In politics it is sometimes worth stepping back from the immediate hurly burly to take stock of the broader context. David Osland’s new pamphlet “How to select or Reselect your MP” invites us to do so, by his self-conscious decision to reboot a pamphlet that was first published in 1981.
While both the Corbyn and Smith camps are concentrating on the immediate task of maximizing their vote for the Labour leadership contest, and both camps planning their next move after the results on 24th, it is worth reflecting on how extraordinary life is in the contemporary Labour Party.
All party meetings, except those absolutely necessary for specific practical tasks with the permission of the regional director, are currently suspended. Senior Labour MPs are briefing about party members being a rabble, tens of thousands of members are being suspended or excluded on seemingly the flimsiest of pretexts, and various atrocity stories are being leaked to the press about alleged violence, spitting and abuse at party meetings, as well as reports of online insults and bullying.
What a carry on. However, this chaos in the party has been at least partially orchestrated. The scheduled parade of resignations by shadow cabinet members in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote demonstrated planning, organisation and premeditation. Rather dubious press reports of disturbances in Angela Eagle’s CLP, followed by similarly contested accounts of alleged tussles in Bristol West and Brighton provided a pretext for party organisation to be suspended, which – no doubt coincidentally – prevented AGM elections of CLP officer position in many constituencies, the first such elections since the membership was boosted by Corbyn’s supporters. For those who have studied history, this very much did resemble an attempted coup: through a campaign of destablisation, delegitimisation and disruption – a strategy of tension.
It is also worth looking at the wider political landscape, which before Corbyn was elected was already very challenging for Labour. The party has not won a general election for 11 years, between 1997 and 2010 we had lost 4 million votes. Scotland has been seemingly irrevocably lost, and elsewhere Labour is squeezed by UKIP and the Greens. Not only had the broad electoral coalition that the Labour Party had historically assembled unraveled alarmingly, but in terms of ideology and policy, the party appeared exhausted, lack lustre and shop soiled.
Whatever the personal merits of the various leadership contenders who have challenged Corbyn, whether last year’s Kendall, Cooper and Burnham, or this year’s Smith, they all offer different flavours of the same proposition: that professional politicians should run a transactional campaign that offers a hotch-potch of carefully calibrated policies each designed to appeal to various sectional interests.
The muddles this entails are perfectly illustrated by the hapless Owen Smith, who wants to be tough on immigration, but also reverse Brexit thus accepting the free movement of people. He wants to appeal to the socially tolerant metrolpolitan demographic, while simultaneously making a series of gaffes about being a “normal” bloke, who mocks “lunatics” and refers to women politicians like Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood in terms that resemble outtakes from a Robin Askwith movie. Indeed his recent quip about 29 inches makes it sound like he is more inspired by Dirk Diggler than Nye Bevan.
In 1976, the Labour Party leadership contest included candidates from the centre-right with the genuine stature of Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan, Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. Today we have a Bilko look-alike doing a David Brent tribute act.
What the self-described Labour moderates seem unwilling or unable to do is to examine the underlying causes of Labour’s decline. While it would certainly be possible to write a very long thesis on the subject, in a nutshell, there are far too many people who do not see the economy or society working for them and their family, or their community.
There are far too many people on zero hour contracts, in precarious employment, or on low pay. There are far too many young people who cannot get a good start in life, with either a secure job or affordable housing. There are far too many communities that feel left behind, where traditional sources of employment are in decline, and new jobs are precarious and low paid. There are far too many employers prepared to exploit migrant workers to depress the wages in entry level jobs.
These problems cannot be overcome by simply a more refined message from Labour: by having a leader who is more adept at eating bacon sandwiches, or a leader whose team manage to more effectively reserve them a train seat.
For hundreds of thousands of working people who endure petty bullying and inconsideration on a daily basis from managers, but who stick with low paid, low status, and often unpleasant work because they have no other way of paying their rent or mortgage, and no other way of putting food on their table and shoes on their childrens’ feet, the bleating of privileged MPs about Corbyn’s alleged failngs as a manager will butter no parsnips. In any event, Corbyn’s team have now bedded in, and while this or that thing could have been done better over the last 12 months, some slack needs to be given to a team that had to be assembled from scratch a year ago.
Last year, Andy Burnham’s pitch was that he was like Ed Miliband but more professional. This year Owen Smith’s proposition is that he is like Corbyn, only more competent. Compare these facile 6th form debating stances to such landmarks from the right in the party from the past, such as the intellectually rigorous revisionist proposition from Crosland in his book “the Future of Socialism”, or the confident advocacy from the Labour right in the 1960s of a party that aggressively championed social equality, but was tolerant of the private sector in a mixed economy.
The right and centre-right of the party have offered no new policies, no vision or direction and no intellectual leadership for over a decade now. Instead they resemble a Cargo Cult who believe that the ghost of 1997 can be revived by behaving exactly as if nothing has changed in 20 years. While technique is important, Labour has tested to destruction and beyond the glacial processes of voter ID, contact rates and targeted messaging, whatever merit they have, and I am certainly not advocating abandoning the work, it is clearly not sufficient to win a general election.
The party faces an existential threat, not if Corbyn wins, but if he loses. We simply cannot go on in the old way, in a society that has deeply changed. The rising vote of UKIP, and the associated shock of the Brexit result, combined with the irresistible advance of the SNP, reveals a growing gulf between a disenchanted electorate, and a professionalized political elite, for whom there is a career path for the ambitious through university to becoming a special advisor, then being parked in a voluntary sector or think tank until a safe seat comes up. Time and again voters say that there is little difference between the parties, and the gulf widens between our MPs and our voters.
The Labour Party needs to change to survive, and the victory of Corbyn in last year’s leadership election was a judgement by not only the membership, but also the wider periphery attracted as registered or affiliated supporters not only that Corbyn does offer hope, but that the exhausted women and men of yesteryear, Burnham, Kendall and Cooper, offered no hope.
It is worth reminding ourselves when Owen Smith and his supporters use as their supposedly clinching argument the need to win, that winning is not given just because you want it more. Party’s who have been defeated need to regroup and reassess, as the Conservatives did between 1997 and 2010. What is more, successful parties use their period in opposition to wage a battle of ideas, and develop a new vision and proposition for the electorate. The party that Clem Attlee led to defeat in the 1935 general election was hardened and prepared by the time they swept to victory under the same leader in 1945, during which time they had substantially won the arguments with the electorate about their radical programme.
Turning back to the present day: many MPs, including those who despite subjectively centre-left politics, have learned their political skills and attitudes in an entirely different political paradigm, and are – perhaps understandably – disoriented by the new. But let us not overestimate the problem, the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs want the party to win a general election, and will be prepared to compromise for the sake of party unity.
There is more joy in Heaven for a sinner that repenteth. Therefore any overenthusiastic discussion of deselecting hard-working and essentially decent MPs would be highly counterproductive. The party is and should remain a broad church.
David Osland’s pamphlet does not advocate deselecting, it merely provides a summary of the relevant rules and processes for members of CLPs who may feel that it is the right thing to do. There are indeed a very small number of MPs who seem to put their own thirst for self-publicity before the interests of the party. Their CLPs may choose to have a contest in which the sitting MP would automatically be a candidate for the nomination, and thus would be given the opportunity to succeed in reaffirming their level of support with their local CLP. That’s is only fair.
“How to Select or Reselect your MP” by David Osland. £4 via Spokesman Books or order through any bookshop.