This is our truth, tell us yours
Part of horror of the election results was the realization that we were in for another protracted debate about Labour, and how it managed to lose the election. Cynical journos refer to such a process as navel gazing, but the worst part of it for ordinary members is staring at the navels of all the self absorbed, self centred fools who assume their right to have a platform from which to lecture the rest of us about how they were right all along. Here’s a hint; even if you were right before the election, it’s now after the election, and if you want to convince people you’re right, a pause to reflect and check the data might be a good idea.
Having said that, there’s time to reflect a little on the campaign, and how Labour looked and felt. It felt, even during the campaign, inept. Even as I was praising the sows’ ear to silk purse performance of Ed’s handlers, I was despairing of the stories I was being told on the ground. It felt, and feels, as if Labour had forgotten some of the components of three winning campaigns from 1997 to 2005, and had entirely failed to make a lasting impact on the media. Still though, on Friday, I was hopeful that Labour could get better, and I wondered if I might be wrong.
Then I read this article about Labour’s Scottish campaign and gave in to the despair I’d intermittently felt since Thursday. The reference to Jim Murphy not being on the intellectual wing of Labour is polite shorthand for what even his friends know; he is a stupid, shallow, vain and self regarding fool who could only flourish in a political culture in Labour Scotland that prizes tribal loyalty over ability.The idea that he was running the campaign, as opposed to fronting it, is terrifying but exemplifies the way the party’s managers have become detached from the party at large, and as concerned about their own employment as electoral success or the continuing future of the party.
The article’s mistake is to assume that Labour has an intellectual wing. Key to the Blair years was the hollowing out of Labour’s hinterland, reducing its organization to the lowest common denominators of electoral calculus. The idea of Labour having an intellectual wing is oddly funny, like remembering that your dad had a quiff and a drape jacket and an immaculate collection of Johnny Kidd and Elvis Presley records even as you dust the picture of him and mam at their diamond wedding celebrations. The rate at which Peter Mandelson has been wheeled out to hector us all exemplifies how far Labour have fallen; you will search in vain for anything written by Mandelson of any depth or insight, and his entire contribution to Labour debates has been to explain new ways of working out how to follow the electorate rather than lead a political movement.
Part of the Blairite change that Mandelson tries to take the credit for was the abolition of meaningful policy debate in much of the party; conference was sterilized and anaesthetized to the point where Lewis Minkin’s monumental work on conference, a study in intra party democracy, became about as relevant as the ark of the covenant.
Instead we have not policy making, but policies being made on the hoof; even Labour supporters didn’t know how or why some of the policies emerged and, with no coherent underpinnings, they appeared entirely inauthentic to the electorate. In one regard Mandelson deserves a little credit; his approach of listening to what the electorate tells him at least respects the voters in a way too many of the post election reactions haven’t.
The difference is that Mandelson’s narrative is about the voters, not about what Labour stands for. If there’s one thing that sums up what is wrong with Labour since Blair, it is that it has to invent a narrative, an explanation of what it is for. No-one, any more, looks at Labour and knows instinctively what it is for. The key point of the Blair revolution was to tell people what New Labour was not, not what it was.
I don’t know the answer to how Labour is to become electable again. I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask, because I think Labour’s task to define itself clearly, then decide whether that means it is electable on its own, or only as part of a coalition. My Labour party would be a broad church, a place where groups could come together and agree a programme which would respect their differences and seek to empower them. I am a socialist and a humanist, but I want my Labour party to also be able to embrace people of faith, and people whose affinity to Labour is purely because they need a political vehicle that will respect their difference. If my union can have self organized groups I don’t understand why Labour can’t put self organized groups at the heart of its regeneration. I don’t understand why Labour can’t empower members to come together in any group they seek to define, on any coincidence of interests, and have a voice in Labour’s policy process. The socialist societies that were once a central part of Labour may have withered on the vine, but any new Labour narrative, in my view, needs to be shaped from below by 21st century successors to those societies that allow Labour’s members and supporters to explore the intersections between their beliefs and experiences.
At the same time the trades unions need to look at themselves, and ask if they are succeeding in their key mission of organizing working people for their own protection. The relationship between the unions and Labour is central to my Labour party, but the unions have to look at the way in which they have responded to their membership halving over the last thirty years, and ask themselves if they are proud of the way they have chosen to manage decline rather than reach out to the people for whom unions have become irrelevant.
I think that Labour has a unique opportunity to make those choices about what it is for, and who it is for, before it then chooses who represents those values. I fear it will put the cart before the horse, and have a beauty contest for leaders before it tries to decide on the narrative, in which case its only hope is that as in 1997 the Tories lose the election; whatever Peter Mandelson may claim, the incompetence of the Tory party was the reason why Blair won in 1997. In place of asking what will win, I would put a Labour party that decides what it stands for. In place of a fear of losing, I would put a certainty about what Labour is. In a democracy, that’s the most principled thing to do.