The Labour Party divide isn’t about power vs purity 

It puzzles me how such astute electioneering experts who pride themselves on their ability to reach out beyond their own ‘tribe’ can fail so spectacularly to understand that not everyone in their own party is motivated by the same things they are.
The Labour Party talkers have gone full panic mode this week, with arguments about the split between the “left” and the “right”, the “purists” and the “realists.”

But the split in Labour isn’t as simple as a split between left and right, and it certainly isn’t as simple as purists and realists; rather, it is a split between the motivations of those who think all social progress happens through a strong executive government, and those who see parliamentary democracy as only one tool of many for bringing about social progress.

Those in the “executive government is all” camp aren’t necessarily cynical bastards who think power is an end in itself (undoubtedly there are people like this on all sides of politics but that’s not who I’m writing about here). Many of these people are motivated by a desire to win elections because, in their world view, it is the only way social progress of whatever sort they seek can occur.

It is not, of course, a coincidence that there is a lot of overlap between people who take this world view and people who have a career in the world of politics, be it in parliament, or be it in journalism or election strategy.

Most political activists, on the other hand, believe that social progress happens through a variety of means. Parliamentary democracy might be one means of achieving change but legislation isn’t everything and the role of the executive within the legislative process certainly isn’t everything to this group. Many of these people support electoral reform in some way, wouldn’t mind seeing a proportional system with power-sharing and coalitions that hold each other to account rather than ‘strong government’ from one single party.

As far as the Labour leadership candidates are concerned, it might be wise for them to keep in mind that much of their party’s new intake consists of former Liberal Democrat members or voters, who are quite used to voting on the basis of wanting the makeup of parliament to be such that it represents their values rather than first and foremost expecting to form a strong executive government.

And many Labour members are also activists. Far from an insular, narcissistic ideological purity, activists tend to believe that changing attitudes, empowering communities, and actually making a positive impact in all sorts of practical ways, is as important, if not more important, than getting a Labour government. That’s not because they are too pure for power and prefer the self-indulgence of opposition, but rather, because they see evidence that plenty can be done with marches, strikes, community organising, volunteering in the local church or foodbank, giving talks in schools, validating and listening to marginalised people, consumer power, petitions, lobbying and, of course, by having the MPs you want in parliament to represent and vote against things or table EDMs or basically get things done for their constituents – all without necessarily being in government.

In other words, it is a split based on a disagreement about the best way to achieve practical change, not a split between those who want practical change and people who want an ideological circle jerk, as is repeatedly inferred by increasingly rude senior Labour figures, supposedly experts in this stuff, who, for all their pride in understanding Tory voters, don’t seem to have any understanding of their own.

I must admit I tend to fall into the second group. Most significant societal progress has not happened solely as a result of electing the right people to power and letting them get on with it. It is always, always, always driven by other types of activism. I don’t conclude from that, as some do, that parliamentary democracy is irrelevant. But it means when I vote, I am choosing people who I think will be most likely to be influenced by all the other forces driving that social progress; that they will represent their constituents rather than being bullied by whips even if it’s contrary to their constituents’ interests, raise important issues in parliament on our behalf, to do meaningful work in the constituency, to be thoughtful and evidence-based in their approach to getting things done, and be always focused on the impact a policy has on the public, not just its marketability.

What’s curious to me is that for all their talk of listening to people you disagree with and meeting people where their values already lie, people like Liz Kendall seem to have no clue whatsoever about how to connect with the people they need at this stage of their campaign – and that is Labour Party members.

As Chuka Umunna so wisely put it, “screaming at voters” doesn’t change their minds if what you’re screaming isn’t what they care about.

And asserting that you are popular and electable because, well, because you say so doesn’t make a convincing case. This is the crux of the problem. Jeremy Corbyn may of course be unelectable in a general election. But the problem is that in many people’s eyes, so are the other three.

Yes, it’s simplistic and false to say that the Labour Party lost the last election because it was not left-wing enough – but it is also simplistic and false to say that it lost simply for being too left-wing, and that all the party has to do to win next time is move a bit further to the right.

Everyone knows Ed Miliband wasn’t trusted on the economy. That isn’t the same as being left-wing. It is also about leadership skills and credibility; about a lack of original ideas and the absence of a positive narrative. Not being on the extreme left of the party is not the same as having these things. You have to have other qualities to offer as well as being comfortable moving to the right. For a start, you have to actually be good at campaigning, communicating, and persuading – and the first rule of being good at that, surely, is understanding how to speak to your current audience.

You’d think cold-headed strategists who believe the most important thing is to win would approach a Labour leadership contest by appealing to the Labour membership. In being utterly unable to do so, Kendall, Cooper, and Burnham demonstrate the vacuousness of their position – and the difference between themselves and the ultimate election-winner, Tony Blair. Just as his supporters will remind us that Tony Blair achieved some progressive things (a minimum wage, a fox-hunting ban, tax credits and the Human Rights Act, many of which, incidentally, are now seen as left-wing) but he had to win over middle-England first, I am inclined to remind them that he may have won over middle-England – but he won the Labour leadership first.

And so the party grandees are throwing a sulk and insulting the party members because these three are failing to do that. Because Jeremy Corbyn’s arguments are seen by some in the party as so “ridiculous” that they’ve forgotten to actually counter them.

If you want to make sure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t get the leadership then you have to understand why people are supporting him. It’s amazing that anyone thinks “screaming” that he’s unelectable will work. It’s amazing that they don’t hear the double standards as they pompously lecture people on how they must never mention the racism and wider bigotry that lies behind Ukip’s appeal in case it alienates racists and bigots, while sneering at and insulting the people they disagree with every time they open their mouths.

