Labour does not need uniformity, but unity

19th May, 2015 8:19 am


On Friday evening I went to my local Labour Party meeting in Oxford. What we had hoped would be a victory celebration was instead an inquest. Not into our local results – our brilliant MP for Oxford East Andrew Smith saw his vote go up by 7.5% and his once marginal seat now has a 15,280 majority; while Sally Copley in Oxford West & Abingdon increased Labour’s vote share and raw vote for the first time since 1997 – but into a national disaster.

That meeting made me proud to be a Labour member. It was huge – the best part of 100 people. Many of the attendees were from the 30000 new members who have joined in recent weeks. It was pluralistic – many different competing theories of why we had lost and how we could win again were put forward. It was realistic about the mountain ahead but determined not to give up climbing it. And it was united. Not in the sense of there being uniformity of views – there was the opposite, with ideas expressed from Bennite hard left to New Labour with many others defying categorisation! But in the sense of a shared set of values, mutual respect for others’ views (every contribution was met with applause), solidarity, comradeliness – the spirit in which we just campaigned.

My guess is that the majority of CLP meetings will have been held in a similar spirit of solidarity, sadness, mourning, and genuine debate – unity but not uniformity. Certainly the debate between the five leadership candidates at the Progress conference on Saturday sounds as though it was conducted in this spirit.

We are going to need to understand how to do unity without uniformity, how to conduct an honest debate and a robust democratic election without descending into civil war, if our party is going to survive. Get this next few months wrong, let rancour and spite and score-settling triumph over solidarity and mutual respect, and we risk turning a desperate political situation into a terminal one.

Would that every comrade was displaying the level-headedness going on at a local level.

Online I can read a constant flow of tweets from friends on the Blairite right whose tone ranges from a smug “I told you so”, through dancing on Ed Miliband’s political grave, to mad calls to break the union link (but not before having a final war in the style of Götterdämmerung, with no actual indication of how Len McCluskey can be beaten through the medium of Twitter). Despite repeated invocations from this quarter, I have yet to see the second coming of Tony Blair, unless he is very heavily disguised.

Meanwhile on the Hard Left there are comrades exhibiting the kind of denial of electoral reality normally only achievable through consuming large quantities of Class A drugs.  Apparently the Tories winning increased majorities in many marginal seats, and UKIP eating into our core vote is evidence that we were not leftwing enough. Hmmm. Perhaps we could avoid spending the next five years experimenting with whether the electorate really wants us to be more leftwing. Oh, and apparently everything is the fault of the Blairites – the same ones who are complaining they were marginalised for the last eight years.

If this was all people letting off steam online I wouldn’t be so worried. But in Scotland it just got real. We just saw a major trade union  – the one I have proudly been a member of since 1993 – drive from office the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. The kind of internecine feuding we saw over the Falkirk seat was disproportionate enough when we actually held Falkirk and there was something to fight over. Carrying on that feud over the ashes of the Scottish Labour Party when Falkirk is now a safe SNP seat is nuts. The self-destructiveness of it disgusts me. We don’t have a spare politician of Jim Murphy’s calibre to be throwing away the one we do have. We have a Holyrood election this time next year and have just decided to waste months on a leadership election. I get that Len McCluskey is angry about Falkirk, and under pressure from SNP members in Unite, but this episode was inexcusable. We have enough wounds inflicted by the SNP already without inflicting more on ourselves.

As for the veiled threat, subsequently retracted, of disaffiliation if Labour doesn’t pick the correct leader, in a democracy you harm the candidate you back more than you help them if you resort to blackmail.

I’m worried that the shrillness of tone I’m hearing about the leadership election will turn what should be a serious, democratic choice about how we get the party back on track into a draining and divisive sectarian battle that will turn off new members, not inspire them.

I’m worried that the union link is under threat from extremes of both right and left and without it the party may die, whether slowly through disconnection with the working classes or fast through lack of funding to actually operate.

I’m worried that a General Election that showed that our coalition of support was too narrow is being responded to by people trying to lop off bits of that narrow coalition and delegitimise the unions or the Blairites, not look at how we can broaden it.

I’m worried that too many people think the real enemy is in our own party, not David Cameron.

I’m worried that for a party promoting a vision of a kinder, gentler society governed by solidarity, fraternity and justice, we seem way too hasty to resort to brutishness, backstabbing and fixing in our dealings even with each other.

I’m worried that we are exaggerating the differences between leadership candidates who are broadly in the same place ideologically and that the labelling and smearing of people inside our own party is just providing the Tories with a box full of attack lines to use against whoever wins.

I’m worried that insulting references to “skipping a generation” risk doubling down on the mistake we made by skipping a generation in 2010 – we just keep feeding our talented young leaders faster and faster into Lynton Crosby’s meat grinder before they are experienced enough. And that this call is completely contradictory given it is made by people who don’t want us to trash our record in government (“New Labour policies good! People who actually implemented New Labour policies bad and consigned to the dustbin of history!”).

The members at my local Labour Party meeting on Friday night deserve better than this. They deserve calm, rational, comradely debate. They deserve leaders of our party and our affiliates who don’t turn a crisis into a meltdown. They deserve not uniformity, but unity.

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  • John Wheatley

    This is straight out of the comfort zone

    And remember, in the modern age it is much better to be seen to be arguing from conviction than arguing for certain policies just to be elected. People can spot a fraud. So a pragmatic shift to the centre gets nowhere.

    It has to be a real and believed in shift to the centre.

  • swatnan

    It may be hard for many members to swallow but we have to stay neutral in Industrial Relations, and any disputes between Unions and Management. Labours job is to bring both sides together so that they can work co-operatively in the interests of the country, not to put the case for Unions or Big Business and take sides. Its what Govts and Govts in waiting should be doing. To borrow a phrase: In with Unions and Business, but not run by them.

  • Duncan Hall

    Surprised how much of this i agree with – I think you can guess which bit I strongly disagree with…

  • Aaron Golightly

    What people want seems to be denial. Rather than labeling the “I told you so’s” unhelpful, maybe they have a point?

