Thursday, 12 July 2012

Labour approaches a tipping point

“The future is unwritten” said Joe Strummer. He was right. We really can change the future: really. Because politics is driven by people and events.

That said, many of these people and events are in turn, whether we like it or not, driven by power.

It’s significant that even the word tends to bring to mind thoughts of how power corrupts or how the wielding of power is somehow an undesirable act. But power can be good too. We need it. The just wielding of power is a wholly good and desirable act, whether or not we agree with the political outcome. Democracy would be meaningless without it, after all. Power is there to be used for good, even if that is not always the result as we see it.

Those who have it can choose to wield it, or not. And sometimes it can be about perceived, rather than actual, power, as well. The shifting of the political tectonic plates often happens because the balance changes between one side and another, and it is often these events, rather than the froth of the everyday media, which we should be watching.

So, let’s go beyond, for a moment, the day to day – whether or not Osborne will apologise to Balls (he should), or even whether the coalition is on the rocks (it’s probably not) – and take a little look into the Labour Party’s immediate future. It’s either entirely frivolous, or deadly serious: you choose.

And so we come back to the underlying story which manifested itself in Labour’s affiliated unions wanting to ban Progress. It hasn’t gone away, as many had hoped: the motion to conference has arrived from ASLEF, and it’s not clear that it was an “honourable peace” either, as Mark Ferguson noted atLabourList on Monday.

That said, the motion will very likely fall – as Hopi Sen noted yesterday, if passed its scope would, risibly, include Compass, Tribune and LabourList as well – and even then it will not be debated and voted on until the following year. Everyone is now pretending that everything’s fine, and the issue will disappear.

But it will not, and everything is not fine. We cannot wish things away just because we would like them not to be so. The important thing is not ASLEF or the GMB, and neither is it Progress. It is the shifting of the plates.

Only a fool could have failed to observe the significant change in the relative power of British trade unions over the last decade or so, and their propensity to use it. The power is not from their membership numbers, which have declined, but from the proportion of Labour funding deriving from unions. It is difficult to support the idea that this will have had zero effect on their negotiating power.

It is also difficult to support the notion that the political leanings of the union leaders as a whole have not moved to the left. A decade ago, union leaders included amongst their number centrist “ballast” such as Ken Jackson and Roger Lyons; the TUC was led by the moderate John Monks.

Today’s leaders are not. This change in political positioning has moved the labour movement to a more critical stance of a centre-positioned Labour Party. You may like it, you may not, but it’s a fact.

There is a third factor, though, one which can be decisive in the balance of power between Labour and unions: that of perceived power.

If a child is bullied in the playground, it may not be because he or she is physically weaker, but because he or she perceives themselves to be physically weaker. In other words, people will often have the power over you that you let them have. There is a choice: you can choose not to be bullied. And choosing inaction is also a choice.

The Labour party currently has an opportunity to mark out a winning agenda for government, one which will be there for a short time only.

There seem to be three possible outcomes: the first is a consolidation of its position in the polls, a conversion of that soft, temporary poll lead into a sustainable poll lead, and finally a majority. It will take a sustained effort over the next three years, overcoming a number of other barriers in the process such as its relative policy vacuum and poor leadership polling. In particular, it will take Labour be seen to make some positive running on a major, game-changing issue. The Clause Four moment, if you like: although, contrary to popular opinion, it does not even require Miliband to “define himself against his party”. It requires merely a big, positive win which comes from within, which does not depend on a Tory mistake.

The second is that Labour muddles through without any major disasters and perhaps, if it is lucky, secures some kind of inconclusive poll result, a minority government or a coalition. But it does not win.

On the other hand, nature, as the saying goes, abhors a vacuum. Even with the Tories doing their best to undo any advantage of their incumbency. Politics, like many other subjects described by Malcolm Gladwell in the Tipping Point, seems not to like unstable equilibria.

The balance of power between parties has a nasty habit of flipping from one side conclusively to the other, in the end making it abundantly clear to the world which side the public was really on. You may not see the reality immediately from the signs – as happened in the run-up to the 1992 election – but it persists there underneath, and you will see it ultimately at the ballot box. In 2010 the coin landed, unusually, on its edge. Labour needs, self-evidently, not to be on the wrong side of any flip.

So there is another, third scenario: the meltdown scenario. The tectonic plates move slowly towards the point where there is enough pressure, and – boom! – we see that the gradually rebuilding Labour edifice we have all seen turned out to be a house of cards, which collapses quickly into its old unelectable self, almost without warning. It could be a scandal, as yet unknown. But the most likely cause, as ever with Labour, is that it will be seeded from the far left.

It could be unions: a few well-placed hard-left activists goading their more moderate leaders into pushing on the levers of power just a little too hard. Or it could be that the press finally turns on Labour as a pack, as Nick Cohen has predicted it one day will, over the party’s tolerance of extremism, another a favourite of the far left.

But, as the good man once said, the future is unwritten. This is all conjecture, and any one of these scenarios may happen. Perhaps there are others, not yet visible. We have the ability to change it, individually and collectively. The signs are that we’re still in time to decide which one we want it to be.

But only just. Only just.

This post first published at Labour Uncut


  1. Being a bit of a Calvinist I can believe in predestination. As for Labour which Labour do you mean? Miliband's Blair Lite (TM) or proper Labour (Left, led by Grahame Morris)? Unless Ed has a miracle lined up it will be meltdown, the 2012 party is exactly like the 2010 party.

  2. But the 2010 party didn't melt down (indeed, it was reasonably close to forming a government). In terms of political balance, Labour in a worse place.


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