I was inspired by Blair but moved left – why pragmatism must trump factionalism

Listening to Neil Kinnock speak at Queen Mary University in east London the other night, someone asked the inevitable question – what does he think of Momentum? He said Labour is not remotely as divided as it has been at times in the past when the division between left and right was so deep that the party had stopped functioning. This is not one of those times.

This speech and the opening of elections to the national executive got me thinking about the role of left and right in the Labour Party. About five years ago the profile of the left-wing Compass organisation seemed to shrink and I had a conversation with Jon Lansman about the possibility of setting up another organisation to rival the highly organised right-wing Progress group. Jon told me with a weary voice that he had wanted this for years, but couldn’t find the funding, and was committed to the destruction of Progress instead.

He never succeeded in destroying Progress but Momentum was born and the organisation has risen at an astonishing rate. But there are problems ahead with Momentum. Progress membership is made up of people who were first Labour members and then learned their place in party is on the right, whereas many Momentum members joined the faction first and then joined the Labour Party. This sounds like a minor point but it is crucial.

Those Momentum members arrived at their first Labour meeting already knowing which candidates to vote for. This explains why Momentum are considered to be so well organised, but it also stores up problems for the future. The younger members have not always had time to develop their own political outlook. Their relationships with other party members have come pre-packaged, as it were.

For most Momentum members this doesn’t matter, as they would be lefties anyway. But I joined the Labour Party inspired by Tony Blair and slowly moved across to the left as I discovered my voice through blogging. That freedom to find yourself is an important aspect of party membership.

Allegiance to a group affects all political parties. The system of allegiance and patronage are not healthy per se, but they are necessary. “I’ll vote for you if you vote for me” is not designed to ensure that the best man or women wins, but it is human nature to form into blocks of votes and promote each other. The good thing is that the system does allow the best to come through.

A healthy political party will split into thirds. The left, the right, and the middle. Those on the left and right will be more likely to win internal elections because they have a body of support. Those in the middle tend to be unambitious but are the swing voters and tend to promote the best candidate regardless of left or right. The system works.

It’s worth pointing out that new members have it easy. They do well in internal party elections since the right and left are competing to make friends with them, and everyone likes to encourage new members. So young and inexperienced members should take my advice and put yourself forward for everything. Even if you don’t win, losing is learning, I like to say.

Left-wing members can find the right to be irritating, when they criticise Corbyn for example. But the left used to condemn Blair even when he was winning landslides. In my view the reason the right exist is that they are focused on winning and advocate against intellectualism when it ignores the concerns of ordinary people. This is important as many working class Britons are right wing.

It’s important for affiliation to be loose and to allow for pragmatism. A member of one affiliation may have their ambitions overlooked and will seek to change groups. This is the way that affiliations tends to sort into thirds in constituency parties. It’s important for Momentum to have an open door to all members of the Labour Party, because otherwise affiliation becomes sclerotic.

The most important point about affiliation is for newer members to recognise is that it is not personal. If people vote against you it’s not because they don’t like you. It’s often just that they are voting for their group, their tribe. It may seem like a big waste of energy but it’s human nature and is as old as politics.

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