  • Excellent commentary and you’re right about the leadership candidates being broadly the same. I wouldn’t feel strongly against any of them winning, but by the same token I don’t really feel enthusiastic about any of them winning. By the same token I don’t think we should shy away from rigorous debate on the future and the structure of the party.

    The trade union link is vital, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the existing trade union link. We should look at how we can help trade unions modernise and appeal to the 75% of workers who aren’t members.

    What I’d question is how you can claim we “skipped a generation” in 2010 when all bar one of the choices on offer were former cabinet ministers who had held more than one post. That to me is an argument for selecting a new generation who hasn’t held office in the previous post. We have a deputy leader position and entire shadow cabinet we can fill with experienced ex-ministers, it doesn’t need to be the leader.

    It’s also not logical to say there is a contradiction between wanting a fresh face and wanting to defend our record in office. It could actually be easier to defend the record if you weren’t part of it as you don’t have the same vested interest.

    • Luke Akehurst

      The generation that was skipped was the people in their 50s – Reid, Blunkett, Byers, Milburn – who were all destroyed in the Blair/Brown wars.

      • Ah get it now and in that case agree very strongly 🙂 Especially Alan who was a fantastic person to work with and someone whose talents I don’t believe were ever fully utilised.

      • swatnan

        I guess we should all be thankful for small mercies…
        Skip, Hop and Jump and get these blairites and brownites out of our system; both are poisonous. What Diane should have said is : there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ anymore; we are all centreists, and that way we will get back in to Govt.

  • madasafish

    My local Labour candidate toed the Party line – and it was rubbish. She lost – badly, turning a marginal Conservative seat (held by Labour until 2010) into a safe Tory one.

    Yvette Cooper toed the party line on business: now she’s saying it was rubbish..

    Unity is good. Sensible policies and leadership are far better.


      I hope you are not referring to Stevenage.

      • madasafish

        Staffordshire Moorlands…

  • Ben Gardner

    In my opinion the party just needs to take a breath for a moment and avoid too much self-flagellation.

    Labour’s role in UK politics should be to provide a realistic, social democratic option to the electorate in the most effective way it can. Ed Miliband was unfortunately a poor choice to do that and the leadership made many mistakes, however in general it was a reasonable campaign with a decent policy offering.

    Democracy is about choice, and Labour ultimately can’t control the choice the electorate makes. This time they decided that they wanted to continue with a conservative (deliberate small c) offering and that’s fair enough, they will now face the ultimate consequences of that decision. The Labour party obviously needs to do some introspection but not winning an election doesn’t mean that what you stand for or are offering the public is necessary ‘wrong’. The prospect of a Tory government is not so bad that Labour needs to become Tory-lite in order to prevent it.

    Labour will fail if it doesn’t offer the electorate a realistic choice. The 1983 Labour party was not a realistic alternative government. The 2010 Labour party was not different enough from the Tories for the public to care whether it stayed in government. The 2015 Labour party wasn’t all it should have been but no one can argue that it wasn’t that realistic choice. it’s not the parties fault if the country decides not to take it.

    • David Battley

      I’m intrigued by what people who say “Tory-lite” mean when they say it. Clearly it is meant to be derogatory, usually it means looking further left than Blair/New Labour.

      I’m most worried, however, that people who say “Tory-lite” refer, disparagingly, to the need for economic credibility, and for accepting that some cuts, sometimes, are necessary; that there is no magic money-tree that can pay for policies that don’t add up. And a wish to throw out the baby (social justice, improved conditions for the most vulnerable) with the bath water (economic probity, and, perhaps crucially, accepting that in capitalism some people do get rich – indeed in many cases they need to in order to justify the personal risks they take to get there)

      In my view (backed up the the yougov poll that doesn’t seem to have received much air-time on this site at all – much to my surprise) the primary reason for rejecting Ed Miliband in the election booth was that the policies just didn’t seem to quite add up, and it seems to me that the solution to that is not to throw out the accounting rule book…

      • Ben Gardner

        Actually I wasn’t making a value judgement when I used the term ‘Tory-lite’, I literally just meant pursuing a set of policies that are ideologically the same as the Conservatives. Unlike most on here I don’t think the Tories are some bunch of crazed, right-wing nut jobs that want to exterminate the poor; they broadly want the same things as Labour does, they just believe that the free market is the best way of providing them.

        My point is that I don’t think it benefits the UK democratic system to have two free-market parties competing on nothing more than competency levels and who has the best campaigning team and sound bites. Labour should have enough self confidence to say that it believes in placing some limits on business, that it wants to carry out a reasonable level of redistribution and that it wants to fund public services at a higher level than the Conservatives. That doesn’t mean that you have to abandon all economic competence, it just means you have to come up with a plan that is financially viable and can be presented to the UK public.

        • David Battley

          Fair enough: I accept that you were not making a value judgement, and I 100% agree with your last sentence.

          Personally, however, I would be delighted if there were two (or more) free-market parties competing on the grounds of maximising equality (primarily though education, productivity enhancements and the like), since a) I believe that the free market is more powerful than any one government and b) I would like the market to be harnessed (not choked) more effectively as I believe it could generate greater prosperity and good for all than I believe a genuinely “right wing” party would seek to.

          • Dave Postles

            There is a difference about ‘triple bottom lines’. Those of us who invest in social enterprise ‘bonds’ do not receive any direct return. The ‘return’ is estimated on what has been saved for the common good. Other than that, I deplore the movement in the third sector to over-remunerate their executives and to outsource revenue stream generation to private companies. I receive all the reports from the charities which I sponsor. If I wish to increase my direct debit, I can make an informed choice with being harassed by cold callers.

          • David Battley

            Most of the highest earning charity directors are not from those enlightened charities who are adopting newer “social enterprise” models.

            Save the Children
            Comic Relief

          • Dave Postles

            I didn’t state that they were. I made two unconnected points. My social enterprise bonds are in Crisis.

