Tuesday 21 March 2017

The Collapse of the Labour Right

In calling out Jon Lansman and Momentum publicly for the temerity of, you know, organising, Tom Watson has made a fool of himself. Worse than that, in attacking a mooted alliance between Momentum and Unite he has gone so far as to suggest there is something improper about unions seeking to maximise their influence in the Labour Party. It's only a hop, skip and a jump away from questioning the legitimacy of trade unions acting politically at all, and that's a very dangerous game. Understandably, Len McCluskey has replied in his inimitable style and the war of words continue via social media, while spilling out continually into Unite's own bad-tempered general secretary election, and potentially damaging Labour's own council and mayoral campaigns.

Tom Watson is frequently attacked by Corbyn supporters as disingenuous and hypocritical because, let's make no bones about it, his criticisms of them often are. From the Brownist machinations against His Blairness, to the minor skirmishes with Progress during the Miliband years, and now in the era of Corbynism, Tom has acquired and assiduously cultivated a cloak-and-dagger reputation. He is the fixer to end all fixers, the puppet master that has the party bureaucracy dancing along with his manipulations. While he is responsible and accountable for his actions, Tom is a product and heir to a tradition that has long cast a shadow over the Labour Party, and one coming to its end. I am talking about the old Labour trade union right.

Packing meetings, nobbling selections, stitching up internal elections, blocking and suppressing opponents, elevating bad faith to the status of performance art - all lovingly narrated in Uncle John Golding's The Hammer of the Left - are, or were the old right's stock-in-trade. I say were because while the culture of shenanigans is very much part of the party's make up, it is increasingly getting more difficult to pull off. There are three reasons for this. First, there is much greater visibility than previously. Cases of egregious bad behaviour, especially in these factionally charged times, can get publicity. And lots of it. That damages the party politically, and this behaviour impinges on the second factor: the membership. Typically dismissed as keyboard warriors who've never seen doorsteps outside Google Images, in reality the massive 2015-16 intake are no more or less active than the majority of "old" party card holders. They turn up at meetings. They turn up and campaign. Abuses of democracy and process can serve to mobilise and strengthen their determination to stick with the leader and his programme (after all, that is the basis of Jeremy Corbyn's appeal). In effect, the membership, which remains majority Jez, make the discharge of bureaucratic chicanery more difficult and more expensive, politically, for those who indulge it.

And the last point is the virtual disappearance of the trade union right. The fixers of old had one foot in the PLP and the party machinery, and another in the trade unions. While workplace organisation was much stronger and consequently more militant than present before 1979, its concomitant was a quiescent bureaucracy uninterested in rocking the boat too much in the wider party. While nostalgics write of the transmission belt unions provided from the works' canteen to Westminster's terrace, worker MPs, with some exceptions, packed bureaucratic habits of thought alongside their underwear and Sunday best as they made their journey to Parliament. Likewise trade union officialdom reinforced exactly the same sensibility as they engaged in party structures. Keep things on an even keel, anything for a quiet life. The unions wouldn't intervene too overtly or too consistently in "high politics" provided Labour delivered the policies and in return they were expected to pacify and discipline their memberships at the party's behest. The relationship gave trade union leaders and senior officials direct access to ministers and Number 10, and an input into policy, but led to combustible politics as the 1975-79 Labour government shows. Upon Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994, the relationship became increasingly one-sided as the years wore on. The unions were still expected to rein in industrial action, and in return, well, the Tories will be kept out.

This was an unsustainable situation. Readers may recall from the period of the late 90s on how unions slowly but surely turned left. General secretaries preaching the virtues of "partnership" and cooperation were replaced one-by-one by a clutch of officials collectively dubbed the awkward squad. Politically speaking, they were all well within the envelope of big tent trade unionism but to greater and lesser degrees they took more uncompromising stances with regard to members' interests. This firmed up even further after Brown's defeat and the dawning of the Tory/LibDem coalition. First, most affiliated unions organised (haphazardly, it has to be said) for Ed Miliband and were for the most part later forced by active members into stumping for Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, trade union officialdom has almost been entirely replaced by a layer or organisers who were lay members during the New Labour years and, in some cases, would have participated in disputes Blair and Brown oversaw. This is particularly the case with the Communication Workers' Union and the monomaniacal attempts by a Labour government to soften Royal Mail up for privatisation. The overall result is a shift in trade union bureaucracies and powerful lay committees to range from the soft left to Corbynism in political composition. Only USDAW and wee Community remain largely unaffected.

