Faith and the Labour Party

April 12, 2012 3:28 pm

Roy Hattersley, in one of his many works, describes the moment in 1981 when he knew he would rather stay inside a Labour Party he believed to be doomed, rather than join his many friends and ideological bed-fellows in the Social Democratic Party (SDP). It was moments after the special Labour conference at Wembley which concocted an ‘electoral college’ for electing Labour leaders which Hattersley considered ‘so obviously absurd’:

‘On the way out of the conference centre, both friends and enemies predicted that the likes of me would soon be driven out of the Party. I could not find my car in the car park. And as I wandered about in the rain, I thought about the future…I had only one clear idea about what lay ahead. If the ship sank, I would go down with it.’

Earlier, Hattersley had addressed a Fabian Society fringe event on ‘love and loyalty’ at a time when there was precious little of either on the left of politics. Shirley Williams had hovered in the doorway, but decided not to come in.

Such solid faith in the Labour Party is hard for outsiders to understand, yet it is shared by many thousands of Labour activists. ‘Faith’ is the right word, because it implies a mystical bond, more akin to a religion than a rational assessment of politics. We join the party as young people, filled with energy and idealism, and we grow and mature with our party always in our lives. Sometimes it makes us angry and disappointed. Sometimes it gives us great joy. We share these moments of pain and euphoria with others. They form our tribe, and we behave in ‘tribal’ ways: fierce loyalty to those who make common cause with us, enmity to those who don’t.

Ken Livingstone is testing the tribal loyalty of many in the Labour Party at the moment. This is nothing new. Homophobes inside the Labour Party were tested in the early 80s when Livingstone championed gay rights. Democrats inside the Labour Party are tested daily when he appears alongside those who oppose human rights, democracy and secular laws. Livingstone is a complex Labour politician, who has been annoying Labour Party members since the 1960s. But the vital thing to understand about him is this: he is the Labour Party candidate in the coming Mayoral election. That means Labour Party members must get out and vote for him, and see the Conservative candidate beaten.

If Siobhan Benita, the former civil servant now running as an independent for London Mayor, wanted Labour supporters’ votes in May, she should have stood for the Labour nomination. Benita has been tipped by today’s Times as ‘one to watch’. She is a former running partner of Gus O’ Donnell, the ex-Cabinet Secretary, and press secretary of John Major. She is gaining momentum, but can never catch up with the two front-runners. More importantly, if Labour members want to vote for her, they should either keep it very quiet, or resist the temptation as no good will come of it. You know who you are.

Throughout Labour’s history, individuals and splinters have believed themselves to be bigger and better than the Labour Party. George Galloway is merely the latest in a long, long line. In 1914, two Labour MPs defected to the Liberal Party. Down the decades, Labour MPs have defected to the Communist Party, the Liberals, the fascist ‘New Party’ of Oswald Mosley, to ‘National Labour’ after 1931, to the Conservatives, to the ‘Scottish Labour Party’, and to the SDP. What they have in common is that most sank without trace. Some – David Owen, Shirley Williams, Jim Sillars, Vince Cable, George Galloway – found national prominence by defining themselves against Labour Party. Most just disappeared, and waters closed over their heads.

What has continued is the Labour Party. Those who spent the rainy Bank Holiday dipping in and out of BBC Parliament’s re-running of the 1992 general election, probably shared my amusement at the discussions around whether Labour would cease to exist without the introduction of proportional representation or a pact with the Liberal Democrats. On the BBC 20 years ago, earnest pundits, many still sharing their wisdom with us today, discussed the probability of Labour never forming a government again. What made the hours of television so compelling was the dramatic irony – that whilst younger, thinner versions of our political class-mates agonised, we, the audience, knew that within a few years Labour would win a breath-taking landslide and govern for three full-terms.

Faith can be superstitious and irrational. Nothing wrong with that. It can also be anchored in the facts. Labour has been in the doldrums before. People have written us off. Others have said we must do deals with our opponents such as the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Respect. They have been dazzled by demagogues, or seduced by Sirens. Yet each time, Labour has come to its senses and found the way out. Sometimes it takes 20 years, and may do again. But like Roy Hattersley, wet, lost, clutching his car keys in the north London car park all those years ago, we all need to keep the faith.