          • David Battley

            Still social enterprise bonds are not necessarily the same as the social enterprises – partly because only the largest charities can launch a bond issuance. One good uk example is saga insurance, but there are many others working in Africa where capitalism and social need walk side by side. Check out ‘sunfunder’ for some ideas of the businesses I mean.

          • Dave Postles

            My support for entrepreneurs in the developing world is through lendwithcare – I do not intend to take my capital back but plough it in continuously. It all does go, however, to what sort of society we want, which is seemingly lost on the Labour instrumentalists. If taxation doesn’t support Centrepoint, Crisis, YMCAHomes, it’s left to charitable giving. Contrary to Cameron’s ‘big society’, it becomes the ‘little society’ because the regular funding of these organizations is provided by a small minority.

          • David Battley

            I think we are misunderstanding each other. I am referring to the changing approach of charitable bodies worldwide.

            Example: 20 years ago a charity set up to improve sanitation would typically raise money, dig a large pit, stick a few toilets on it and pat itself on the back.

            If it returned a year later it would see a pit that was full, toilets that were broken, or sold, and the same lack of sanitation that existed before.

            A charity now (at least a smart one) will raise the same money, dig a small pit, but now train an agent who will look after the pit, changing an affordable fee covering their salary for use, and provide a business model to e.g. convert the waste into fertiliser, generating additional revenues for the agent, some of which might go back to the charity to do more of the same work elsewhere.

            Returning the following year they might well see that the same agent has, using their entrepreneurial zeal, financed and developed a network of toilets around the community following the same model and providing improved sanitation and employment. And generating even more income back to the charity to do even more.

            Boom: a “free market” approach, and a triple bottom line. That is social enterprise.

          • Dave Postles

            Check out lendwithcare.

          • Fred Worthy

            Well done for your contribution to your chosen charities Dave,left to the Tories we would end up back in 1837 with the introduction of the Union Workhouse,I read above that the comments are morphing into a Lab Tory ,Tory agenda,Peter Barnard on another page has killed the Tory economic myth.

          • Ben Gardner

            I think your comment is somewhat contradictory. All modern parties essentially believe in the capitalist system as a way of generating wealth, the question is to what extent government should intervene (or harness as you put it). The Tories believe fundamentally that markets work and that most of the issues we face are due to inefficiencies introduced by government. If Labour takes the same approach then I don’t see the point in the party?

            Listen to Coopers comments yesterday. She’s arguing that because Miliband proposed things that weren’t quite as beneficial to big business as the Tories that made Labour ‘anti-business’. The essence of her point was it didn’t matter what the policy was, just the fact that it was to the ‘left’ of the Tory policy meant that it was sent the wrong message. You could conclude from that that Labour must always take it’s business policy from the Tories and right-wing supporters in the press otherwise it will be labelled as ‘anti-business’.

            I’m not proscribing what Labour should offer to the electorate, i’m just saying that it has to be a real alternative to the Conservative party or our democracy will become a complete farce.

          • Demongo

            I dunno about that, even if Labour largely embraced the concept that “markets work” then there is surely a wealth of detail that could sit between it and the Conservatives.

            Employee rights, minimum wages, tax breaks for social improvements, genuine equality at work, genuine tax evasion and avoidance legislation that’s actually intended to work, etc.

            Surely the list is pretty much endless.

            A lot of those can looked at as “anti-business” which is why they need to be backup up with hard facts, accurate numbers and presented as policies that improve the life of the workers without stopping business from being profitable.

          • Ben Gardner

            Employee rights and minimum wages aren’t really part of the free market though. You could argue that in a truly free market employees and employers would have the freedom to draw up contractual arrangements and pay levels as they see fit without government interference. The same is true with equality at work, in a free market an employer would be able to pay or treat people however they wish and the employee is free to then leave that employment if they choose. Tax evasion is free market economics at it’s purest – an attempt to maximise your profits by reducing expenditure.

            What you’re talking about are all restrictions on the free market.

          • David Battley

            I think you mean avoidance, since evasion will hardly maximise profits if you are in jail.

            But Demongo encapsulates my argument well. You are the one requiring that a free market be anarcho-libertarian… I am comfortable with tax rates in line with the inequality between top and bottom earners, union board representation and a charter of employee rights as socially responsible, but still “free” market policies of an exciting revived centre-left party.

            It might be nice if that party could be Labour.

          • David Battley

            I think we see things differently: intervention is not necessarily harnessing. There was a great post on these forums by an avowed Tory who came with some ideas of what he thought Labour should be offering, and frankly for me he was very close to the mark – tax incentives for businesses behaving in ways that close inequality gaps in the workforce and the like: things the Tories would not – could not – do.

            The trick is working with the grain, not perpendicular to it, and there is so much a party seeking to achieve social good could do without resorting to economically illiterate ideas like rent caps, or practically difficult ideas like a mansion tax (that scare the horses of middle England, because once a tax like that comes on, no-one imagines it will do anything other than expand to cover increasingly less mansion-like properties over time) that tend to fall down under any level of scrutiny.

          • Ben Gardner

            I’m really not sure that the Tories would be definitely against such ideas; tax cuts for socially beneficial actions would seem right up their street. It all comes back to this new Labour/Tory idea though that the only way of improving society is to help business, it’s really the ‘trickle down economic’ concept of it’s time.

            I thought the rent control proposal was extremely sensible, especially in an era of low inflation/fixed interest rates. It would stop unscrupulous landlords from exploiting the fact that people don’t like continually moving to force up the rent once they’re in. Maybe it wasn’t a very elegant proposal but it was in the right ball-park.

            I agree that the mansion tax was ‘problematic’. But then property taxes are perfectly normal part of the tax system throughout other western nations and I think it’s a shame that a Labour government couldn’t consider one without being labelled as some sort of Marxist throw back.

          • David Battley

            Rent controls are considered by pretty much all economists (even the usually favourable ones) to achieve the exact opposite of their intention, by limiting future supply. There are no examples anywhere I know of where they have been successfully implemented.

