What do the different wings of the Labour Party actually disagree about? Sometimes it seems like almost everything, in spite of the warm words about party unity offered by the various leadership contenders in recent weeks. But on closer investigation the disagreement between left and right is less about policy – on which there is in fact some convergence about the broad direction of travel – and more about entitlement: which faction is the legitimate legatee of the battered but still attractive Labour tradition?
Since this disagreement is existential – about which side is authentically Labour – it is also a bitter and intractable one. It has become a damaging zero sum confrontation in which neither left nor right is willing to acknowledge that the other has got some things right as well as some things wrong. Unless Labour partisans can inject some emotional intelligence into this dispute, Labour will remain trapped in a damaging cycle of recriminations while the Conservatives sail on governing the country.
A more constructive conversation about Labour’s future requires as a first step an explicit acknowledgement that both left and right have a legitimate place within the party. The attempt by figures on the right of Labour to portray the left as outsiders to Labour’s traditions is not only tactically unproductive – since these are the grassroots members who must now be won over to any different approach – but a curious misreading of the labour movement’s history. It is of course vitally important that Labour forms national governments but if Labour cannot also act as a channel for dissent and bold ideas for social reform then its time in government will not differ sufficiently from a Conservative administration for anyone outside of technocratic policy circles to notice.
For all its achievements, this was a major failing of the 1997-2010 Labour government, which went out of its way to puncture any manifestations of left-wing idealism and in doing so fractured what should have been its own natural support base. Rather than offering a pluralist internal coalition between left and right, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown prioritised the victory of their own faction and thus allowed other parties like the SNP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats – and then eventually the Corbynite left – to claim Labour’s ideals.
In this context it is rather churlish of the Labour right to be so dismissive of the impressive mobilisation of new members and activists under Corbyn’s leadership. A huge reservoir of enthusiasm was available to be harnessed by the Labour Party and it is to the discredit of Labour’s right that they failed to tap into that after the 2015 general election. The preceding decades had made them far too cautious and immersed in the technical details of policy-making at the expense of crafting a wider narrative about fighting social injustice.
In turn, the left must recognise that the right too represents an essential component of Labour’s political ecology. To dismiss them as Conservatives in disguise is a serious political misunderstanding. For one thing, if the left can’t persuade the most historically influential section of the Labour Party to sign up to its programme, then what hope does it have of convincing voters who feel little sense of personal affection for Labour as an institution? The prime exhibit in the left’s case against the Labour right has been a disproportionate critique of the New Labour years as a mere continuation of Conservative rule and therefore as a ministry that was quite distinct from earlier Labour governments.
Leaving aside the substantive rights or wrongs of this assessment, a more nuanced verdict on the Blair and Brown government would have been politically wiser, not least because the ‘anti-austerity’ positioning of Labour under Corbyn was in practice a defence of the public spending of Labour after 1997 and of Gordon Brown’s response to the financial crisis (even as former ministers in that government – and possibly even one former Prime Minister – sought to distance themselves from them).
One lesson of this is that pluralism and coalition-building actually have to start within the Labour Party prior to any more ambitious conversations about cultivating links with other progressive parties. In short, Labour has to develop a programme and rhetoric that both left and right can sign up to. The good news is that, once a new leader is elected, there probably is space for such a compromise to emerge. The bad news is that nonetheless there remain two unresolved tensions within the party, one posing a challenge to the left and the other to the right.
One tension is over how ‘transformational’ we should expect a Labour government to be. The left would like to serve advance notice that Labour in office will fundamentally change British society, following (so it is said) in the footsteps of the Attlee and Thatcher governments. Although many figures on the Labour left are bewitched by the example set by these two governments, it is not within the power of political parties to stipulate that they are going to inaugurate a new paradigm in public policy in advance of taking office. The Thatcher government certainly didn’t – it gained office on a relatively muted manifesto and radicalised as political space opened up before it. It walked the path toward market liberalism step by step, with a sense of overall direction but no preconceived detailed plan. The Attlee government was different again – it moved at a faster pace but was able to draw on the legacy of total war, which had already moved Britain several steps towards socialism before it took office.
A future Labour government will not have the political advantage of inheriting a state-directed economy. It would be prudent to calibrate the expectations of Labour in office in a way that can ensure they will be met and exceeded rather than undershot. This can still be a radical electoral pitch, but it should not be one that sets such hugely ambitious goals as to become out of kilter with what the electorate regards as credible. If a ‘paradigm shift’ in public policy is on the cards, it will only happen in the style of Thatcher – over time, as a Labour government embeds itself in power and wins elections with convincing majorities.
A second tension is that Labour’s right finds it very difficult to be in a party led from the left. Self-styled Labour realists have devoted their political lives to the hard yards of moderating ideological exuberance in the face of grim electoral constraints. They have accordingly always seen themselves as the senior partner in Labour’s internal coalition. They are comfortable setting the pace of Labour when the left knows it place – as an auxiliary supporter that sometimes needs to be hustled in the right direction. But leading figures on Labour’s right are palpably ill at ease when they are the ones being hauled behind a dominant left.
It is an open question if they can accept the new balance of forces in internal Labour politics in which party members are less deferential to the right’s claims about electability and in which the balance of opinion has trended leftward. The departure of Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership will ease some of these tensions at first. But they will inevitably return as whoever is elected leader will do so on a platform that will not pass the New Labour litmus test.
We will soon have lived through an entire decade that has been dire for the politics of the left. Everyone in the Labour Party needs to get their act together if we aren’t to endure another decade in the same vein.
This article was originally published in the Political Quarterly journal.