The point of internal Labour organisations is to influence the party’s policy or culture in a chosen direction. Such groups can also provide thumbnail descriptions of a person’s politics – spend any time in Labour circles and you will know what I mean when I say ‘he’s in Momentum’, ‘she’s a Labour First person’ or ‘they’re involved with CLPD’. Membership and interests might overlap, but to which groups a person loyally pays their subs will be a good starting point when trying to gauge their positions on the issues of the day.
I joined Open Labour in 2018. At this point, the organisation that styles itself as the party’s “open left” had been in existence for three years. In the time I was a member, I attended OL conferences, organised events and media coverage, and worked closely with the organisation itself as a former editor of the Social Review. At last year’s OL elections, it seemed that everyone I knew, including my flatmate, was running for a committee position. This is all to say that when I loosely described myself as “an OL person”, I had put the hours in.
“The organised soft left” has always had something of the oxymoron about it. During the Jeremy Corbyn years, however, it was broadly safe to describe OL as a place for people who were supportive of the policy agenda then advanced by the party – enthused by the four-day week, the push to universalism and the green industrial revolution, and by a newly automatic support for strikes – but who had serious misgivings about the party’s internal culture, most often around the handling of the antisemitism scandal. A friend who recently left OL described the organisation as Corbynism’s “Yes, but” faction; broadly but not uncritically in agreement with the party’s direction, and willing to talk to other factions in a way that the polarisation of the post-Brexit Corbyn years made rare.
The distinct political context that formed the backdrop of OL’s early years is worth talking about, as it tells us a lot about the people and currents who now populate the organisation. The vicious culture, paucity of ideas and Blairite cosplaying of the young Labour right at this time served to irradiate a whole section of the internal political spectrum, sending the newly politically involved – who might have more naturally have found a home elsewhere – into the arms of OL. Similarly, you found older people who probably would not have described themselves as of the left but could see which way the wind was then blowing, didn’t much feel like spending years of their lives calling people trots, and signed up to an amenable mid-point. This backdrop made OL the home of not just the soft left, but also the less discussed soft right.
Since 2019, the leadership and direction of the party have changed. We find ourselves in a very different political context. It seems safe betting that at the next general election, our manifesto will be quite different from what Corbyn’s Labour presented to the public in 2019. OL has, through the change of leadership, chugged on much as before, putting out little in the way of policy, making little in the way of waves. They have released a room temperature glass of water of a foreign policy document and collection of essays on constitutional reform from which one would struggle to identify a top line. Only a strong joint statement with Momentum on the ‘spycops’ (covert human intelligence sources) bill suggests that OL has the appetite to meaningfully hold the party to account.
If you’re the “yes, but” faction and the wholesale change of what “yes” means has seemingly no effect on your operation at all, you have to wonder what your organisation is for. OL at present looks a little like an armchair that bears the impression of the person who last sat in it, its commitment to being soft overriding any particular politics. The unwieldy coalition of the soft left and soft right would also appear to be listing distinctly in one direction; the recent London regional conference saw significant overlap in the slates backed by OL and Labour to Win, with no such overlap between OL and Momentum.
Under Keir Starmer, Open Labour has haemorrhaged political salience. Its lack of policy direction is paired with a cultural squeamishness about the nitty gritty of factional organising. A faction for people who claim not to be factional is all well and good, but at the end of the day slates, well-updated member lists and a degree of goal-orientated ruthlessness are how things get done. It’s nice to be nice, but it is not a whole politics, and it certainly won’t pass motions at conference.
An answer to the question ‘what is OL for?’ might still have been found if it had decided its calling was to lead on making a safer and more open party. As it stands, however, it has not distinguished itself through a particularly firm stance on an independent complaints process, its responses on internal issues have been sluggish, and – as one member’s recent tweet exposing abusive messages relating to the ongoing committee elections highlights – OL is seemingly about as free from sincerely unpleasant bullying as any of the party’s other groupings (that is to say, not at all).
It is not hard to see how OL could make sense once again: produce radical policy that draws points of differentiation with the leadership, begin to develop the infrastructure through which this might be brought to conference, become more reactive and outspoken when it comes to party culture and the actions of elected representatives. But it is hard to see that it will. I might still think of myself as an OL kind of person, but that conception bears little resemblance to the actually existing organisation. No matter what the results of this week’s committee elections, I don’t see myself rejoining any time soon.