            The principle of a property, or any asset, tax is difficult because it is so hard to administer, and once again would cause severe (and highly unpopular) gyrations while the market readjusts. There is also a more fundamental point: if assets are purchased with after tax income, why is the government double dipping? What if I build the house myself? These are not insoluble issues, but a carefully and coherently developed argument would have to be made for it to fly.

        • Daniel Speight

          What it comes down to it Ben, it is that Labour has to break from the economic consensus they joined with Blair and Brown. Let’s call it neoliberalism to put a name on it, but one thing i fervently believe is that you can’t have this and social democracy under the same roof. It is what should differentiate us from the Tories. The neoliberalism that Thatcher and Keith Joseph introduced cannot supply an economic system that reduces inequality. Keith Joseph was quite open about this.

          • David Battley

            It cannot reduce equality of output no, but you absolutely can use it to reduce inequality of input. A fair starting point is all most people ask, not for everyone to win prizes.

            In my opinion if you “break from the economic consensus” you will consign the party to become an “angry footnote” in the history books because it will never be elected on that basis.

            [edit] correction “reduce INequality”, not “reduce equality”. Typing is not my strong suit today, apparently.

          • Daniel Speight

            You see David, here’s the problem. Up until the mid-seventies the economic consensus was very much a social democrat one amongst all the major parties. Back then we thought nobody would ever get elected or stay elected by breaking that consensus. Thatcher did of course and proved us wrong.

            So now we have you and plenty of others saying you can’t get elected by breaking with the economic consensus. For those that saw it happen before why should we believe you this time around. Interesting press release from Brussels yesterday saying that inequality is growing so fast in Britain it’s tainting the Gini coefficient for the whole of the EU.

          • David Battley

            You are quite right of course that no empire lasts forever, and undoubtedly there will come a new dawn for our current economic view, but I do not believe that time is coming soon: there is no narrative I can see developing which has the strength to begin to break the popular conception: I would argue the opposite is happening with more and more charities spotting the opportunities of embracing “neoliberalism” and devoeloping social enterprise “triple bottom lines” to achieve their goals…

      • Angela Sullivan

        The biggest Con in the entire Servative party is the claim that the Tories are the party of “economic competence” . Their plans do not add up. Over the last five years they have demonstrably not worked (OK they halved the deficit.: That is NOT a success – Gordon Brown would not have continued borrowing at the rate he did around 2009. Once the recession was averted the borrowing would have dropped – probably to a lower level than George Osborne has achieved.)
        Piling the cuts on to people least able to afford them has not saved money. It has inflicted incredible cruelty, but the benefits bill is not reducing (a fortune is being spent on workfare and Universal Credit, as well as Housing benefit to private landlords.) Moreover the human cost, in suicides, evictions, family breaku-ups, illness, crime etc has a financial cost to the rest of society.

        • David Battley

          Promoting redistribution is a perfectly sound economic strategy – it just isn’t very popular. The “magic money tree” refers to those who try and pretend we can vastly increase spending without needing to specify where it comes from…

          • Angela Sullivan

            It’s quite popular with me. I don’t have much money. And where does the government’s spending money come from?
            Government cant spend money unless people pay tax, but people can’t pay tax unless they have money. If the flow dries up it has to be started from somewhere. George Osborne seems to think that if you squeeze people harder that will magically create wealth and a sound economy.

          • David Battley

            It depends what you consider squeezing: not handing out as much, or taxing less?

          • Angela Sullivan

            Not handing out as much and taxing MORE are both methods of squeezing.
            Taxing less eases the squeeze, particularly when applied to indirect taxes like VAT which even the poorest pay.

          • Dave Postles

            It’s becoming almost impossible to get the message across, I’m afraid. There is now an economic consensus that inequality is a drag on growth, but it seems so complex and counter-intuitive that it makes no headway, which is why the Tories can fall back on the ‘wealth creators’ and ‘growth’ to attain the ‘rising tide’ without any discussion of redistribution.

  • Daniel Speight

    Diane Abbott was asked by Andrew Neil who was the left wing candidate among the leadership contenders. She answered, correctly I think, that there wasn’t one. When the Blairites talk about the left now, they mean the Brownites, forgetting that Brown was the intellect behind New Labour and also its enforcer. If there was a left then John McDonnell would be part of the leaders’ debate.

    What we end up is the sickly syrup that the Labour Party has been spoon fed with for many years. There is no inspiration coming from their mouths. We are already into the soundbites with the likes of ‘aspiration’. We share with the Tories ‘One Nation’ and ‘hard working families’. (You know I hate to break it to the political class, but most people in industry are trying to get through the day without working too hard.) Looking back I suspect Wilson was the last Labour leader who actually did think it was a moral crusade. Now it’s all just realpolitik.

    Jim Murphy being driven out of the Scottish party leadership a shame? I don’t think so and it seems the Scottish electorate didn’t rate him either. Good riddance to a bully, or at least that’s how he comes across.

    So Luke is looking for unity. I guess discounting that Bennite hard left he still seems to find asking questions, the unity he wants is of the two sections of New Labour, Blairite and Brownite. Shouldn’t be too hard as there can’t be that much ideological difference between them. Luke’s big problem will be how can he blame the defeat on the left. The limited offer came from the likes of Douglas Alexander. If he thought his offer would hold the core vote, his own Scotland laid lie to that. The drift to UKIP by working class voters again shows the strategy was wrong. If you wanted that 35% you had offer them something they couldn’t turn away from.

    I’m still looking for the silver lining, but haven’t found it yet. The only winner so far is Oxbridge yet again.


      Daniel, it is too early to get depressed. I recommend taking a break from it all. Go abroad – somewhere, like Ibiza.

      • Daniel Speight

        Patrick, I’m afraid this last election may have been the last chance for me to see the Tories consigned to the dustbin of history. For the second time we have the guys who believe they were born to rule actually ruling us. In fact my fear is that dustbin is where Labour is heading. I’ve been using the PASOK example for a couple of years now with little belief on LL that it could be that bad, and yet, what have we just seen in Scotland? I think I have a lot of reasons to feel depressed.

