Careful, if we break the Labour party we might not be able to fix it

by Kevin Meagher

As 2016 begins, could Labour be in worse shape? The party lies listless in the water, utterly riven, from stem to stern. Not just by personalities and policy, but by basic questions of what it is and what it is for.

Is it a professional political party, seeking to appeal to the largest number of voters needed to secure a parliamentary majority, or a movement of disparate radicals interested in “making the case” for change? The former requires compromise and hard-headed-realism, the latter, though, refuses to be cowed by the accommodations and reversals of electoral politics.

Behind in the polls, untrusted on pretty much every major measure of public opinion, the party is behaving as though the 2015 election never happened. The basic calculation that you need Tory voters to switch in sufficient numbers in order to have any chance of winning an election, questioned by the Millibandites with their 35% strategy, has now been entirely abandoned by the Corbynites.

‘If you build a socialist alternative, they will come’ is their new approach. But they aren’t, and they won’t. certainly not in sufficient numbers to stand a chance in 2020, once the Conservatives have finished loading the deck against Labour, with everything from individual electoral registration and boundary changes, through to the financing of the opposition front bench, sharpened to a fine point in order to stab the Labour party to death.

This comes as the pollsters settle on an explanation as to why they got May’s result so calamitously wrong. It seems they were polling too many young people and not enough older ones. In other words, they systematically underscored the impact of those who crave stability and moderation, not agitation and radicalism.

Older voters are conservatives, but not always Conservatives. They are persuadable, but age brings with it the inherent suspicion of political panaceas. But if Labour is serious about the business of governing, it must win them back. Trust and competence should be the party’s watchwords. That this statement of the seemingly obvious is heresy underscores the depth of Labour’s predicament.

Meanwhile, the dazed and confused moderate sections of the party are filled with foreboding. The threat of MP de-selections hangs in the air, while this week’s reshuffle has poured petrol on troubled waters.

Belatedly, Jeremy Corbyn’s team has recognised that management of a political party requires basic cohesion at the top, especially if you want to radically change direction. Their remedy, though, has been arbitrary and unjust. Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden are both Labour to their bones and were willing to work with the grain of the new management in the broader interests of party unity.

Their treatment scuttles talk of a ‘new politics’ where more open debate is tolerated. This is a massive misjudgement by Jeremy Corbyn who had succeeded in assembling a frontbench of (nearly) all the talents following his victory in the leadership election. In the early days, it was touch and go whether he would. It is therefore remiss, to say the least, to fritter that achievement away so needlessly. Moreover, it smacks of the control-freakery he deplored in previous leaders. A case of: ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, as The Who put it.

But the party’s moderates have big questions to ask of themselves too. They remain oblivious to the structural changes that have now taken place in the composition of the grassroots, making any imminent challenge to Corbyn’s leadership a futile endeavour. They need to be teachers and patient explainers if they want to convince Labour’s newly swelled ranks that things are heading in the wrong direction.

And, so, this is the current state of the Labour party. A leadership clumsily attempts to consolidate its grip on power. A grassroots contents itself by listening to the old, familiar tunes. Moderates, who have for so long failed to inspire, lack not only a plan for moving forwards, but a clear analysis of why they find themselves flat on their backs in the first place. Everywhere there is mistrust and resentment.

Yet the British Labour party is the single most important institution ever created in this country for the peaceful and democratic pursuit of centre-left politics. Upon its continued existence and vitality rests the hopes of tens of millions of people. Everyone who loves and values this party, from whatever vantage point they stand, now has a duty to try to establish a workable equilibrium in order to keep it one piece.

Bearing in mind that if we break it, we might not be able to fix it.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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10 Responses to “Careful, if we break the Labour party we might not be able to fix it”

  1. Anne says:

    I would like to give praise and a thank you to both Pat McFadden and Jonathan Reynolds – both principled MPs – the back bone of the Labour Party. We need more of these two in the top team. Great inspirational MPs.

  2. Kevin,

    I much prefer this piece to Atul’s earlier today. You’re grappling seriously with the magnitude of what is happening. You also acknowledge that it is, in part, because of the failure of moderates to inspire the membership. From what I’ve been told by some Labour peopple, in the past, too many of the leading moderates have appeared cynical, dismissive of ordinary members, and too quick to engage in internal feuding among themselves.