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  • Johndclare

    GREAT!
    Thank you.
    Keep the faith.

  • Ex-Lib Dem

    Homophobes in the Labour Party? Really? How many? 1 or 2.

    • AlanGiles

      Interestingly this post by “Ex LibDem” was actaully written by “The Purple Booker” (click on the profile for both if you don’t believe me)

      I  wonder why the locaquious Book chose a different non-de-plume for this one post?

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  • peteyvv

    As a new member I’m amazed by loyalty towards leaders not the party. Perhaps such loyalty produced Livingstone as the candidate.

    • Brumanuensis

      It’s not as if there was a better candidate elsewhere Peteyvv.

    • treborc1

      I take it your not going to be in the party long then

  • Mark

    My loyalty to the Labour Party is not, and never has been “tribal” and to argue for loyalty to Ken Livingstone is really rich when he has opposed Labour candidates himself.

    A fail by Livingstone at the Mayoral election would in the long run be good for Labour. It would be, and be seen as, a defeat for sectarian politics he practices. The left should have no truck with that and the message of Bradford West is that we cannot beat the more extreme sectarians at their own game anyway and so need a completely different (and authentically left) position based on social solidarity, and human and secular equality.

    Some have said also that hisfailure to win would undermine Ed Miliband’s positon as leader. Since Ed Miliband is not going to lead Labour to victory – he is simply not up to it – that, if true, would be another useful outcome of Livingstone’s failure. I have spoken totwo fellow Labourparty members in London. Both are voiting enthusiastically for their GLA candidate  – neither are voting for Livingstone. Me too.

    • AlanGiles

      Mark, I think if I may say so, you are another one who would think Boris Johnson as London Mayor for another 4 years would be a small price to pay for finally being rid of Livingstone and Ed Miliband.

      Don’t you think that rather selfish?

      Let me make it clear: I am not Ken Livingstone’s greatest fan – he is not a man I would want as a friend BUT – me and you should be  voting with one thought uppermost in our minds – who, out of Johnson and Livingstone is going to be better for the people of London – especially the poor, the disabled, the disadvantaged, the people on the lower runs of the ladder.

      Do you seriously think another win for Johnson will help them?

      I might not be exactly running to the polling booth on May 3rd, but the mortal compass I bought off eBay when Tony Blair decided he didn’t need his any more  tells me that I will vote for Livingstone – if you want the truth, I will say it – the lesser of two evils.

      • Mark

        No I am not “rather selfish” as I have amde clear that the reason I hope KL loses is the long term interests of the Labour Party – not my own self- agrandisment.

        Feel free to diasagree with that by engaging with the points I have made. Those we represent will not be helped by the Labour Party’s identification with Livingstone or his sectarian politics, if as I believe, it further turns people off the Labour Party. I appreciate that that is a bitter pill to swallow for loyalists among who I have counted myself in the past .

        • AlanGiles

          Mark, surely all politicians engage to some extent in “sectarian politics” Johnson likes to wow the City of London (as did Blair and Brown for all the good it did them).Kate Hoey enjoys sucking up to the Countryside Alliance. Frank Field enjoys licking the boots of Duncan-Smith.

          There is no such thing as the “perfect politician” all of them have their flaws, regardless of party – I have made the point before, but the expenses scandal proved that Labour MPs were no better than Tories in that regard.

          With one or two honourable exceptions (Robin Cook, labour, david Davies Conservative) they will all tgoe the party line especially to hang on to cabinet positions. Those two very different men sacrificed their careers because they believed passionately their party was wrong (RC Iraq DD Civil liberties).

          I understand your position, but don’t agree with it but while you and others remain “pure” by  refusing to vote for Livingstone, just remember that is tacitly supporting Johnson, who will do virtually nothing for the poorest people of London, so they will suffer for another 4 years until they find a “pure” Labour candidate for Mayor in 2016.

      • Redshift

        Agree Alan. Mark, you are being selfish. 

    • Brumanuensis

      Livingstone is flawed – albeit his record as a London politician is unmatched – but as Alan says, do you really want Boris the Clown leading London for four more years? Ken may be evasive about his tax status, but Boris has told a gamut of lies about a range of crucial issues and then had the temerity to accuse the head of UK Statistics of being a ‘Labour stooge’.