    • Stephen Rogers

      I agree with what you state, but I also think Ed Miliband’s policies filled that gap between the so called Blairite and Brown factions of the Party. If nothing else, Ed Miliband brought unity to the Party, which Brown and Blair never achieved. We are throwing out the baby with the bath water if we consign all of Ed’s policies to the dustbin. I noted Arnie Graff was side lined, because he upset the powerful in the Party with home truths. As a Party we need to be critical of went wrong in the election, but recognise that a lot of the policies we presented to the electorate resonated with them.

      • Liz Gonzalez

        Hhmm, I’m not sure I would agree with you regarding Blair. Blair changed Labour, making it into New Labour, bringing it more right which is why it did so well and because he had great charisma, without charisma you won’t be a good leader.The Scots and myself also prefer the policies of old Labour. This is how we’ve lost them. How did Blair do so well if there wasn’t unity? Unless you mean it was broken between old and New. Brown wasn’t there long enough to change things, he was still continuing New Labour. Miliband was in between New and old I’d say so I’d agree that there was more unity. I’d say that some of the reasons of why we failed is because the Tory party lead a dirty campaign and scared a lot of people. I live in a Tory area and they sent me emails every day so i saw what they were up to. Also, people often have a problem of changing things and the Tories were telling them how great they were doing, even if it wasn’t the truth, and telling them constantly that we would destroy things, ‘chaos’ was one of their favourite words for us as you must have heard a lot.

        • Patrick Nelson

          Blair courted Middle England well and won over Murdoch (pretty much by promising to be his minion), but these were just the cherries on top (if the second of them can be called a cherry). Blair’s great triumph was to read the aspirations and concerns of the various segments of British society at that time. He found out what to promise each group, what to say and what not to say and he was pretty slick in it. It was all pretty shallow, but it worked. That said, I think it is a myth to believe that Blair made the Labour party electable or dragged it suddenly to the right. The rightwards movement had started with Kinnock and continued over many yeas and the Labour party was already very electable under John Smith, especially as people were at that point ready for anything other than the Tories.

    • luckydipper

      Someone either comes to the top table politically in the Labour Party through Oxbridge or a good education, then SPAD or civil service or legal experience, or else through the union movement. I cannot see any abiding moral difference between these two pathways. I can’t see those who get there the first way as fake, opportunistic or morally compromised and the fewer who get there the second as authentic or genuine standard-bearers of the working class. This kind of thinking is divisive to me; it will always end up talking of betrayal or disappointment, on behalf of a constituency who are not actually active in leftwing politics themselves.

      • Daniel Speight

        Thanks Lucky, you give me the opportunity to fill out a bit more on the problems of the background of the candidates for the leadership and the make up of the PLP in general.

        Of course if we look at post-war Labour leaders they have all been Oxbridge educated bar one. That one was Brown and he was accepted at Edinburgh at an early age of 16, but we can look at Edinburgh being the Scottish equivalent of Oxbridge in many ways.

        So I’m obviously supporting the wrong party if I don’t want an Oxbridge leader. Yet that would fail to see the real problem, which isn’t new as it started with the 1945 intake of MPs. That problem is the gentrification of the Labour Party.

        Herbert Morrison encourage more university educated candidates for the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1945 because he had been embarrassed by the lack of manners and debating skills from working class MPs in the previous parliament. I suspect Morrison was already beginning his move up the social ladder at that time. (Funny of course that his grandson Peter Mandelson should be the one I quote on his dislike for changing the PLP’s makeup.

        It would be a disaster if we ended up with some tidy quota system of
        blue collar, working-class, northern, horny-handed, dirty-overalled
        people to have in our party, as opposed to having a selection system
        based on merit.

        Morrison was successful and over the years we have seen the parliamentary party changing. It even did for poor old Morrison in the end as the party leadership which he thought was his for the asking was snatched away from him by the very people he was promoting.

        Why is this a problem? Well the leavening of the better educated MPs with members who have done real jobs at the lower ends of society gave the party a rich vein of common sense not usually found in the academic and professional worlds. That the last two leadership elections have not had one candidate who wasn’t Oxbridge educated shows how far we have come down the path of gentrification.

        • David Morton

          Small point of fact: Callaghan didn’t go to university at all. Single parent family, left school early and went to work.

          • Daniel Speight

            Accepted, I totally forget about Callaghan as I went back through the list to Attlee. I hope I didn’t miss anyone else out.

        • luckydipper

          I do not think the problem is with ‘the gentrification of the Labour Party’ so much as with the failure of a comprehensive system of education to provide leaders of a working class background able to think, assess information, construct a cogent case and put it across. Unless you can do this, you stand little chance as a leader and parliamentarian. It’s as if, with the increasingly specific division of labour, thinking itself has become specialised, as I think Marx quotes Adam Ferguson as saying. Maybe the failure is with adult education? If I had a blank piece of paper, I would limit the expansion of the universities to twenty and build a system of continuous adult education, working hand in hand with unions and big employers, which would serve more adults from their mid-20s on than currently go to our hugely socially divisive and inefficient set-up in higher education.

          • Angela Sullivan

            “Able to think, assess information, construct a cogent case and put it across”. – Have you ever seen or listened to Iain Duncan Smith, the Minister for the DWP? His complete inability to do any of those things has not held him back in his political career. Nor can it be blamed on the Comprehensive education system.
            I like your idea about continuous adult education, though.

          • luckydipper

            It held it back in the sense he was Tory leader and never Prime Minister. In a sense I feel the Labour Party should be the natural political home of intellectuals from the bottom 98%–should people want to frame policy or make cases or at a pinch set out a stall as leader–and also the natural allegiance of most people. There is a question you pose, which is ‘do talentless people from privileged school backgrounds squeeze out more able people who went to the wrong schools or universities?’ Even if the answer is sometimes yes, I don’t think it’s true in the Labour Party and most of the liberal professions to the extent that bright state-educated students can’t force their way in. This is why I suggested state-school education might be lacking in some way.