    I’ve seen relatively little analysis of this from Labour people up to now. Your piece is honest, heartfelt, and welcome.

    My only criticism is the implied assumption in the following sentence: “The British Labour party is the single most important institution ever created in this country for the peaceful and democratic pursuit of centre-left politics”.

    That is probably true of the twentieth century. But, just as no person is indispensible, so is no party.

    If the Labour brand becomes so damaged by the Corbyn leadership that it can no longer defeat the Tories, it’s not impossible that a new force could be created which could. In my opinion, one of the reasons why Labour has so often lost in the last 65 years is because you’ve had the albatross of the hard left hanging around your neck. If Labour were to become a hard left party, and a new party could be formed which was genuinely centre-left and not left, and which could credibly appeal to the centre ground, I think it could beat the Tories.

    I’m sure many are discussing this privately, and I entirely understand why they don’t want to talk publicly. But if such a new force becomes necessary, those of us who might help form it need to have better relations with each other.

    In the 1980’s, the Liberals and the leading social democrats in Labour had an excellent relationship, forged in the Euro referendum, and in the Lib-Lab pact.

    Relations are much worse now.

    Maybe you can rescue the Labour party from what is happening. But just in case it cannot, moderate Labour and Lib Dems need to start rebuilding those relations now.

  3. Delta says:

    Well written Kevin, but in vain. The Party was broken well before 2010 when it decided that it no longer needed moderate supporters and then moderate voters and focuses on narrow minority causes…initially with good intent and then onto the point of ridiculous as it lost itself entirely and of course becoming incredibly self absorbed and obsessed with doctrine and empty platitudes towards fake ideology.
    The narrow obsession with turning the scientific principles of the environment into a religion that cannot be questioned or debated, the worship of increased submission to the new EU superpower, again with thought, or question, the bullying into making people submissive and assuming them to be stupid will finish the funeral off.

  4. Peter Kenny says:

    “a workable equilibrium” – Corbyn was overwhelmingly elected as a change candidate. However much of what I read here are bleatings about him changing things!


    Expect more change, it’s what he said he’d do. Not “equilibrium”!

    The question is what will you do – you’re suggesting a role as “patient teachers and explainers” – I can not imagine you know how elitist and patronising that sounds. How are people who have “failed to inspire” and are “flat on their backs” in any position to “teach and explain” anything much.

    You know I get it that it’s going to be hard winning in 2020. It always was going to be. The party lost its reputation for economic competence in 2008, having lost its ethical compass and 5 million votes in 2003. I’m sure David Milliband would have turned all that round!

    Corbyn represents a clear opposition to the dominant economic narrative, in favour of redistribution, social housing, workers rights, peace, nationalising the natural monopolies of rail and other utilitities. That’s our stance. Historically pretty mild really but potentially a key shift in ending our party’s long accommodation to the interests of tiny social/financial elites.

    It’s standing for things you actually believe in, having political positions, trying to win people over – not letting people get done over without standing by them. Refugees, for example. Now If your “moderates” had won the leadership the PLP would not have opposed the Tax Credit Cuts or Police Cuts or austerity generally – helping people by joining in giving them a kicking, so that maybe they can get in and kick them a bit softer.

    I think that all of that is seriously over and will not return.

  5. Daniel Sutton says:

    The sacked shadow cabinet members may well have been genuine Labour men but nither were capable of keeping their mouths shut

    I can’t see how the Torys can increase their share of the vote at the next general election without an economic miracle

    With a 10-20% increase in voter turn out the maths could suit Labour

  6. paul barker says:

    Again, complacency. The Left stood on a fairly honest program & won overwhemingly. Shifts in membership over the last 3 months have only consolidated that victory. The majority of the PLP represent one “Labour” & the members another. The 2 sides can fight (to the death ?) over who “owns” The Labour brand or the losers can walk away & do their own thing.

  7. Jane says:

    a sensible article which get so the nub of the problem. I shall offer my humble opinion on the major points raised.