Not everyone lives and dies for the cult of the Labour Party. Not even all Labour members, and certainly not your new, younger ones. Alistair Campbell apparently once said of the left-leaning voters who could abandon the party as it drove to the centre: “where can they go?” Well, nowadays, lots of places. Look at Scotland. The Labour Party is one of the parties in parliament; it is one tool in achieving social progress. But it is not the only one. If the Labour Party doesn’t want people like that to be members, then go ahead and chase them out calling them names, insulting their motives and, worst of all perhaps, sneering at young people for daring to take an interest in politics and say what they truly think.

But to then get on their high horses about how they’re so good at reaching out to new voters after doing that beggars belief. Each campaign for the party leadership is an audition in the candidates’ campaigning skills. It’s not just about left and right but the ability to persuade, negotiate – to lead. If Jeremy Corbyn is so bad at these things, and the other three are so much better, how come they are all so dismally failing to beat him?

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What is the point of the Labour Party? 

What is the point of the Labour Party? It’s not the first time I’ve asked this. But maybe it will be the last. Maybe I’ll give up asking. Perhaps once they pick a leader this time they will make the answer clear and I won’t have to keep asking.

Right now they seem to be saying that the point of Labour is to get back into government. That sounds reasonable until you realise that’s where it stops. That’s the end in itself. The point of Labour is to give Labour’s top names a career and to win elections. But ask them why they want to be prime minister, the party strategists, the electoral ‘realists’ who do nothing but consume polling data and spit out clichéd inanities about aspiration while insisting they are in touch with ‘the public’, ask them what it is they want to do with their power, and they look at you blankly.

Liz Kendall wants to be leader because she wants the Labour Party to win elections. And then what? She’s often compared to Tony Blair but she has none of the vision, no overriding sense of how she wants to transform the country, that made people believe in Blair. Or, if she does, she hides it from Labour members during the leadership contest, which makes me a little nervous.

Yvette Cooper, according to one new MP, wants to be prime minister because she wants the economy to be strong and because she knows that the internet exists. A strong economy based on a digital revolution, which could be a joke policy from the Thick of It, except it’s too boring.

Andy Burnham, from what I can establish, thinks he’s the best candidate because he has friends, has a constituency that he goes back to sometimes, used to work at a publishing company and likes football.

And they wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is grabbing people’s imagination. At least he sounds as he has an idea or two in his head about what he actually thinks the country needs. At least he has a bit of passion, at least he trips over his words rather than reading them off a page without caring if they even make sense or directly contradict the logic of something else he’s said only moments ago.

It’s hard to expect people to take seriously the meaning of labels like hard left when the rest of the accepted narrative has moved so far to the right that Nigel Farage is in touch, George Osborne is a moderate man of the working people, putting up taxes for people in work on low pay is balanced, and suggesting that child poverty is bad or that sick people shouldn’t have even more money taken away from them, is all the stuff of the so-called looney left. It doesn’t matter that policies like working tax credits were the stuff of popular, centrist Blairism not so long ago.

And yet the left of the party, not the ones with the ever-changing principles and week-long memories, are the ones to get attacked for moral relativism.

It’s true that the Conservatives won the last election, and it’s true that there’s a lot of public hostility to various aspects of the welfare state. But the Conservatives did not, however much it seems to be the accepted popular narrative, win by some honking, stonking majority. They did better than everybody expected with their surprise victory, but it was still, compared with Blair, or Thatcher, by the skin of their teeth. And that’s without even beginning to consider the mess of the electoral system. The vast majority of people in the country did not vote Tory, and did not vote centre right.

The Tories won the election but that doesn’t mean democracy stops for five years. We don’t have an elected dictatorship, we have a parliamentary democracy. The Labour MPs elected to parliament have a job to do. They are paid to do it – and paid rather good money to do it. That job is holding the government to account, and representing their own constituents – not worrying about what floating voters in a handful of other marginal seats may or may not be concerned with in five years time. 

Let’s not forget that the party will oppose the government at the risk of losing the ‘centre ground’ when it suits them, of course; the link between the unions and the Labour Party is hammed up to be just as toxic as anti-benefit sentiments but the party speaks up against anti-union reforms because that could impact the party’s pockets, rather than just yours or mine.

Arguments about the actual impact of the Welfare Bill won’t matter to the party ‘realists’ of course – if they were going to be listen to those impacted by the cuts they would have done so by now – but there’s a cynical, political argument as well for not letting the centre be dragged any further to the right. How much further can this go? If cutting taxes for people in work has become some sort of extreme left wing socialism, then where will the centre ground be in five years? And Labour think they can win an election, on that ground, on the terms set by George Osborne, in five years time? By repeating patronising platitudes and hoping the SNP implode or that Scottish voters simply decide they rather like Liz Kendall and quite fancy another five years of cuts and privatisation, actually?

The Labour ‘realists’ keep going on about how Labour needs to stay as a party of government, not a party of protest. But Labour MPs are sitting in the House of Commons, paid by those taxpayers that the ‘realists’ keep pretending they care about. They have a choice. They can take a ‘tough decision’ and use their influence to hold the government to account, as they’re paid to do. Or they can sit on their hands and stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to oppose things that will cause actual harm just to make an abstract point. A point they will be hammered on anyway, because Labour will probably always be seen as the party of the welfare stare. Labour is the party of the welfare state. Or, rather, it was, once upon a time. If any of the leadership hopefuls really want Labour to be seen as a party of government, they should take a little bit less interest in the beauty pageant of leadership contests, or the faffing around with percentages in marginals to decide what position to take on any given day, and take a little bit more interest in showing they are actually up to the serious business of governing.

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