How Labour’s backbenchers could play a role in reviving the party – regardless of the identity of the leader


New Labour went into the 2010 election pretty exhausted, splintering, weighed down by the legacies of the failed Iraq war and the banking crash, and with the baggage of another leader who was not going to win. Busy attempting renewal on all fronts, New Labour had failed to renew itself. Stuck with those answers it first thought of, the old guard of ministers and advisers hung on for far too long. Fresh blood, and with it fresh thinking, was needed but never happened.

New Labour suffered, too, from the absence of serious competition — a consequence of first-past-the-post. Any self-regarding competition authority in the world would rule FPTP illegal. When one major party is out of action — as the Conservatives were for most of this period — then standards drop. New Labour had little to challenge it, until David Cameron appeared. Even then, it took some doing to lose to an Old Etonian ex-PR executive.

That absence of effective competition also allowed the self-indulgent Blair-Brown feud to fill the void. Its continual strife sucked energy, purpose and votes. New Labour had demanded discipline from its members as the price of election, yet tolerated a most self-centred and ill-disciplined leadership. Both should have been read the riot act through the party’s governance.

Another great irony here is that every government in the world would improve — and its politicians be more successful — with comprehensive, independent and balanced feedback. None has this. This is one of the several major reasons for discontent with government performance — local, national, regional and global. If you don’t know the score, how do you know if you’re winning? You don’t. If you don’t know where you are, how will you know how to get to your destination? You don’t.

So vast resources are spent on trying to convince themselves and the electorate that policies are working — or not, if you’re the opposition. Self-scoring and news spinning become, therefore, a substitute for proper feedback. Until we grasp the fact that feedback of results has to be institutionalised and put somewhere where the politicians can’t tamper with it, spin is what we’ll get.

Refreshment came in the form of Ed Miliband. Labour embarked on a muted why-are-we-here quest, but in the form of a stale New vs Old vs Only-Used-Once Labour, conducted with lashings of labellism and moral superiority, unaware of the major shifts in circumstances and values wrought by neo-liberal economics.

Actually, Labour’s historic mission to take the masses out of poverty, disadvantage and inequality had succeeded. To compare our lot today with when I was growing up is to rejoice. But the old mantras continued to be chanted. The party needed a trip to the political psychotherapist but instead sat on its hands.

It was quickly evident that no matter his various qualities, Miliband was not going to win. This brought about a repeat of Labour’s most enduring failure of party governance: its unwritten rule to replace the CEO only once the company has gone bust.

The Conservatives don’t self-handicap like this. Why? Their “1922 committee” is composed solely of backbenchers. Thus it has far more freedom to discuss difficult issues than if overseen by the management. Its role is to tell leaders, whose shelf life has expired, to move on. The Conservatives would have replaced Neil Kinnock with John Smith in 1990, Gordon Brown one year before the 2010 election and Miliband after two years as leader. The party is far more important than the person.

Onwards to the Corbyn era — an essential disruptor for a drifting party. The parliamentary Labour party of all its MPs continued to behave as a failed state. It should have shut up, backed Corbyn for two years, given him a good run (or enough rope if you prefer) and then taken stock. Instead, the ruling faction threw its toys out of the pram and embarked on continuous strife.

After the referendum, one year in, spooked by a quick election rumour, it repeated the mistake by mounting a hopeless challenge. It showed a remarkable detachment from people and their genuine disadvantages, unable to comprehend its role in Brexit through preaching, ignoring, and fixating on its own semi-ideology.

Corbyn did have some real negatives from his first year as leader. Initially, he could find reverse gear only as he came up with mostly very old Labour policies. Secondly, the organisation of the leader’s office and output was not competent. Thirdly, his performance in parliament was limited. But bear in mind that he had become leader not after years of planning alongside a slick team of advisors, but suddenly, on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm. It would always take time to learn these complicated and sometimes bizarre ropes.

Which he evidently has, playing a blinder in this year’s election. Plus, we find that mass disadvantage, inequality, and disempowerment have returned. No-one is starving but the basis for a New New New Labour mission is there. Whether Corbyn recognised this or whether what he thought happened to be right for the time, I don’t know. Either way, his essential message resonated.

But did not win. That would have taken, not a different leader this time, but a party that had left its proud history in the history books, that grasped where many people were, that had thrown away the old recipes and thought long and hard about new and workable solutions, that really got behind its leader and its leader behind them, and shouted with one voice.

That it did not is down to years of decline in every wing, faction and tendency, which in turn is the product of the weak governance of the Labour party and of the broken system of government and democracy. The party still has no effective backbench (and member) governance.

For the country, until its system of government is redesigned, it and we will muddle on, not a lot will actually change for the better, political parties will keep their bad names, and every government — including your or my choice — will disappoint. We all need to start thinking seriously about how to reform this system — through feedback, competitive democracy, policy by design and powerful checks and balances.

Ed Straw is a writer and campaigner for the reform of government and a visiting fellow in applied systems thinking in Practice at the Open University.

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