You can see where this leads. When it comes to affiliated trade union input into Labour, basically the material base for a union-backed Labour right has withered away. Because Blairism, as a variant of liberalism believed its own Third Way waffle and failed to understand the labour movement. It simultaneously set about undermining the electoral coalition it built in the country, while negligently and blindly destroying its own allies on the trade union right in the party. While unions are not monoliths, they are not disposed to be the guarantor of machine politics any longer, especially as it tries and stymies their influence. And so the material base for that has largely shrunk to party positions - lay and staff - elected office, and whatever can me mustered via Labour First, Progress, and the affiliated societies. In this context, more trade union participation represents a threat. Hence the overt hostility shown Len McCluskey, who has long promised more Unite input into the party, is far from an irrational dislike.

Once placed in this context, the anonymous briefings to the press, the moaning at PLP meetings, the compliance unit and its doings, the studied refusal to fight the leadership politically, the bizarre criticisms levelled at Momentum as a Corbyn proxy and Unite, and the utterly counter-productive behaviour makes sense. They are, effectively, the last gasps of a gravely weakened tradition lacking a discernible way of coming back. If they want to retake the Labour Party and become relevant again, a massive rethink is needed. But for as long as they're unwilling to even understand why there are where they are (apart from one brave and largely unacknowledged exception), they're stuck. If not doomed.


Phil said...

"Typically dismissed as keyboard warriors who've never seen doorsteps outside Google Images, in reality the massive 2015-16 intake are no more or less active than the majority of "old" party card holders. "

Thanks for that - in the past you've erred on the side of endorsing the 'clicktivist' caricature. The fact is that the active members of any group are hardly ever the majority, and we newcomers are no exception. Plus it takes time to (re-)acquire the habits of membership - 18 months on and I'm still missing more meetings than I go to. (Even so, my local branch has had to change its meeting venue twice to accommodate the numbers attending. Maybe it's just me.) If the party would only stop tearing itself apart for long enough to give us some campaigning priorities to get behind, I think we could really make our presence felt.

IainF said...

Corbs should fire Watson the day before Galsto....Ruin his week there.

Speedy said...

I disagree, about the doomed bit. You may not have noticed, but we now live in times a long way removed from New Labour rule, which will begin to seem like milk and honey when Brexit kicks in (and to many non political obsessives already does). Health and education priorities, a pro-European stance... it all seems a long way away now, and its passing has been obscured by the bile of Iraq and repulsion to its methods. But those methods look increasingly necessary when we witness the dereliction of opposition from Corbyn's Labour. By the time an effective opposition gets back in, what's left of the UK will look a very, very long way from the days of Blair and Brown.

And therin lays the opportunity - although a sizeable amount of Leavers will become ever more ferociously convinced of their righteousness as WTO rules tear up the economy and Trump-backed interests feed on the NHS, not everybody is so stupid. There will be a longing again for a social democratic settlement that will seem radical in contrast - there always was, we were just too complacent to appreciate it.

Following the disaster of the next election, and after Momentum have deselected sane candidates, there will be a sizeable centre-left consensus with nowhere to go. This will, eventually, reassemble itself around the Lib Dems. I know - you will say no going back to the days of the SNP, but this crisis is far more grave than the Eighties, because there will be no future for the centre-left without it. People who care about saving what's left pf the country from the evil of Trumpism;lite will realise this and do what's necessary. It is only a matter of time. The existing Labour Party, meanwhile, will go the way of the Liberals 70 years ago. An enthusiasm for eccentrics. What am I saying, it already is.

Ben Philliskirk said...

"Readers may recall from the period of the late 90s on how unions slowly but surely turned left."

I'm not really sure about this. I would say it's more that unions have stayed where they were since the early to mid 1990s, but the PLP has moved right. If anything, what has changed within the party is that, having lost two elections and with no real ideas on how to improve that situation, both the 'new' and the traditional right of the Labour Party have proved unable to fulfil their side of the bargain. When you consider the fact that for the last two decades you generally have to be relatively committed and politically aware to even join a union, there is no reason for union leaders and bureaucrats to simply follow their parliamentary 'masters' and in many cases it would be politically inadvisable for them to do so. It was easier for Bill Morris to advise the TGWU membership to sit tight and wait for Blair to win an election than would be for Len McCluskey to tell UNITE members that they have to back the next Owen Smith.

Roger McCarthy said...

'They turn up and campaign'.