          • Daniel Speight

            Funny enough educational opportunities had a lot to do with the post-war gentrification of the party. It was the grammar school boys with university degrees, be they red brick or Oxbridge, who became Labour MPs, gradually pushing out a generation who were lucky to get any education past 14 years or even less.

            The losses included the union officials who had worked their way up from the shop floor, and it has to be added that nowadays you will find union officials who came from Oxbridge rather than from the shop floor.

            What the party lost, as I said before, was common sense supplied by people who worked in real jobs and had to make ends meet. How many times have we looked at the Labour leadership making silly mistakes, and held our heads in our hands, saying why on earth did they do that?

            As for your ideas on further education, maybe best left to another thread, although I see some of our Oxbridge leadership contenders got there via a comprehensive school.

          • luckydipper

            I must say I do not have the sense of any ideas setting the race for the Party leadership ablaze.

            Besides the unaccountability of the top 0.2%, and the almost unimaginable difference between their lives and anyone else’s, the big social issues facing the country are the casualisation of unskilled and deskilling of semi-skilled labour; the lack of a pathway into the professions for the talented young of the bottom 60% of society; to some degree, a social divide between a managerial and a working class flowing from sometimes vocational higher education; and the yawning wealth gap between roughly the top 60% and bottom 40% caused by the predominance of housing as a form of wealth in this country and the endowment effect this creates for households (creating a group of haves and have-nots). I can think of a lot of other problems affecting people on the bottom, especially in housing, but all those listed above will affect the swing voters who opted for the Conservatives in the election. Where are the bold ideas in employment, the public sector, tax-and-benefits, housing and education to address them? Why is no one offering an alternative to the Tory prescription of most people having to work their end off just to get by, on what is essentially a rigged playing field?

    • Matthew Blott

      Abbott said that so she could endorse Umunna over Burnham. I really couldn’t see her forfeiting the opportunity of campaigning for a BME leadership candidate.

  • BillFrancisOConnor

    I found myself nodding in agreement throughout while reading this excellent piece.
    However, the big issue for many of us is that we are finding it hard to get enthused by any of the leadership candidates. That vacuum is being occupied by those on the left and right who are spoiling for a fight.

  • Charlie_Mansell

    Very good points. I think it may be dawning on people how challenging winning a majority is going to be post boundary review. The CLP changes there will be traumatic enough for members in 2018 after an EU referendum in 2016. This is why we need a leader in place by the autumn to steady us and then some intelligent reviews like the Cruddas one hopefully reporting sometime next year and some calmness and unity to address these challenges even before we get into the 2018-20 pre-election period

  • Mandy Hall

    Problem with the last five years and possibly before has been the Emperors new Clothes. No one is willing to stand up and be counted – not in my experience at Council level as they all have a *position to protect*. Had it happen to me personally – during a local dispute, there was a public face and lots of people coming up to me in private and whispering their support in my ear but they couldn’t come out and say it as they have to be seen protecting the party line – even when the Council is 98% Labour – they still have to hold ‘discipline’. Ed & co was unable to be criticised before the GE as they were untouchable. Unity is another soft phrase for ‘command and control’ . I might not have liked what some of the UKIP candidates were coming out with but at least they were able to say it.

    • madasafish

      Exactly Mandy
      See Yvette Cooper who “toed the Party line” but now says Ed was too anti business. Err about 4 years too late..

      And she expects to be considered a credible candidate?

      (and Burnham etc)

      • Mandy Hall

        I’m also getting the same whispers locally about well we didn’t support Ed really – well then who did?

        • madasafish

          It’s all BS… He was a dud, it was obvious he would be a dud – I said so at the time and was banned – but it required no great feat of knowledge to see he would be one..

          He was loyally supported by Burham ,Cooper and many others. Who now say he was rubbish..

          And politicians wonder why the public despise them? In my view if Burnham or Cooper are elected Leader, their statements of support for Ed and his policies will be dragged out when the next GE comes along…Karma.

  • Christian Wilcox

    If Labour slides back into PFI-central Low Tax Blairism then 2 things will happen:

    – People will not see a Labour Party that has changed, and will continue to reject it.

    – Tax Take will remain too low ( as is always the case when this Low Taxes for The Rich rubbish comes out ). The Millennial Boom-years were a credit bubble after all, not a real pay rise for the many.

    People want Left. Give them Left, or go join The Torys.

    • David Battley

      I must refer you to the yougov survey that refutes this opinion…

      • Christian Wilcox

        And I must refer you to ‘20% pass marks for science’, ‘open-door immigration’, and ‘Iraq’. All are key Blair policies that, to this day, sting us.

        Because they were obviously stupid.

        • David Battley

          Not really comparable though are they? Is your prescription to change track completely; to revert to “old” labour, despite the clear and present electoral liability that the yougov poll suggests this presents?

  • marsj001

    I agree with most of the Article, but why do we constantly use the same picture regarding any article about Party Disunity, especially one which is of one of the most committed party activist’s I know?

  • Daniel Speight

    In my previous comment I think I have been a bit too general, so in this one I’m going to get very specific, Luke.

    After the Scottish referendum when the polls started to show that the 45% ‘Yes’ vote was going to follow the SNP into the election, Labour’s tactics badly needed to change. There should have been a detailed inquiry into what was happening. Instead we got Jim Murphy carrying on just has he did through the referendum. He had already upped his socialist sounding buzzwords which of course nobody believed from him.

    You may or may not agree with McCluskey saying that the Scottish Labour campaign hurt us in both Scotland and England, but this seems to have been the Tory intention with the threat of SNP controlling Miliband. If we had changed tactics could it have helped? Maybe. The first thing would have been to apologise to Scottish Labour supporters for joining with the Tories and Liberals in the ‘Better Together’ campaign. Would that have helped? Who knows, but it could hardly have made it worse.

