Ding dong merrily on high

Luke Akehurst

Being a glass-half-full sort of person when it comes to the state of the Labour Party I thought I should respond to the glass-half-empty blog post by Anthony Painter, backed up by Peter Watt.

Anthony says the Party has “stopped pretending it’s in trouble when clearly it is”. This is clearly nonsense, everyone I know in the Labour Party spends their entire time full of angst about why we lost and what we need to do to win again.
He says “I’m afraid by-elections and local elections are pretty meaningless in terms of the national picture”. How come then that by-elections and local elections were a perfect indicator of the national picture in predicting we would win in 1997 and lose in 2010?
He says Labour’s “organisation is a bad fit for the needs of the moment”. An odd time to mention this when we just finished spending a year debating structures in the “Refounding Labour” review, made some radical changes in terms of opening up the Party via the supporters’ network, and we have a General Secretary making the most radical changes in living memory at Party HQ. It’s no use making a statement like that without suggesting specific reforms, and the time to do that was in the summer during the Refounding Labour process.
He says “You no longer win by putting blocks of support together” but anyone who runs campaigns at a local level knows that’s exactly what you do – segment the electorate based on socio-economic data (Mosaic codes) and previous voting behaviour from canvass returns, and target your message at the different groups.
It is correct to say there are more groups, a more splintered society, and the big blocks of Labour support are smaller because society has changed, but the idea that economic class isn’t the primary determinant of voting behaviour is nonsense, if it wasn’t why would inner city and former industrial areas be predominantly Labour, rich areas predominantly Tory and mixed areas marginal?  The way the two parties have acted in government shows that they remain basically vehicles for the aggregation and advancement of class interests – Labour improves life for people in places like Hackney, the Tories make it worse.
Anthony says we need a “nuanced conversation” with voters. Yes, with a minority who follow politics very closely we do. But most voters have very little time to think about politics. They don’t want a “nuanced conversation” they just want to know they can trust us to run the country and once we pass that bar they will think about very broadly sketched visions of the future and what our priorities might be.
He argues that it is “stark raving mad” to think “politics has to change society”. Maybe it is. Maybe I am mad. But you won’t get people to sacrifice their spare time to run a voluntary political party by just accepting society as it is and making politics just about electing the most attractive candidate or most competent team. And British society needs changing – it is grossly unfair and unequal – who is going to change that if it isn’t Labour? If it can’t be changed by politics we might as well all emigrate or slit our wrists. Surely the whole point of even the most rightwing versions of social democracy is about fundamentally changing how society works to make it fairer?
He calls for “heavyweight statesmen and women; not former advisers” to lead Labour. I can’t decide if that is a straightforward attack on the current leadership, most of whom were advisers before being MPs, or just naïve – changing the way we recruit our leaders would bear fruit in 20 years time not now.  I’m not aware of a “heavyweight statesman” sat in the wings waiting to lead Labour. And what’s wrong with being a former adviser? I wasn’t one, I don’t have the patience or self-control to only advise or speak for other people rather than speaking for myself so went down the path of elected political office, but why would we have a downer on people who spent Labour’s period in government working full time helping Labour ministers? A) it’s a commendable thing to do and involved a lot of financial and personal sacrifice and B) it means when they become Ministers they already know how to make government deliver our policies.
He also complains that “the upper echelons of the Labour Party is dominated by brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and friends”. Errr, yes, because if you work together in the common endeavor of getting Labour elected and then governing successfully for two decades, you will end up being friends with each other, and maybe even marrying each other. Does Anthony want people dropped into Labour’s leadership who haven’t got a history of hard work for the Party? I confess I trust people more and tend to vote for them more if I canvassed with them in 1990s by-elections or sat with them at NUS and NOLS conferences 20 years ago. It means I know what I’m dealing with.
He says “we have a party that interprets diversity in purely gender or racial terms. You end up with even less diversity as a result.” There’s an implicit attack there on measures that do address gender and race representation. There’s also a failure to show any recognition of the training scheme the party is currently running to help people get selected from all sorts of non-traditional backgrounds that are under-represented in the PLP, or the high profile example of us running ex-army officer Dan Jarvis in a by-election.
If Labour is a “guild” as he says, it’s one anyone can join by getting a reputation for campaigning hard. That’s the basic criteria – party members will select people with very diverse political views and personal backgrounds if they know they are grafters who have done the hard slog as volunteers on the doorstep, ditto in terms of who gets appointed to jobs within the party staff.
As for Anthony’s critique of Ed’s leadership, I simply don’t agree with it. Listing things you don’t think Ed has done well is not massively helpful. It would be more useful to set out things you think he should do.
Anthony says, implying this is not a good thing, “The highest value within Labour is now loyalty and unity.” I wish it was.  It should be. We’ve tried disloyalty and disunity throughout our history, particularly in the recent past. It never helps.
He calls for “more (constructive) disruption at the top and throughout the PLP and party – including the NEC.” I’m one NEC member who won’t be heeding that call. If I am constructively disruptive you won’t hear about it – it will be in arguments made in private at party meetings or face to face with the people I disagree with, not grandstanding.
If you want to read a more straightforward, upbeat assessment of where Labour is at, read this by Michael Dugher.
It might help you have a merrier Christmas.
This was originally posted on Luke’s blog.

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