as the author claims, the country will not support a Left-wing programme then it sure as hell will not support Centrist politics any more either. After all, both Brown and Milliband of the New Labour years, got a much lower share and many fewer seats than Corbyn.

  11. anosrep says:

    “We are fast approaching a fork in the road. Labour will either remain a broadly social democratic party, committed to a mixed economy and parliamentary democracy or it will evolve into a left-wing socialist party, committed to large-scale nationalisation and direct action.”

    Clause 4 of the party’s constitution – the new Clause 4, the one introduced by Tony Blair – says, “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.” What part of “socialist” (and, frequently, “democratic”) do the so-called moderates find so hard to accept?

    Also “parliamentary democracy” and “direct action” are not mutually exclusive; indeed, without the latter we’d never have had the former.

  12. Tony says:

    “No more talk, then, of unilateral nuclear disarmament and the like.”

    No, Corbyn needs to press for Labour to drop its support for Trident replacement ahead of the next election.

    This would allow Labour to challenge Theresa May’s plans to start a nuclear war:

  13. Robert Haigh says:

    I think the main task for labour is to convince people of the economic case for their plans to increase spending and why austerity measures need to be less and how this relates to the national debt. I think people vote mostly for economic competence in a party.

  14. joh nP reid says:

    , Blairs legacy was we prevented the tories being in power that time

  15. Tafia says:

    After all, both Brown and Milliband of the New Labour years, got a much lower share and many fewer seats than Corbyn.

    LOL Corbyn has four more seats than Brown got. He did better than Miliband for sure, but is barely above the level of the much rididculed failure-branded Brown.

    Brown 258 (2010)
    Corbyn 262 (2017)

  16. John says:

    Your comment about Corbyn not picking fights in his own party is rather disingenuous at best, for whilst he has not personally attacked the dissenters, he has been more than happy (as leader, remember!) to stand on the sidelines and watch the Momentum thugs issue all sorts of barely disguised threats of deselection at them.

    And that, I’m afraid, tells a lot about Corbyn himself. Obviously one not to get his hands dirty is he? Just sits on the fence, admiring the view, as dissenters are pushed towards the cliff top…

  17. John P Reid says:

    Anosrep ao when is direct action alright to over rule democracy in the chamber, we have the vote now, if a Tory didn’t like a labour parties police in power and resulted to undelcrtic means to stop democracy, then that’s oppressive,

    Tafias repeated quote someone made,
    have to disagree with Miliband was new labour ,though
    Tony I think we dint need nukes, as it wouldn’t help,not because if we had them we’d start a war, by that definition ,night as well scrap the army, as it would see us not starting a land war.

  18. steve says:

    @ Tafia

    Corbyn won more seats than New Labour’s economic genious gordon Brown?

    This should not reflect badly on Brown – he may have been the personification of social ineptitude and, like Miliband, wasn’t really suited electoral campaigning but he will always be best remembered as masterminding the details of New Labour’s privatisation of the NHS.

    This is documented in Prof. Allyson Pollock’s book ‘NHS plc’. Pollock was a senior advisor to the Blair government. In her book Pollock describes how Brown insisted that only the private sector could properly run the NHS.

    And now Corbyn threatens to destroy this proud feature of New Labour’s legacy.

    I was hoping that EU anti-monopoly rules would open the NHS to further privatisation. But Brexit may halt that. However, there is a glimmer of hope. The post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. – negotiated with Donald ‘Amercia First’ Trump – will surely open up the NHS to the corporate healthcare sector. Then, despite Corbyn’s bleatings, the Blair-Brown ambition will be realised and NHS privatisation will continue apace. While Corbyn, along with a those misguided enough to support him, will be left crying into their insipid cups of Lapsang Souchong tea.

  19. buttley says:

    if i was a right wing Labour MP unfairly suspected of being a saboteur, when in reality, i had just mis-resigned, mis-briefed, or mis-twittered.

    if i wanted to truly re-set the clock. showing the leadership i wasn’t going to flounce off in six months time, lobbing hand grenades on my way out of the door

    i would privately deposit a legally binding resignation letter, with the leadership only to be opened in the event of my defection.

    it is akin to the footballing metaphor, that nobody is bigger than “the team”.

    as an MP i would be implicitly acknowledging this,

    that i am there “because” of the party, not in spite of it.

