In “Voodoo Histories”, David Aaronovitch’s superb book on the tendency of our age towards conspiracy theories, he asserts that “conspiracy theorists fail to apply the principle of Occam’s razor to their arguments”. In other words, that they opt for a complex and convoluted explanation over a simpler, more obvious (and therefore more likely) one.
During the last few weeks, both leading up to and since Ed Miliband’s momentous decision to reform union involvement in its funding and selection processes, there have been arguments against from two groups.
The first comprises those which sincerely feel that it could harm the party’s future, that it could somehow “lose its soul”, end up with a worse selection process than before or even – and here I believe there is a case to answer – end up broke.
Whilst we might observe that similar arguments were made in 1993 against OMOV and 1995 against the rewording of Clause Four without the sky falling in on either occasion, let debate be joined with those people and may the best argument win.
The second group may be defined as those who perceived that something terrible was happening to their party even before last Tuesday’s announcement and for whom this merely confirms their worst suspicions. The contention seems to be – and I kid you not – that a powerful Blairite cabal has been busy twisting Miliband’s thinking around to their point of view.
Now, I expect that pretty much all those who might call themselves Blairites – and, believe me, it is a pretty small number nowadays – support Miliband on his proposals. However, I am also fairly sure that their reaction to the idea that somehow they had “kidnapped” Miliband to their agenda would be to smile wistfully and say “ah, I wish”.
The simple explanation is this: Miliband has finally seen that Labour’s selection process is irretrievably broken. He realises that only radical action will serve his purpose and announces that action. The party’s right supports it, because its can happily make common cause with its leader on an issue which it had lost all hope of fixing, and (not least) because he is clearly in the right. For whatever reasons, Unite’s Len McCluskey has decided to go along with it, for now at least, and as a result further criticism elsewhere on the left has become oddly muted. End of.
The complicated explanation is this: a group of Blairites has been working feverishly behind the scenes for some time to bring Miliband round to its way of thinking. They are powerful, they have money and they are bent on returning to the good old days of New Labour. In Falkirk they finally saw their opportunity: they deliberately engineered a fight with Unite – quite innocent of any kind of wrong-doing, by the way – and are now bent on “breaking the link” and banishing all union involvement from the party. The unions are, in turn, powerless to stop this in the face of the Blairites’ corporate-backed might.
I know this last paragraph sounds far-fetched: but it is exactly the narrative which has has a number of outings over the last few weeks.
It has now rather tailed off, after Miliband’s blinder in challenging all-comers to defend the indefensible status quo, and McCluskey’s support has muffled the reverberations on the left. But you can be sure the narrative will be back.
A few short days before, let us not forget,
Owen Jones was warning that “the Labour party is in great danger” from “politically ambitious über-Blairite Shadow Cabinet members”. Bob Thomson, former party chair in Scotland, spoke woefully of a “Blairite coup”, Left Futures the “Blairite plot” and so on.
The prize, though, is reserved for the Guardian’s Seumas Milne, who alerted us to “Labour’s resurgent Blairite diehards” and “the closed circle of corporate power”, before complaining – without irony – that unions “have precious little influence”. I mean, apart from the NEC, conference, candidate selections and being consulted on a bunch of key political decisions, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Let’s dissect the narrative a little.
First, Miliband may have faults but one thing most can agree on is that he is nobody’s stooge. As Aaronovitch points out, however, all good conspiracies are based on an all-powerful agent who is in the process of doing something terrible – secretly, of course – and must be stopped (the final stage of this is “‘agency panic’, the fear that individuals can be controlled against their wills by omnipotent outside forces”, although I should add that aliens have not yet featured in the Blairite plot at time of writing).
We might add that, comparing organisations, the much-feared Progress has an income (£368,598) dwarfed by that of any of the major trade unions. While it openly provides help and support to candidates, unlike unions it does not provide funds, cannot jump candidates onto the “long list” via local affiliation and neither does it take part in any special scheme for signing up new members. Finally it has no constitutional role in selections, NEC or conference; its key contribution is ideas. Not exactly pulling on the levers of power, is it?
Second, Labour clearly did not pick a fight with Unite; any Labour leader avoids a fight with a major union if they possibly can. It was self-evidently the reverse – the impossibility of keeping a lid on it any longer – which triggered the Falkirk meltdown. And it seems pretty clear that, had the party’s report been made public, neither the party nor Unite would have looked very clever.
Third, any person on the right of the party or elsewhere who thinks Labour can survive without any union support needs their head examining. The party is broke, for a start. If any real “breaking the link” were ever to be undertaken by Labour, likely to be a very long time in the future, it would have to be because of a failure to make a compelling case for its continuance. In politics, as in life, partnerships tend to happen for reasons of mutual benefit and that is that.
Fourth, the idea that “the Blairites” are clandestinely backed by unnamed large and powerful corporations who want to smash the unions is wonderfully imaginative but fictitious. As with the party itself, there are a handful of companies (mostly via sponsorship) and some individual donations. Progress’ sinister and secretive funding programme is squirreled away in this webpage called, er, “How Progress is funded”. But fair dos, there might be some other secret mechanism to fund Blairites that I’m unware of – honestly, sometimes I get lost amidst all this evil.
In short, if this is a Blairite conspiracy to take over the Labour party, it is surely a spectacularly unsuccessful and inept one. However, given the love of conspiracy theories which has blossomed in the internet age, it seems that it is a narrative which is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
This post first published at LabourList and chosen for What We're Reading by Evil Progress, er, I mean Progress