Sectarianism is alive and well on the Labour Hard Left

Michael MeacherBy Luke Akehurst / @lukeakehurst

A normal set of responses from a Labour person to Friday’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle would be to be pleased for colleagues who were promoted, sad for colleagues who lost their jobs or left them voluntarily, and to make an assessment of Ed’s judgement in terms of fitting people with the right political skills and policy stances to the right shadow jobs.

Like most people I thought it was a good reshuffle on balance. Though I was sorry to see people go who I rated, the overall impact looks good in terms of deploying more people with a punchy approach that will play well in harrying the government. It also promoted some fresh faces who will have public appeal and whose presence helps emphasise our side’s newness, diversity and dynamism compared to a government that is already looking frayed and weary, and is overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged and very wealthy. The reshuffle has helped emphasise Ed’s strength as a leader able to pick his own team, and to further emphasise a generational change from our period in government.

In contrast, the reaction from Michael Meacher MP is bizarre. In this blog post he says nothing about the personal qualities of any of the departing or incoming Shadow Cabinet, or their qualification for doing their jobs. Instead he engages in a number-crunching exercise, crudely allocating the new Shadow Cabinet to his own definitions of factions that don’t necessarily exist, and bemoans his own finding that Ed “has increased the proportion of Blairites from a third (under the previous system of election) to half” and that “the Balls camp within the Shadow Cabinet has also been increased.” He also calculates that “another dimension of this freshly appointed body is the Left-Right split among its members. In many ways this is more important, and more revealing, than the proportions of the various personalised affiliations. The division is quite staggering. The Right hold about 17 of the 27 seats, the centre-Left 9, and the Left just 1 (Jon Trickett).”

I suppose I should, as someone on the opposite wing of the Party, be delighted by these stats, which appear to show Meacher’s politics are totally marginalised at Shadow Cabinet level.

But actually I find his analysis flawed and depressing.

Flawed because these are his definitions of people’s politics, not their own. Particularly on the personality-based factions he ascribes people to, the labels are meaningless. A couple of Ed Miliband’s most loyal, partisan and trusted lieutenants voted for Balls last year: what category would Meacher now put them in? And what is the relevance of people’s support for Tony Blair in 2007 when that is now a political lifetime ago? Where has he allocated the Shadow Cabinet member who holds office in Progress but was a staunch Brownite? Or the one who worked for a Blairite minister but then for Gordon Brown? Politics is more complex and mutable than Michael’s rigid and crude categories suggest.

Depressing because it perpetuates the obsession with Blair vs. Brown which political journalist love to analyse, and which did debilitate our Party for years, but is now about as relevant to the ideological development and internal politics of Labour under Ed as Bevan vs. Gaitskell.

Depressing because it indicates Michael is trapped in the early ’80s paradigm of a divided PLP with factional slates for Shadow Cabinet elections, when we have actually got the most united PLP and Shadow Cabinet, and wider Party (as shown at Conference), in recent memory.

Meacher entertains a fantasy that Ed Miliband is, or should be “wrenching the party back” to the left. The reshuffle ought to help Meacher understand that this is not what Ed’s project is about. It’s about renewing Labour to make it electable again and learning the tough lessons of our defeat, not retreating towards some Meacherite comfort zone.

As usual, conspiracy theories are floated about “the huge degree that Thatcher pulled the Labour Party to the Right, the relentlessness with which Blair continued this distortion of the party’s principles to reinforce his own power, and how far this Tendency within the party remains embedded in a dominant position”. Maybe it’s that Party members are instinctively moderate and sensible, and consistently vote for moderate and sensible candidates in selections. They and ordinary trade unionists had the chance to vote for a Hard Left candidate in the leadership election, and gave that candidate respectively just 9,314 out of 126,874 members’ votes and 25,938 out of 211,234 union votes.

Michael says the composition of the Shadow Cabinet “reveals how far the PLP remains disconnected from its activist supporters within both the constituencies and the unions”. But Michael’s Bennite vision for Labour has been proven unpopular in every section of the Party when tested at the ballot box.

My challenge for Michael Meacher is this. If he thinks Ed has chosen such a dreadful rightwing Shadow Cabinet, then let’s hear his alternative. He should name the 27 people he would appoint, what the balance would be and who he would sack for thought crimes or ideological impurity. To make things easier he can name any 27 Labour talents, they don’t have to be current MPs, they just have to be alive. Let’s see the list and then make our own judgment about the credibility and electability of Michael’s choices versus Ed’s.

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