This may be your experience in Stoke and in other Labour held or Labour-winnable seats - but as of 2015 those are no longer a majority of CLPs - and as of 2020 or whenever the next general election is held will be at best a third or at worst a quarter or less of CLPs.

In my Tory-held constituency membership has more than tripled (but is now plummeting again, as according to leaks from latest NEC is membership nationally) but the number of active members has if anything FALLEN.

Yes there has been a lot of churn in the active 5% here but the simple reality is that here 95% of our new members ARE clicktivists - and in a seat like this where there is nothing to win I can't in all honesty blame them for turning party membership into a passive consumer experience where they pay their money and vote online for the leader.

And while I accept this is due to the hopelessness of Labour's electoral position here, it is my CLP and not yours in Stoke (or Islington or Hackney) which has already become the norm.

400 out of 630-odd CLPs are now enemy-occupied territory and following the next general election and boundary changes that is not unlikely to become 450 out of 600.

As for the much-vaunted Momentum it has it seems no more than 20,000 members or an average of 30 per CLP, only a fraction of whom are active in any meaningful sense and which is moreover itself abandoning even the pretence of normal Labour movement organisation in favour of the pseudo-democratic clicktivist model adopted by dubious fuehrerparteis like Podemos.

This is a terminal crisis of the UK left to which there is no apparent solution (not even this late in the game the election of a leader who is actually competent which would only allow us to creep back up to 30% of the national vote rather than take us down as JC will to 20%) but because of the magic numbers of new 'members' and the fluke capture of the leadership we systematically delude ourselves that we can be saved.

Jeremy Corbyn (Parody) said...

Deputy leadership contest. Now.

Anonymous said...

Is it being so cheerful that keeps you going, Roger?

Andrew Coates said...

Roger is right, in my regional and local experience, about the ratio of new Labour members to activists, with the exception of those who joined/rejoined who already have a history of serious political involvement.

I would add that if the recorded comments by Lansmann on Momentum and UNITE failed to register the way UNITE's democracy works, and Tom Watson's intervention is no doubt motivated by all kinds of dubious reasons, but nobody has denied this "aspiration'.

It did not escape activists' attention that at one point Momentum put out material calling for people to join UNITE to vote for Len.

Having UNITE as an affiliate to Momentum, whatever its merits in some areas, creates difficulties, as I have argued, for many people, above all for those do not wish to be caught up in its present internal disputes.


John said...

Roger McCarthy wow what a pessimist, I bet you're a right bundle of laughs as you sit in the pub with your half empty glass. There has been (according to reports, leaked from the NEC to a hostile press) a fall of approximately 7% in Labour's membership (from an historic high). What was the percentage of lapsed members, each year, before 2015? The membership is still more than twice the number it was before 2015, hardly a figure that can be described as 'plummeting'.

You don't tell us which CLP you are a member of, but how often has your ward or CLP secretary written to the new members?, did you CLP organise a new members welcome meeting? (any decent Labour MP from a neighbouring constituency would be more than willing to attend to act as a focal point to attract people). The party now has a national campaign day (every couple of months) how many street stalls have you held to publicise them? Last week Jeremy sent out an email to all members asking them to contribute to the Policy Forums, has your CLP organised meetings for both old & new members to discuss these and put forward policies? I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea, organise events and members will turn up, maybe not the majority, but more than if you do nothing.

Finally, if your constituency really is a no-hoper as far as securing a Labour MP is concerned there are two reasons why you should maintain a strong active membership 1) it keeps the opposition on their toes, and in a GE they have to spend/use resources to maintain their base, which makes our job easier elsewhere. 2) If there is an active membership they can help in neighbouring marginal constituencies.

David Parry said...

Speedy's talking total codswallop as usual. Remember, folks, this is the same Speedy who, not so long ago, was forecasting that UKIP would do to Labour in the north of England what the SNP did to Labour in Scotland. Yeah, just take Speedy's nonsense for what it's worth, which is less than nothing.

John Rogan said...

Article 50 gets invoked on March 29th. At the moment the agenda is being pushed by the "no-deal Brexit leave on WTO terms" people in the cabinet.

This has been given unconditional support by both left and right in Labour. There are the 52 MPs who voted against but, generally, even with quibbles about getting the "best deal", the Shadow Cabinet's policy was still to vote against the Peter Hain's Single Market amendment in the House of Lords.

What's all this to do with the Left/Right battle within Labour then?