    Was there a different option to Labour’s Scottish referendum campaign? Yes there was and what makes me angry is that it’s from Harold Wilson’s playbook from 1975. What’s wrong with looking back then? Is everything prior to Blair suspect?

    What did Wilson do in 1975 when faced with a similar situation over the EEC referendum? Well he gave Labour members and supporters a free vote. He allowed them to campaign for their own choice. Now Wilson was looking for a vote to stay in the EEC as were most of his cabinet, while the left of the party thought the opposite. Wilson got his way with a good majority.

    Now let’s apply Wilson’s tactics to the Scottish referendum. Allow any Labour member to campaign as their conscience decides. Well there were a few Scottish Labour people who apparently were inclined towards independence. Darling could still have given his speeches to the Edinburgh faithful and even Brown could have done his bit in Glasgow. The result may have been even more pro union without the party having taken a position because in the polls it looked like the reaction against the Westminster parties ganging up together was actually driving support to the ‘Yes’ side.

    So lets have our inquest now. Who was responsible for the referendum campaign and tactics? Was it the same people who were responsible for our election ‘limited offer’ campaign? Could we say it was Miliband and his inner circle along with Douglas Alexander and his Progress buddies? How are you going to blame this on the left or on McCluskey, Luke?

    • Mandy Hall

      Nods – conviction politics is best.

    • David Battley

      Some thoughts…

      First: timeline – the referendum was in September, Murphy took over (after Lamont went nuclear in October) following an election process, in December. Five months later the election took place. Now, I don’t know the guy, or much of his politics (there were suggestions of a whispering campaign, but they tainted Miliband as much as Murphy, I note), but attributing as much direct blame on him as you are seems quite harsh.

      Second: “The first thing would have been to apologise to Scottish Labour supporters for joining with the Tories and Liberals in the ‘Better Together’ campaign” – if joining together with another party on a point of agreement becomes something one needs to apologise for then I am very very worried for the state of politics in Scotland: that is not passion, or conviction, it is just petulance, and childishness, and if indeed that is the current situation then the SLP needs to look very very carefully at what part they played in reaching that nadir, and what part they can play in reversing it.

      Third: the Wilson strategem: again the leaders in place were Miliband and Lamont. I agree with your point that it would have been smarter politics, so surely it is with those two that any “blame” lies, no?

      Fourth: Are you defining Miliband as Progress/right? Because that surprises me. Also I note you are absolving the unions of any responsibility in the decisions that were made, but that seems unlikely to me given how much they have been pulling at the reins for the last few years…

      • Daniel Speight

        Fourth: Are you defining Miliband as Progress/right?

        Well I certainly don’t define him or Progress as of the left.

        Are you defining those around Brown as being left and those supporting Brown as being right? Plenty seem to be doing that.

        • David Battley

          I don’t really understand your question. Brown was undoubtedly left-of-centre, but his governmental policies were more centrist than Miliband’s shadow policies, in my opinion.

          See also the Yougov survey.

          • Daniel Speight

            David, I have just edited my comment. The second Brown should have been a Blair, which in a way was what I was getting at. There really is no ideological between the two. Both used the phrase ‘no more boom or bust’, with Brown probably being the more intellectual of the pair.

            Left of centre is a bit a meaningless phrase because it depends on where you place the centre line. The story often told is of Roy Hattersley suddenly discovering he was part of the Labour left after Blair took power. Now Roy had always been considered right wing, standing a number of times in internal party elections as part of a Labour right wing slate. Within a short space of time he found the party had moved so far to the right he was now considered left wing.

            Even on a personal level, like many people, my youthful extreme radicalization gradually moved rightwards with aging. The problem is I am not moving fast enough to keep up with the party’s movement in that direction. This means although by post-war standards I would be to the right of the party, like Hattersley I find myself on the left.

            A last note on the left/right demarcation. If you look just at his economic policies Ted Heath was more of a social democrat than Blair, Brown or Miliband.

          • David Battley

            Blair vs Brown is one of those interesting pairings that make for good history lessons: one had intellectual horsepower (though intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate to being “right” in a debate), the other a huge amount of what many would call “emotional intelligence” but no real interest in the detail. Blair was successful because his footwork was so good and he knew how to frame debates and dance around the issues; Brown tried to out think (and if necessary, bludgeon) his way through opponents.

            Individually neither was ever going to be as successful without the others support: hence their grouping could only really be in the same place on the political spectrum.

            One Brown was PM the unions very publicly started to turn the screws on him, however… Meaning, for me at last, his government tracked somewhat leftward… but even then not as far as Miliband…

          • Daniel Speight

            The panic of 2007/8 did give Brown a Damascene moment when he saw the the economic consensus had failed. it was meant to happen that giving the City the power of self-regulation would see banks and financial institutions committing hari-kari all over the place for the sheer greed of short term profits. In this game of musical chairs or pass the parcel among the banks, Brown could only see a Keynsian escape in pumping the banks full of public money. Would Blair have approached it in a different way? Well he has never really alluded to a different prescription.

            So was Brown more left than Blair right up to 2010? It’s hard to see it. What may give that impression is that as one of the newspapers mentioned way back was that Brown could talk ‘Labour’ far better than Blair. When Blair used the word ‘comrade’ as Shirley Williams tells us, it didn’t sound very genuine.

            Where does Ed Miliband fit into this? Well he was definitely part of New Labour. He saw New Labour’s reputation going down the tubes and decided he had to make a break from it in order to get support among the party and the electorate. Quite how much the break was decorative it’s hard to say.

            What we do know is that many did not want a coronation of his brother, the one anointed by Blair, Mandelson and the ultras. How much of his left reputation was built on trying to get enough of the union vote to offset his brother’s lead in the PLP and the CLPs we will never now be sure.

            Towards the end of this last election campaign his horns were definitely withdrawn. The limited offer to the electorate did not really give the tabloids much ammunition in proving he was ‘Red’ Ed. The shame was in previous attempts at talking tougher about the societies ills his polling went up, while going in the opposite direction when being more conservative.

