Unfinished revolution: is Labour’s conversion to a party ready for power complete?

by Rob Marchant

Philip Gould’s book, The Unfinished Revolution, was an emblematic tome of the late 1990s, documenting New Labour’s lead-up to governing in 1997. But in the 2020s, have we yet reached where we need to be?

Polls: clearly good. Policy programme: we are making respectable progress and cutting out the mad, or madly-expensive, stuff. Tick. Tick.

News management: we are perhaps not yet as ruthlessly disciplined as we need to be, but we seem to be getting a lot less accident-prone than we were even this time last year. And, looking at our opponents this last week, the Tories are hardly the well-oiled spin machine they once were. Good, although room for improvement.

Party management: we are working through the disciplinary cases, and expulsions have happened. While there are still – anecdotally at least – a lot of cases about antisemitism, the party has come a long way. A number of the more cranky and toxic members who joined under Corbyn have left of their own accord, often joining the Greens. It doesn’t bear thinking about how the party would have responded at Labour conference to the awful events in Israel during the Corbyn years and the coming days will be a highly visible test of how Labour has changed.

There have been some rule changes, which last week caused a ripple of protest from the usual Corbynista suspects, but the story is thin gruel: although it may have been paused or ignored during the Corbyn years, the requirement that conference motions need to be contemporary was put in place at least twenty years ago, to stop endless debates about long-dead issues making conference unspeakably turgid[i].

There are also some disciplinary-tightening measures, making it easier to expel those supporting candidates outside the party, aimed at cleaning the Augean stables of our local parties which, after the infiltration from outside that went on in the Corbyn years and some of the nuttiness which still persists in some of our backbenchers and councillors, seem more than welcome. Err on the side of caution if you aspire to be a party of government.

Damage limitation: some of the previous legal actions, such as the defamation case with the Panorama whistleblowers – which the outgoing regime first caused and then somewhat unhelpfully left David Evans’s new team to clean up afterwards – have been settled, and at least there are no new ones being triggered. But some are still pending, including that against former LOTO chief of staff Karie Murphy and four others over the “LabourLeaks” debacle, and may be expensive; the party is trying to kick it into the long grass post election but on that decision, as it were, the jury is out.

Corbyn himself is still around as a party member, but seems destined at this point to stand neither as a Labour parliamentary candidate (impossible) nor an independent London mayoral candidate (unlikely).

It is at least possible he will try and defend his seat as an independent, but it would seem a lot of bother: for a start, he has no natural financial backers now that Len McCluskey has retired from Unite. A crowdfunder might help him fight on, but then what? Even if he were to win Islington North again, he would just be a lonely backbencher on his own, and the House of Commons loveth not independents.

The most likely outcome is that he will simply retire, hurt, more in sorrow than in anger, and look forward to a saintly retirement, surrounded by a dwindling band of acolytes. In that way, he can look to preserve the myth of a noble man wronged. But it matters little at this point: Corbyn is now a footnote in Labour history, as is that much more pernicious figure behind him, McCluskey, without whom the whole disaster would likely never have happened.

In short: is the party fully cleaned up? No. And some of the bullying culture, which took root in the Corbyn years over antisemitism, is still visible over the treatment of women daring to stand up for their rights in today’s party.

Things are getting slowly better, but we are by no means there yet. It is not just a three-year job, but rather, like any organisation aiming to be at the top of its game, there needs to be a constant striving for improvement.

On the other hand, is it in a much better state than before Starmer took charge? Yes. Yes it is.

The key message for the party, of course, is this: keep going, and in the happy event that Labour lands in power within the next 15 months, remember to finish the party side of the revolution when in government.

Blair was honest in retrospect about the error of halting the clean-up, once government distracted New Labour with other priorities; and this left fertile ground, in an exhausted party, for a gradual far left insurgency during the Miliband and Corbyn years.

The results of taking one’s eye off the ball in party hygiene over an extended period were plain to see in a hollowed-out party on its knees, circa December 2019.

This time we must not be so careless.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

[i] Even then, policy was not decided by motions (that’s why we have Policy Forums)

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