Unity will only get us so far

Parliament Commons PMQs

Earlier today Harriet Harman reshuffled the Shadow Cabinet deck in the wake of last week’s electoral cataclysm. It wasn’t a remarkable reshuffle, but it was a sensible one. Serious thoughtful people promoted to act as caretakers until the next Labour leader comes. Unity first. There’s a value in unity.

This evening saw the first PLP meeting of the new Parliament. Peers, MPs and newly-elected-not-quite-MPs crowded into Committee Room 14. They discussed the timetable for the leadership election, and the sentiment seemed to be behind a long contest. One that may end just before conference (to give the new leader time to get their feet under the table) or just after conference (to allow all leadership candidates to address the conference). The latter option was met by groans from the parliamentary party that were audible out in the corridor.

Much of the meeting held tonight was similarly audible out in the corridor too – and not just the powerful tones of Ian Lavery (definitely the speaker we outside could hear most clearly).

So what was audible from the PLP tonight, and what does that tell us about where Labour is? Unity was paramount. All was unity. But it is easy to cry unity and be upbeat when you’ve just won your seat. Try telling the same to the dozens of candidates and former MPs still picking themselves up off the battlefield. Unity was one of the watchwords of Ed Miliband’s leadership. Miliband himself would admit that he’d chosen “unity over clarity” far too often.

And where did that get him? Few sworn enemies but too few friends. The Miliband ultras are few and far between. And so compromise won out all too often. (I’m being wise after the event a little here – I thought Miliband’s capacity for compromise was at times a strength. But here we are).

Privately after the meeting finished, many of those I attendance admitted that they found some of the calls for unity (and criticism of those who have publicly discussed why we lost) problematic. I agree. A party that has lost on a 1980s scale (but not, it must be said, a 1980s manifesto – I take “Ed was too left wing” with a bag of salt) cannot hope to attempt the Herculean feat of trying to win next time without having a pretty public, testing – maybe even brutal – debate about who we are and what we are.

Unity will only get us so far comrades. Clarity is needed, whatever the perhaps surprisingly upbeat mood of tonight’s PLP.

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