            In the end what the public was deprived of was a choice of different economic paths to follow. All three major parties offered a monetarist-like austerity economic path.

          • David Battley

            So when Labour stopped sounding socialist enough, the public decided to teach then a lesson by voting for an even less socialist party.

            You do see the flaw in that argument, right?

          • Daniel Speight

            David, you are taking a lot out of the election results that may not be there. Where did voters looking for an alternative to the Tories go? In Scotland it’s pretty clear. In England? Well UKIP and the greens must have taken some. How many just couldn’t see the point in voting at all?

            Shame in a way as I thought there was a bit more to you than this glib reply.

          • David Battley

            Dismiss the point if you want: the evidence backs it. See the yougov survey for more information.

  • Patrick

    Unity can only happen once one vision or other for the future is settled upon. That requires first for there to be a serious internal battle, no matter how vicious, for the party’s soul and direction. Miliband kept the party very well united – and achieved this by shying away from vision or policy or anything to upset the applecart within the party. Look how that worked out. The various gangs within the party (Blairites, Brownites, union creatures, regional baronies, etc) need to have a bloody gang war where one lot emerges alive and the others dead. Then we can unite around the winner. Otherwise it’s going to be same old same old.

  • Bill Filey

    The party was not left-wing enough in some areas and not right-wing enough in other areas. And the leadership did not know in which areas it should be to the left and in which it should be to the right.

    These are pragmatic, populist times we live in. The days of ideological purity and following one tendency, left or right, are over.

  • Demongo

    I think what Labour needs right now is simple.

    1) Pick someone to stand up for PMQs albeit temporarily.

    2) Make sure everyone turns up for every vote and “opposes” until a direction can be chosen.

    3) Have a great big noisy slanging match at every opportunity, the exact opposite of unity, and try and thrash out a consensus the party can live by.

    4) Implement it.

    • David Battley

      The trouble with big noisy slanging matches comes in asking the warring factions to live together after the dust has settled.

      Personally I doubt both sides of Labour will be in the same party beyond Christmas…

      • Fred Worthy


        • David Battley

          With such a carefully considered and comprehensively expounded rebuttal I am obviously unable to continue with such a belief. Thank you for lifting the scales from my eyes – and for not acting like a jerk in doing so – when I expressed my personal view. It’s this sort of debate that makes this site truly a special place.

  • styopa

    Sorry, but one thing we don’t need is more sniping at the unions which are one of Labour’s main sources of strength. If you read what McCluskey actually said, rather than the spin put on it by the right-wing media, you will see that he didn’t make threats or resort to blackmail but reported in a measured and responsible way on what he is hearing from his members. As for Murphy, his intemperate remarks in his resignation speech have finally convinced me that he was never fit to lead the Labour Party in Scotland.

  • Matthew Blott

    Good piece Luke, sorry it hasn’t been better received.

  • Chris Walker-Lyne

    Further to Luke Akehurst’s piece, above, I imagine lots of us are worried about many of the same things. But we aren’t going to further our cause by saying nothing because we’re afraid of alienating some part of what we hope is our core vote. Two obvious examples of this are foreign, especially European, policy and electoral and constitutional reform.
    Does anyone remember why we wanted people to choose Labour candidates in the last Euro elections, other than to deny votes to UKIP and/or the Tories? Douglas Alexander may have had lots to say on these questions, but I’ve no idea what his proposals were. I can’t recall any serious articles from him in Labour-sympathising newspapers or magazines. The only contribution I can remember from him was an embarassing diary piece in the New Statesman in which he gushed about his week in the US, hobnobbing with Hilary and others. This just served to confirm my impression that senior Labour figures have nothing to say about our position in Europe but are obsessed with US politics. I don’t know whether Alexander tried to engage with any of the currents in European politics. If he did, he didn’t write about it. And we got screwed in the European elections.
    In the UK context, we can be sure that Cameron will soon find a way to neutralise the SNP in Parliament, to keep them away from matters pertaining to England. He will also get the boundary changes he wants. For years, we’ve been told not to talk about electoral and constitutional reform. The line was that these were “chattering class” issues. In reality, we can see that they have been considered too contentious for us to tackle in the Labour Party.

    At Westminster, the SNP victory has been hugely exaggerated by the First Past the Post electoral system that we could have overturned years ago. Now, without Scottish votes in Westminster, how can we resist the agenda of the most ideologically-driven right wing government anyone can remember?
    We’re saddled with an overall majority of Tories, the party least likely to entertain electoral reform, so the prospect of any kind of Labour majority in England in the foreseeable future looks distant, to say the least. Our only way around this is to engage seriously with parties who have an interest in achieving some form of proportional representation, even the awful UKIP, who certainly can’t ignore how unfair our voting system is, plus the Greens, the Lib Dems and anyone else we can get hold of. After this, we must take seriously, as other European Social Democrats have to, the problem of forming the progressive alliances without which we stand no chance of helping to shape the future.

  • Robert Leslie

    ‘Unity not uniformity’ – absolutely. The Labour Party has always been a coalition of the progressive left with room for voices ranging from ‘Hard Left’ to (slightly oxymoronic ally) ‘Soft Right’
    We have been most successful with a Centrist as leader. Both Harold Wilson and Tony Blair held the disparate sections of the party together and won a series of general elections. They were neither of them perfect (and I’m sure both of them would have given their eye teeth to have a ‘uniform’ party!) but they were both winners.
    While tapping this out my iPad offered me ‘sinners’ as an alternative to ‘winners’! I am sure there are many in our movement who might cast both these men as the former ahead of the latter.
    Enough of frivolity – we need a unified party behind a centrist leader. There is a massive election campaign coming up – the EU referendum. This is a huge opportunity for the Labour Party. We need to run our own ‘Yes to EU’ campaign focussing on a social democratic European settlement. If the Lib Dems, Greens and Nats want to join us – fine! Just don’t campaign with the Tories! A big ‘yes’ vote for continued EU membership could be a killer blow to UKIP.


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