Both sides, to my mind, have come up with no alternative to the EU Single Market in terms of keeping jobs in the UK. Companies are already moving (or making plans) to EU27. Even Mini production from Oxford is in danger.

No, the battle is just about controlling the Party machine and very little over policy, especially over Brexit. I'd love to know what Labour's post-Brexit jobs and industry proposals are either from the left or from the right. I've only seen a series of platitudes and vague aspirations.

Meanwhile, as jobs in manufacturing and financial services prepare to migrate, bits of paper defending employment rights will seem like a bad joke.

Speedy said...

David Parry - holding onto Stoke and losing Copeland are neither proof here or there. Maybe I'm wrong about UKIP, but those working class voters that were Labour won't be coming home, I'm right about that, and those middle class voters who were EU won't be voting Labour either.

Anonymous said...

Tbf to the ever clueless Speedy, he was only regurgitating what the vast majority of "journalists" (not least, indeed especially, the "liberals" amongst them) were claiming with total authority, there ;)

asquith said...

Tightly-knit group of politically motivated men

Syzygy said...

Rachel Reeves seems to have employed just the tactics that you describe here .. and has been successful in getting a slate of delegates to conference who will oppose the rule change to lower (I'd prefer abolish) the numbers of nominations needed to stand as Leader/Deputy Leader. If it wasn't so depressing, there is a delicious irony in Tom Watson's outrage at Momentum, accusing Lansman of precisely the Labour First/Progress tactics. Well, I suppose if anyone would know it's him.

(Details of Rachel Reeves' email to known right wing members of the CLP are given on Skwawkbox)

MJW said...

The Momentum ticket is de facto unelectable. If Unite and other unions affiliate to it they may get more temporary power over the Labour Party, but it would be akin to paying people to rearrange the deckchairs on a sinking ship into a more ideologically pleasing arrangement, rather than paying the people who might keep it afloat.

As for dodgy deals in smoke filled rooms, they go on in every party, and there's always a price to pay, you just have to hope it is worth it. Momentum's attempts to move headbangers into place is no different in practice from what has always happened, the only question is whether the fundamental unelectability of a prospective PLP stuffed with headbangers is the price worth paying for a prospective PLP stuffed with unelectable Momentum approved headbangers?

Criticism of Blair's conduct over Iraq is well used cover for headbangers to brush over the inconvenient fact that he actually delivered far more of a progressive agenda than they ever have or ever will. It may well have been a watered down interpretation of progressive, enough to make it palatable to the majority of the electorate, but 50% of something is still more than 100% of nothing. By the same logic the unions absolute influence may have declined under Blair but that's still better than current strategy of seeking dominance over a rapidly sinking ship.

David Parry said...


Utter crap. General election outcomes are not determined first and foremost by the platforms on which parties fight elections, nor by manifestos, but, to borrow the famous words of Harold Macmillan, by 'events, dear boy, events'. Specifically, the sorts of events that influence GE outcomes include economic crises (how trustworthy a party is perceived as being in relation to economic management is a pretty crucial factor as regards its electoral fortunes), scandals, and civil wars within parties (divided parties don't win elections).

All of which brings me to your contentions regarding Blair. Now, you imply that Labour faced a choice in those years between the realisation of 50% of a progressive agenda and 100% of nothing, but isn't the reality that, all else being equal, Labour in 1997 would have won regardless of its ideological direction of travel? The Tories' electoral prospects had been well and truly torpedoed by a combination of Black Wednesday (which undermined their credentials on trustworthiness with the economy), various scandals around insider trading, 'cash for questions' and whatnot, and civil war over Europe (divided parties don't win elections, remember?), creating a storm that the Tories were simply never going to be able to weather without a pretty hefty defeat, irrespective of the leadership and direction of the Labour party*. Furthermore, the scale of the Tories' defeat in 1997, coupled with the continuation under Blair of the high finance-driven economic boom that had started under Major and which, in the absence of any analogue to Black Wednesday (still fresh in people's memories), enabled Labour to gain the edge over the Tories in terms of being trusted with the economy, rendered any prospect of a Tory victory in a GE out of the question for many years to come.

Fast-forwarding to the present, you speak of a prospective PLP chock-full of 'unelectable Momentum headbangers'. Firstly, people vote for parties far more than they vote for individual parliamentary candidates, so it makes little sense to make an assessment of the electability or otherwise of an individual candidate. Secondly, people vote for particular parties in the context of certain events, as I mentioned. It thus follows that events between now and the next GE, such as the potential scandal around Tory electoral fraud at the last GE, the likely fallout from the Brexit affair, and possible continuation of infighting within the parliamentary Labour party (did I mention that divided parties don't win elections?), will be of far more import in determining the electoral fate of Labour parliamentary candidates than the ideological perspectives of the individual candidates themselves.