    & that upon my defection an automatic by-election would be triggered.

    the player voluntarily ties themself to the club, & gives the manager & the fans certainty for the season ahead.

    any MP could do this in private or on social media & put their own loyalty beyond doubt, like a twitter resignation letter in reverse.

    if each MP posted on the hour, every hour, we could drag it out for ten & a half days.

    imagine the column inches Kevin could fill, with such a prolonged demonstration of unity.

  20. Fubar Saunders says:

    “Labour needs to be a broad church”

    The only thing that holds them together in this broad church is the antipathy/dislike/pathological hate of the tories. If the Tories cease to be a worthwhile/available target for their hate, then they turn on each other. Its a motivation based purely on destruction and hate rather than positive vision.

    The reason the Blairites are in the trouble they are in is because they dont have the balls to see these putsch’s through. Four times they tried to unseat Brown in three years, twice they’ve tried with Jeremy and each time at a critical stage, they’ve bottled it. Every single time, they failed to see it through.

    Wounding the snake isnt enough. You’ve got to finish the job off. And none of these people has the cojones to see the job through. None of them have the guts to stand up to the far left and are only concerned about seeing their five years out in this parliament to trigger the parachute payments that kick in when they lose their seats.

    And yet, every single one of you, despite the fact that you all know deep down in your bones that not only will the likes of Corbyn, McDonnell et al will not only be catastrophic for your own party but also the country as well continue to go out there every single day in the press and the mainstream media and implore all of us to vote for your party and support your party instead, even though you know this.

    The tories are a mess and are only surviving in office but barely in power because they are still, despite all their legion of faults, seen by the electorate as the least worst alternative.

    How much worse does it have to get?

    And forget all the “Ah but the tories” schtick. The rest of us dont – or at least shouldnt –
    decide to give our votes based on who is the least s**t. And its hardly a good advertising tag-line, is it?

  21. @ Tafia

    Social democracy and democratic socialism are and always have been mutually exclusive.

    I’m afraid you are using Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty argument of words meaning what some want them to mean. To be a social democrat implies a belief in socialism. The mutual exclusiveness is between democratic socialism/social democracy and economic liberalism. This is why the Liberal Democrats could be part of a Tory government. There was no social democracy in them just as there really wasn’t in the SDP.

    Don’t believe me, then look at Wikipedia in their much edited entry. Even after the editing it still has this. It’s certainly not Hayekian economic liberalism.

    Social democracy originated as a political ideology that advocated an evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism using established political processes in contrast to the revolutionary approach to transition associated with orthodox Marxism.[

  22. paul barker says:

    The “Battle for Labours Soul happened 2 Years ago & The Centrists lost. The main reason Labour has not seen the predicted Civil War is that every time Battle was called The Centrists chickened out, backed down & ran away.
    Labour Centrists have nothing to look forward to but endless retreat, marginalisation & eventual dissapearance. Their division into Pro & Anti Camps over Brexit means any breakaway “Party” would be limited to 30 MPs even on the most optimistic assumptions. It would be an Army with lots of Generals but no Soldiers.
    The SDP survived until it could recruit new Members because The Liberal Party offered it protection, dont assume that would happen again.
    In the long run Centrist Labour MPs have only 2 real choices : carry on retreating or defect to another Party.

  23. John p Reid says:

    Paul barker the planned left take over was due to moderates beung bu n out, not having a civil war, in 2010 Ed Miliband convincing the party we lost in 20-0 as it wasn’t left wing enough, so when we lost in 2015 to a party to the right of us, the hard left said Ed Miliband was right we did lose in 2010 for not being left wing enough,and we’ve lost again in 2015 for not being left wing enough

    Also some people who left had rejoined

    You obviously would like Ex labour people to join the libdems
    Ask yourself this, nearly all current Libdem voters second choice is Tory, the Tories who support Brexit,you don’t, if say a EU skeptic moderate was to leave labour, they’d more likely hold their nose vote Tory for once.

  24. john P Reid says:

    Janine Edwards do you want labour to lose a election, that won’t get the homeless off the streets yet you’re calling for people you don’t consider to be real labour to join the tories so they’ll take votes away form us

  25. Tafia says:

    @Danny Speight . To be a social democrat implies a belief in socialism.

    Errm I’m afraid that is bollocks.

    Social democracy is a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, as well as a policy regime involving a commitment to representative democracy.

    Democratic socialism is a political ideology that advocates political democracy alongside social ownership of the means of production, often with an emphasis on democratic management of enterprises within a socialist economic system.

    You can be one or the other, but not both.

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