      This isn’t about you. This is about the people we’re supposed to represent. Weasel words about values doesn’t change the fact that your abstension will directly contribute towards four more years of Boris as Mayor. And that’s something few poor Londoners can afford.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elliot.bidgood Elliot Bidgood

      Mark, I have my issues with Ken as well, to put it lightly. Moreover, I’m aware that I’m not alone in that- I was out canvassing in Islington earlier this evening, and we ran into more than a few “Labour but not Ken” voters. However, this is precisely why full Labour members like us must keep perspective and stay committed to his campaign. The basis of my loyalty to this party and its candidates, Ken included, boils down to one simple belief- that even on our darkest days, Labour is still leaps and bounds better for the country than the Tory alternative, a belief I am only more certain of and more proud to hold on the better days. That’s all that matters.

      With regard to your point about Ken not backing Labour candidates, I too was angry about Rahman and the fact that Ken escaped the rules, but he’s the official Labour candidate now in any case, and two wrongs don’t make a right. Failing to back the official Labour candidate because he failed to back an official Labour candidate is self-defeating.

      Finally, while I generally think politics is about pragmatism, sacrificing the aspirations of millions of Londoners for another four years and missing an oppurtunity to install a powerful anti-Coalition advocate in the heart of the capital, even if to do so is in the greater long-term electoral interest of the party, is nevertheless something that we simply shouldn’t do.

      • Redshift

        Thing is – this is nothing new.

        I remember canvassing and being told by Labour supporters they’re not voting for us because Tony Blair is a scumbag that took us to war in Iraq. And I agreed with them – but – my objective was still to convince them to vote Labour.

        The Labour Party is bigger than any individual figure whether you like them or loath them. I try and put that across to every Labour voter every time they dislike a candidate or a leader. Every Labour supporter knows in their heart of hearts that a Labour vote is still the best thing to do. You need to remind them it is a vote for the party as a whole and a vote for Labour values – a vote for social justice. Whatever. It is the Labour Party that will look after people like us, and if you don’t vote for the Labour candidate a Tory who’s only concerns are for his wealthy mates pillaging the stock market will win. Then ask them again – will they vote Labour on May 3rd? 

        • Redshift

          If they still say no of course – onto the next door!

        • treborc1

           Cannot accept that, if your  middle class well yes, if your sick disabled or a solider without legs, arms or a mind, then labour really is not the party for  them, me.

          You just cannot pass off welfare reforms by saying come on still worth voting for a middle class party.

  • UKAzeri

    To continue with the analogy…

    Faith is very hard to achive when your ‘gods’ jump in and out of the ‘devils’ bed… to an extent that commandments now look like a watered down versions of the devils…

    My local CLP is full of older members who are committed to the party of their youth. The party of my youth, semiprvitised the country(eagerly continued), invaded Iraq, introduced neoliberalism to a whole generation of socialists ( who to this day see themselves as left of centre just because they happen to spend some time thinking of others), I can go on…

    faith in the party was my argument after the uturn on cuts…how long will it last !! i dont know  :)

  • Brumanuensis

    There’s a lot of truth in this article and someone who has been very critical of Paul Richards’ views in the past, I’ll say fair play for writing this.

    • AlanGiles

      Agreed

  • Franwhi

    … but you don’t get men my dad’s age 76 who worked for the Labour Party all their lives saying they will never vote again since the Iraq war – not just moving to another party or exercising a protest vote but competely disengaging with politics. That’s a loss of faith to me. Don’t talk to my dad about the Labour party as it’s like talking to a father who’s lost a child to a terrible addiction despite his faith in them. 

  • Daniel Speight

    Well I’m a tribalist. I admit it. In fact I’m a little bit proud of it too. To explain this I will have to use a couple of words that some in the Labour Party would wish had stayed banned.

    You see I would support the Labour  Party and the labour movement as a whole out of my class loyalty. The party and organizations like the unions and the co-ops were built out of working class solidarity. I’m proud of our history. I’m proud of our rebelliousness. I’m proud of our belief  in equality. I’m proud of the likes of Keir Hardie, Ernie Bevin and Nye Bevan who came out of the working class.