    1. It is not a professional political party. Those around JC have been briefing about the reshuffle and added unhelpful comments about those they wanted rid of. they do not like talent – loathed Hillary Benn’s wonderful speech in the Syria vote and the intellectual arguments of some colleagues as it pointed up their own lack of ability.

    – professionalism is not better. Diane Abbott criticising colleagues on Newsnight and giving inaccurate information on their backgrounds.

    – Ken Livingstone today indicating that our membership of NATO is up for review and this had to be clairifed. Astonishing given Russia’s manoevres and the fear of many our EU partners in the former Eastern Block who rely on NATO.

    – John McDonnell on WATo today saying “they” had been in power for three months. Indicates to me that he does not see the labour party as a broad church. the left have been in power for 3 months – enough said.

    2. The party is not trusted on the economy, the defence of the country and the security of its citizens.

    – I do not trust them at all on the economy. More borrowing, a collapse of exchange rates, higher interest rates and an unwillingness to hold UK debt. What happens to my investments and my pension? What happens to employment? What happens to home owners?

    -Defence. I fear for the country as I believe in the deterrent value of Trident. I also think that we would lose our place on the UN Security Council and our standing in the world if we in any way reduce our military capabilities.

    – Security. I listened to JCs speech on shoot to kill. I would not trust my safety or any of my fellow citizens in his hands.

    3. I am a member of You Gov and Populus and I can tell you I was rarely asked my opinion about voting intentions during the last election campaign.

    – I am retired and was an active member of Labour for 40 years. I departed the party a couple of years ago and will not return until I see a leader and party that I feel secure with. I should add that many of my friends and family changed from labour to the conservatives recently as they felt that party better protected their interests. Older people need to feel secure and to live without debts. We also believe in personal responsibility and that people should work and not rely on the State except in emergency.

    4. Finally, I loathe the present leadership for its bullying, its classifying moderate and respected MPs as a right wing group,and the threats around to deselect them if they do not follow the dear leader They demand loyalty when in my lifetime those at the top of the party have never demonstrated that. I lived through the era of Michael Foott (much more able politician, orator and intellect than JC) and the ghastly 1983 manifesto. I was foolish enough to believe in loyalty at that time. The era of tribal politics is changing. We now look to a political party who we believe act in the best interests of the country and not its own objectives. The labour party does not meet such criteria.

  8. John P Reid says:

    Peter Kenny,change,it just consists of people, who read in a book, hoe thatcher win elections as the electorate were wrong to vote for them,and things history has proved, the tabloid press backing her, told lies, broke the law, the pits were all going to be shut down, despite Scargills claim at the time, being dismissed, the free market capitalism,of thatcher resulted in the 2008 crash,
    The Pwoolw surrounding Corbyn who think they can win, by telling the public they were wrong to vote tory in the 80’s only have this view after reading about it, it doesn’t matter,how many articles, are written, the public still won’t accept the Corbyn view the public were wrong for not voting for us,the next election ,if fought on that policy,will be a Tory landslide

  9. Peter Kenny says:

    I don’t think the electorate are “wrong”. I believe in Democracy and Socialism and that the electorate should have clear choices and directions of travel offered to them.

    Currently, in Engand at least, politics is despised because of it’s focus on manipulation and, frankly, dishonesty, from all major parties.

    I think that as well as setting out our own socialist position we also have to recognise that other things need to change, specifically the electoral system which delivers skewed and often undemocratic results.

    We should work with other parties on issues like that.

    I think it’s possible to win but of course we might not. What I do know is that the old “Blairite” ways are finished, electorally as well as in the party. We lost one election led by one of the architects of New Labour and the other led by a close advisor. We were close to defeat in 2005 as well – 5 million votes gone.

    Now when people talk about electability and credibility I think “losers” because that’s their record and worse I think about them being partly responsible for two catastrophes – Iraq and the crash. They wrecked the party and trashed its supporters and they are finished.

    I can stomach all kinds of compromises and deals but these disasters show the moral holes in the New Labour project. Then they can’t even deliver the victory they’re supposed to be so good at.

    Corbyn’s promise is to build a new party, that’s the change, that’s the promise.

  10. Jams O'Donnell says:

    So an attempt at some kind of socialism is “the wrong direction”, eh? Well, at least we know where you’re coming from, Kevin.

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