*The adage that it's not opposition parties that win elections, but governing parties that lose them, springs to mind.

Ben Philliskirk said...

"The adage that it's not opposition parties that win elections, but governing parties that lose them, springs to mind."

Yes, the coalition managed to disguise this in 2015, when the government lost over 15% of its vote.

Speedy said...

It's utterly ridiculous to believe New Labour would have been elected by a landslide in 97 if they hadn't made the reforms Blair led David Parry. Is that the new "narrative"? When Labour are wiped at the next election it will not be down to leadership or direction but events? Balls.

Blissex said...

«as long as they're unwilling to even understand why there are where they are (apart from one brave and largely unacknowledged exception), they're stuck»

I read the text from that "brave exception", but from my armchair it looks hopeful but wrong, for it focuses *only* on the traditional northern working class core of Labour.
The big problem for Labour is, as T Blair pointed out in 1987, that the working class, never mind the northern segment, has become smaller and cannot win elections. As T Blair said then the success of Labour policies to improve the lives of the working class has turned many of them into middle-income voters who think like petty bourgeoisie.

The mandelsonian response to that is to turn Labour into a quasi-Conservative Party targeted at the newly enlarged middle-income classes and giving for granted the continuing support of the low-income classes, and that is quite wrong; but it is also quite wrong to think it can win elections by appealing only to the shrunk low-income classes.
The problem, using simplisitic terminology, is that Labour used to be the party of renters and the Conservatives the party of owners, and currently most workers are property owners too. Even worse, there has been a surge in the number of pensioners living off the good pensions that Labour and trade unions won for them, and they think of themselves as pure property owners, and have preferences (for lower wages and social insurance) similar to those of big business and property owners.

The questions therefore is how Labour can appeal both to renter-workers and landlord-workers, not just to either group while giving the other group for granted or even disregarding it.

How can Labour persuade voters who are both workers and small property owners that their interests are better aligned with those of other workers than those of big property owners?
I'd like an answer from Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn please... :-)

Blissex said...

«General election outcomes are not determined first and foremost by the platforms on which parties fight elections, nor by manifestos, but, to borrow the famous words of Harold Macmillan, by 'events, dear boy, events'. [ ... ] people vote for parties far more than they vote for individual parliamentary candidates»

Indeed mostly, plus a feeling that T Blair describe well as «You see, people judge us on their instincts about what they believe our instincts to be».

«Specifically, the sorts of events that influence GE outcomes include economic crises (how trustworthy a party is perceived as being in relation to economic management is a pretty crucial factor as regards its electoral fortunes)»

I sort of agree with that, or rather with a somewhat more specific version: that for the past 40 years at least elections have been won or lost on whether house prices in the south-east and London were rising. That is because the profits from rising home prices are so huge in the south-east and London (100% net profits per year) that voters there see is as the most important vote driving issue.

Consider as a clear exampled the contrast between the 2004 local elections and the 2005 national election:

* In 2004 New Labour was heavily defeated in the local elections, as voters across the country expressed how fed up they were with Blair and Mandelson as to PFI, Iraq, etc.
* In 2005 New Labour won the the general election because no matter how fed up southern property owners were with PFI, Iraq, etc., they would not dare to fire a government that gave them such huge tax-free effort-free property profits.

«the absence of any analogue to Black Wednesday (still fresh in people's memories), enabled Labour to gain the edge over the Tories in terms of being trusted with the economy»

I doubt that many voters cared that much about Black Wednesday in itself, but rather that in both 1997 and 2010 southern property owners fired the government that had allowed southern property prices to stall and fall.

Ed said...

"dubious fuehrerparteis like Podemos" gave me a good giggle, thanks Roger! Podemos may not be perfect when it comes to democratic procedures but they're a damn sight better and have a much more empowered membership than most centre-left parties, including Blair-era Labour. Anyone who looks at Pablo Iglesias and thinks 'fuehrer' needs to go and have a lie down.

johnny conspiranoid said...

how many of the votes lost to Labour since Corbyn's election have been lost because people didn't like the opposition to Corbyn within the Labour Party rather than because they didn't like Corbyn?