    And perhaps this highlights one of the problems Labour has right now. If you look at our recent leadership, Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband, oh and let’s throw in Harriet while we are at it, it would be extremely hard to claim that they came out of the working class. Not that a Labour leader has to be from this class to be a good leader as Attlee proved, but back then the parliamentary party was leavened by enough working class members to hold some principles. Now a quick scan of the PLP doesn’t indicate that we still have this strength.

    Please don’t take this as an attack on all our Labour MPs. Just like when your mum happily talks about next door’s young Andy or Rachel doing well and getting into university and then getting a good job, we can be proud of this aspirational success. The problem is when we allow the party to become the domain of public school or university debating societies. At  that point we have created the political sub-class which, for Labour, threatens the loss of its core vote.

    So then we look at some of our New Labour apparatchiks and it becomes obvious why they will not be tribalists. They are a different animal altogether. They are careerists not tribalists.

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  • Mark

    Could I reply to the crritics of my posts.

    First to argue that talking to the City or Countryside Alliance is “sectarian” is simply disingenuous. “Llicking Duncan Smith’s boots” – if that is indeed what Field does – may be humiliating but again isn’t sectarian. Simple awards for category errors all round! I am talking -about Livingstone’s “Beacon of Islam” and contrasting “Rich Jews won’t vote for me” remarks along with his embraceof antisemitic and homophobic preachers who believe that it is OK for husbands to “chasitse” i.e.  beat women “lightly”. This parcelling up of Londoners into racial/religious groups is a disgrace that no Socialist or Social Democrat should have any truck with.

    My principal point is that I beleive this kind of politics is damaging and self defeating for Labour. If I am right then its’ a choice between Johnson now and Cameron or worse, in 3 years time, along with further localised defeats by Galloway types as we are always going to be outbid in battles of this type. Feel free to engage with this argument if you wish, but please  -no more straw men. It does you no credit.

    Incidentally it isn’t just the Lutfhur Rahman treachery as I suspect Elliot knows very well. Livingstone’s disloyalty is serial. Have you perhaps forgotten his having stood against Frank Dobson or not heard aabout his not having voted Labour while Tony Blair was leader and the gloat over his having taken the then Labour goverment to court “5 times”?

    I am not seeking a “pure” canidate. I am seeking a candidate who fulfill’s at least the minimum of characteristics I expect of a person of progressive ideas: that they treat people equals without favoritism. I might add that I have no personal political ambition whatever.

    • AlanGiles

      It’s up to you Mark. Let’s hope that you don’t regret your decision later – or perhaps more correctly, you don’t make things even worse for the less  advantaged in London, because Johnson is going to do very little to help them.

      I have already said that Livingstone is not my favourite politician, but he is by no means the worst.

  • Chilbaldi

    I will vote for Labour in the London mayoral election as I would not be able to live with the guilt of not giving Labour my vote. This has nothing to do with Ken, indeed I will place my left hand over his name on the ballot paper as I scribble an ‘X’ next to Labour with my right (thank goodness the space for the ‘X’ is on the right of the page, otherwise I would have to write illegibly with my left hand or else perform some extreme ballot box gymnastics).

    But I have spotted a hole in your article Paul, and this comes from a man who holds a great deal of respect for you and who professes to be on your wing of the party. Surely, to demand loyalty from its members, the party’s candidate also needs to be the most unscrupulously loyal and devoted member of that party?

    You list a range of historic figures who turned their backs on us (“where cowards flinch” etc.) but you missed one name from that list.

    This man has turned his back on us more than once, and continues to through stones from inside this fragile Labour glass house. He has actively campaigned against us, he has stood against us in elections, and he has sneered (like a “traitor”, some might say) at our party leadership. A party leadership who were basically the reason why I joined this party and why I continue to be so loyal to it.

    I am going to vote Labour. But for those who are still sitting on the fence, or currently trying to rock the Livingstone boat, how do you convince them to show loyalty to a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word?

    This all makes me quite sad to be honest. If there were more Livingstones in the party I perhaps wouldn’t be a member, but thankfully he is in the minority.

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