End machine politics and build a collegiate Labour leadership
At our Brighton conference, Labour members face a historic choice: do we want power? Or a commemorative plate, celebrating the four glorious years in which the left ran the party but lost every election it stood in?
If the answer is power, it means facing some hard facts – and this goes for the activists as well as the bureaucrats currently pulling dumb, overnight manoeuvres on each other.
Fact #1: An election is coming and Boris Johnson stands a good chance of winning it if he can unite the soft conservatives of the English shires with the minority of racists and xenophobia in small-town England. That will probably be the last free and fair election in the UK, and the end of the Union.
Fact #2: To stop him we’re going to have to get the progressive majority to vote Labour in large numbers, either tactically or from conviction. I prefer conviction – and to achieve that we’ve got to offer a clear, broad inclusive programme that tells a story about the future.
Fact #3: Labour is going backwards in Scotland. That’s no longer simply our fault: it’s a product of the swing to the right in English conservatism, which makes many progressive Scots feel like they’re handcuffed to a lunatic. It means, for Labour to govern the UK legitimately it has to have at least confidence/supply from the SNP.
Fact #4: We lost Scotland because our activists and politicians started to define themselves culturally against nationalism. Now we are now in danger of losing parts of progressive middle England because activists are doing the same over Brexit. This is the most salient fact and you need to take notice of it.
Eighty-one branches sent resolutions to conference calling for the party to back Remain in a referendum. The leaders of Unite and the CWU, together with some in Jeremy Corbyn’s office, tried to block these. But to the progressive majority, wavering between us and the Libdems, Greens and nationalists, these resolutions – and their outcome – are the most important question they want to ask of us: which side will you be on in a referendum?
The argument comes back: if we commit to Remain we’ll lose the election. It’s a total misreading of the polls, based on a refusal to accept another fact….
Fact #5: Some working class Leave voters are strategically lost to Labour because we’ve become a socially liberal party, representing open, multicultural and feminist values while – for reasons beyond our control – their values have swung towards racism, misogyny and English nationalism.
Whenever I point this out, people accuse me of “abandoning the working class”. Far from it: I want to go out, as our best community organisers are doing, and fight for left politics in those communities.
But look at the situation functionally.
Ex-Labour leave voters deserted us over two decades, and because of a divergence over cultural values. We can win some but not all back with a radical economic offer, told in plain language, by a competent and united front bench including strong voices from northern England (see below).
By contrast many Remain voters abandoned us only recently, between last autumn and last Spring, and often reluctantly, because our line on Brexit wasn’t clear enough. That’s why we scored 14% in the EU elections, lost ground in the council elections and are currently on a poll average of 25%.
With an election weeks away, which of these groups do you think will swing back to Labour?
For hardline Brexiteers in working class communities, Johnson’s offer of a racist Britain, hostile to migrants and in hock to Trump’s America may drown out our offer on schools, hospitals.
But for passionate Remain voters, our offer of a second referendum could be enough on its own to trigger a return to Labour, especially as it’s backed up with the most radical offer of any major party on climate change.
But we need to go further. The most important thing at this conference is to rule out negotiating a “Labour Brexit deal” and to rule out advocating it in a referendum. The people who shouted down Emily Thornberry yesterday’s rally, asking “Where’s Corbyn?” have a point.
All they want to know is that, if they vote Labour, their votes will not be counted as backing a soft Brexit deal.
If we don’t rule that out, we will we will lose the election – no matter how well we recover in the Leave voting towns of the Midlands and Yorkshire – because around 25% of voters care more about Remaining in the EU than anything else. We will become in their eyes a pro-Brexit party, confirming the slanders of the Libdems. That is what is behind the Libdem surge and you need to face that fact and deal with it.
What we need, coming out of conference is a three point promise:
- We will force any deal done by Boris Johnson to a second referendum.
- If we win the election we will hold a second referendum within six months without any further substantial negotiations.
- In that referendum the party apparatus will back Remain – because we know the shape of the deal on offer. It is already “credible” – it’s just that it’s crap.
