Monday, 11 December 2017

It is indeed Labour’s greatest crisis. This man should know

On Saturday, Labour’s Deputy Leader during the terrible 1980s, published a pieceentitled “Labour’s greatest crisis. Time to fight back”. It is not a bad summary of Labour’s current troubles.

The trigger for the article was the Militant-style takeover of the Haringey party this week, providing uncomfortable echoes for those of a certain age of what happened in Liverpool and many London boroughs in the 1980s.

It is fair to judge that Hattersley, like his old colleague Kinnock – although, as he writes in his autobiography, “we were never soul-mates”, one traditional right, one soft-left – might have erred a little in their eagerness to embrace the Miliband years. Perhaps because both of them instinctively reacted against the New Labour years as evidence that the pendulum of Labour policy had swung too far towards the Tories for either to bear, they did not seem to see the creeping rise of the far left he facilitated as a real threat, more as a natural correction back to a world they understood.

They surely do now. And, as someone at the top table during the rise of Militant, it is instructive to read the former Deputy Leader’s practical comparisons of Militant and Momentum. That is, Hattersley – and no Blairite he – should surely know.
In the 1980s, moderate MPs fought back. The central pillar of Hattersley’s argument is that, during those years, there was an organised resistance to Militant among the PLP. It was there on Corbyn’s election, but seems to have all but evaporated two years later.
Militant “commanded less support and was active in fewer constituencies”. 

In the activist base at large, that is certainly true; Momentum now has a national penetration where Militant’s was in pockets, such as the London and Liverpool parties. Militant had no trade union backing. Momentum has the backing of Britain’s largest union, Unite, with the second and third, GMB and Unison, being actively organised within to achieve the same support. Within the union movement, only a few, smaller and traditionally right-wing unions such as Usdaw and Community, are resisting.

We might add to this perhaps the most obvious point: Militant did not have a leader sympathetic to them – indeed, in the end, what is Momentum, other than a fan club for Labour’s leader? – nor a Leader’s Office happy to work the voting arithmetic in the NEC towards that organisation’s goals.

The good John Rentoul at the Independent, on the other hand, is more optimistic: while he acknowledges Corybn’s current strength, he argues that it will die with the leader’s tenure. Without Corbyn himself, there will not be the strength of purpose which currently exists. Rentoul also concludes that the deselections in the current Parliament will be modest.

While this may well be true, it is difficult to see that a Labour led by Angela Rayner or Emily Thornberry would be any more successful electorally. Labour is quite probably still out of power for, if not a generation, another ten years at least after 2022, assuming Corbyn stands that year. That would be 22 years, the longest period of absence from government for Labour since it first formed one in the 1930s. The other possibility is a Corbyn win in 2022, presumably meaning that Labour will be all but destroyed by its inability to implement its unicorn promises. Whatever, the landscape is still pretty awful for Labour.

In the end, there look to be three possible outcomes.

One: few deselections of moderates, but will Labour still not be out of power for a generation anyway, or thereabouts? Look at all the other factors: support of unions for far-left leadership; a leader who may ultimately be replaced by someone slightly less radical, but still unable to deliver any sensible policies; leadership control of the NEC and Shadow Cabinet; and so on.

Two: lots of deselections, and Labour out of power for a generation, exactly as Hattersley fears. In that event, it is difficult to see from where a critical mass of moderate MPs or councillors might appear to swing the party’s centre of gravity back towards political sanity. It would surely be touch and go.

Which leaves us with a third possibility: that Labour is simply finished as a dominant force in UK politics, as happened to the Liberal Party in the 1920s. It is easy to believe that our century-old Labour/Tory two-party system will last for ever, but the Liberals probably thought the same, before Labour overtook them.

It is easy, while it is holding its own against a chaotic Tory party in the polls, for Corbynites to gloss over Labour’s current, parlous state, but Liz Kendall’s quote from the 2015 leadership election still stands: “Labour has no God-given right to exist”. The Liberals really thought they would be there for ever, too.

We live in times of great change: we can only hope that Labour’s current, wretched state is merely a cyclical nadir, and not a death-spiral.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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