This is our truth, tell us yours
It’s an old argument about organisations – does the form of the organisation follow a structure imposed externally, or a function that it is created to perform?
In truth it is in some senses a matter of semantics, but it’s also a question the Labour Party ought to be considering, because the rows about the nature of the Labour Party in Scotland are highlighting that self same debate. I wrote about one view, that form follows the external structure, yesterday.
The Labour Party re-invented by Blair, building on the work of Kinnock, was designed for one function only; returning a Labour government in Westminster. Everything else was secondary. The party organization was hollowed out to divert all resources to the simple task of winning elections. The functional idea that Labour’s job was to organize and represent the working classes at all levels of democracy and in all our communities went by the wayside.
The result was that in all too many areas Labour, as an organizing party, ceased to exist. In North East England, the area we know best, the task of the Labour Party became one of disciplining and directing the local parties, making sure that nothing embarrassing or potentially divisive was allowed to emerge from Labour’s debates that might affect the outcome of parliamentary elections. Control of regional parties became the duty of regional boards who were rewarded with a power of patronage over local political selections in return for being upwardly accountable to the party centre.
Now, this isn’t a nostalgic festschrift for the Labour Party before the rise of Blairism. Anthony Charles Linton Blair may have been a nasty, unpleasant narcissist looking for politics to give him the blowjob the world denied him, but he recognised that the Labour Party in the north epitomized all that was wrong with post Wilsonite Labour politics. In Cumbria (nominally, although based in Northumberland)there lurked Jack Cunningham, rooted in the corrupt traditions of his father, and gifted a seat in the control of his father’s trade union. On the boundaries between North Tyneside and Newcastle lurked Nick Brown and Stephen Byers, both of them with deep connections to a Labour Party that made deals with anyone who had the wherewithal to deliver.
The comparison between Byers, an oleaginous polytechnic law lecturer of no fixed ideological abode and his predecessor, Ted Garrett,is instructive. Garrett was from Ashington, a political auto-didact and a maintenance fitter and engineer in the chemical industry. Never a great political stylist or a flamboyant debater, Garrett nevertheless represented a Labour Party that was rooted in community; he chose to live in Prudhoe, another former mining town like Ashington, and escaped entirely the whiff of failure and dirty deeds done dirt cheap that was to follow Byers despite his protestations that he was more sinned against than sinning.
The list could go on of Northern politicians who would make a metropolitan like Tony Blair despair. Did he really work his way through private school, university and the bar to be lectured on the Monday morning train ride to London by Ronnie Campbell, the master of political malapropisms, overly fond of telling anyone who will listen about his experiences organizing his lodge during the miners strike? Did the notoriously prissy Blair really want to be associated with Alan Milburn, once a proprietor of a left wing bookshop known to its friends as Haze of Dope (rather than Days of Hope)?
Faced with these products of northern Labour politics Blair abandoned any idea of form, function or structure,and instead opted to seek to control the Labour Party from the centre by any means necessary. He cared less about ideology than about the way in which potential candidates would be perceived by the media.
Even in his approach to devolution, Blair’s approach was based on political advantage and necessity, not principle or purpose. The result was, bluntly,a mess. Wales got a glorified county council dominated by its Welsh language bureaucracy and administered by the kind of second rate politicians incapable of securing either a seat in parliament or control of their local council. Scotland got a parliament that prized the pretensions of power above any sense of purpose, and which rewarded the London politicians who created it by elevating a sense of grievance about Westminster’s continuing pre-eminence above any manifest destiny, or even destination for the journey of the Scottish people.
If Ed Miliband wants to show that he is sincere about fixing the problems of devolution and the English constitution he could send the right signals by transforming the Labour Party to fit a devolved Britain.
In the process though he would have to take on ideas of leadership and political practices that he inherited, and may not have adequately critiqued before grasping at the attractions of devolution.
Labour in Scotland needs a leader who can sit at the top table of British politics. No-one, not even Johann Lamont’s best friends, would claim she was a politician of the first rank; devolution may have started with top class politicians like Donald Dewar and Rhodri Morgan willing to take the lead in their devolved administrations, but their successors have had no realistic reason to have cabinet aspirations.
So Miliband’s first act of political courage should be to say that the leadership of the Labour Party in devolved areas should not be a task for someone who’s won the selection lottery and got a safe seat at Holyrood or down the Bay, but a leadership role for anyone who is a member of the party in that area, and if that means one of his backbenchers, or even a well respected council leader or activist, acquires a power base in a devolved area, so be it.
The next step for Miliband would be to give these regional leaders an automatic seat on a reconstructed National Executive Committee, and to extend the model to every region in the UK. In order to frame the change and make it appear more than just a tactical response to the failing of devolution he would need to borrow the language of paradigm shifts. It’s a high risk strategy, but for Miliband the rewards of contrasting a collaborative and co-operative Labour against a Conservative Party led by individuals wedded to old models of leadership and elitism could be a transformation of Britain for the better.
There are other ideas that could be experimented with – a Cabinet of the Regions to sit alongside the traditional Westminster cabinet for instance. The key idea though would be to say that Labour was prepared to practice what it preaches, and to transform its organization to represent and demonstrate the new ways of governing and leading that it wanted to introduce to our United Kingdom.