I have no problem in principle with Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to remain neutral in the #FinalSay referendum. The advantage is
a) it signals he will not back a May-style Brexit deal
b) it leaves people in his office with no further justification to go briefing against Shadow Minsters who support Remain.
But the optics of it are terrible. On the doorstep it looks like the whole party has no position, and if the CWU/Unite unions got their way that’s what would have happened. And that’s a problem because of Fact #6.
Fact #6: Jeremy Corbyn is popular among climate strikers but unpopular on the doorsteps of two kinds of voters: socially conservative working class people and passionate Remainers. Unfortunately these are exactly the people we need to convince to win an election.
Two thirds of this problem is created by the billionaire-owned media, the talk radio shows and slanders by our political enemies. One third of it is created by dithering over Brexit, and inept party management described by Andrew Fisher in his resignation memo.
Now, no matter how principled it looks to us, Jeremy’s neutral line on Brexit looks weird to ordinary voters – and on current evidence is not easy to defend in TV interviews.
The way to deal with this problem is obvious: in the coming election we advance a collegiate leadership, just as Blair-Brown did, with major shadow cabinet figures leading the line on policy.
And that’s where we need to situate the ridiculous attack on Tom Watson. As deputy leader he’s become detached in the Shadow Cabinet. His close supporters number only about 10 MPs – but what he represents for about a third of our members is continuity with the Blair-Brown years. The failed manouvre against him produced an immediate and credible threat of a leadership challenge. This needs to stop.
We cannot win anything unless the Labour Party is an alliance of the left and the centre. An enlarged centrist party is in formation, because the British business elite has lost control of the Tories and needs a new mouthpiece. We already lost 9 MPs to this centrist project and I don’t want to lose any more.
That’s why, though I disagree with Watson on policy, it was madness to use a bureaucratic manoeuvre to remove him as deputy leader.
We need to come out of this conference with a clear message: a radical Green New Deal offer, massive investment in local services, health and education, and the offer of a second referendum: May’s deal versus Remain, in which Labour institutions, from South to the Welsh and Scottish parties to CLPs and branches, can affiliate to the Remain campaign and spend party resources on that campaign.
I think it’s possible to achieve that, despite the antics of some union bureaucrats. But even so, I want to end with a warning.
As a reporter I watched Labour lose Scotland: it happened culturally before it happened politically. Labour members started to define themselves against independence, and some Labour voters even voted tactically for the Tories to keep the SNP out. There was a sense that the SNP-voting working class – which is the majority – were a different cultural tribe to “us”.
On social media, there is Now a growing sense of alienation among some Labour activists towards “Remainiacs”: people ask – why don’t they care about the NHS?, where were they when the Windrush scandal happened? Etc These are legitimate questions for small-l liberal progressives to answer, but the art of electoral politics is to convince them to vote for us.
Instead, the Lexiteers and their allies in the union HQs are stoking up animosity towards voters who had the temerity to switch to the Libdems and Greens because something they really care about is at stake. The narrative is building that it will be “their fault” if we lose. Nope. It will be our fault – because the path to winning is clear.
The way to win the upcoming election is to trigger a strong, progressive wave based on fear of a far-right Conservative government and hope for a green, tolerant future based on democracy and a multilateral order.
In this fight Labour must stand at the head of the progressive majority of the whole nation – appealing across party loyalties to al who want democracy, the rule of law and a strong bond with the EU.
To do this we need the whole Labour team on board from left to right, and a leadership that runs the party through trust and collective authority.
We need also an end to bureaucratic machine politics. Look at the Sunday newspapers to see where it gets us! For me, the big danger is that the same kind of union bureaucratic power being used to stop Remain today will stop any commitment to radical action on climate change in the future – and it is a total turn off for the rising generation of young, left activists.
We’ve got the rest of the week to turn things round. If not, make a space on your mantelpiece for the commemorative plate.
But it’s not we, the survivors of the miners strike and the poll tax who will pay: it’s the 16 year olds who marched out of school last Friday.
Because with Johnson in power for five years, you can kiss Britain’s carbon neutrality target goodbye, together with the remnants of the NHS and welfare state.