Labour can’t afford to turn in on itself

Written by: David Clark on 19 June, 2012
Filed under Democracy

Labour has established a sustained double-digit lead in the opinion polls over the last three months and Ed Miliband has David Cameron “on the run” (his words, not mine) over phone hacking, as well as tax, fairness and the economy. But instead of focussing on how to maintain and build this momentum, some parts of the Labour movement seem more interested in finding internal enemies to fight.

The row was ignited last week when the GMB leader, Paul Kenny, called for a rule change to “outlaw” the New Labour pressure group, Progress. A resolution passed at the union’s conference charged the organisation with disloyalty and behaving like a party within a party. Worse still, it accused Progress of acting as an arm of corporate power, leading Ed Miliband and Ed Balls astray by persuading them to support a policy of “cuts and wage restraint”.

The counter-conspiracy theory circulating on the wilder fringes of the Labour right is just as lurid. This imagines a vast left-wing conspiracy to bully and intimidate Blairites into silence as the prelude to some kind of Cultural Revolution-style process of ideological purification. Readers of this blog will be interested to know that Shifting Grounds is apparently the spider at the centre of this web, working with the hard left (whoever they may be) to make ourselves Labour’s new centre of political gravity. I’m hoping that someone will now pay us the highest compliment by trying to ban us.

This amuses me because the only organisation I have been discussing co-operation with in recent weeks has been Progress. I have done so because I sense that the budget and the local elections marked a turning point in which the divisions and hard feelings of the 2010 leadership election have finally given way to a shared belief in the possibility of a revived centre-left politics. I’m willing to explore that possibility with anyone who feels the same way and think that Progress could be a constructive partner.

Of course, there remain fundamental differences between the politics articulated by Progress and the ideas Shifting Grounds was set up to argue for. But I’m not going to dwell on those today. Instead I’m going to focus on why I think an attempt to ban Progress would be a disastrous step not just for the Labour right, but for the movement as a whole, including most of those pressing for it.

For a start, the charges levelled at Progress strike me as unfounded. Its aims and methods are open rather than conspiratorial. It organises public policy discussions, publishes its ideas and seeks to get its supporters elected as party candidates and office bearers. In short, it uses all the methods internal pressure groups have used quite properly since Labour was founded.

As for disloyalty, a fair assessment of its published output finds no real basis for this. Progress actually encompasses quite a diverse spectrum of views, from those who supported Ed Miliband for leader to those who have been more critical of the direction he has taken. There is, in any case, nothing wrong with criticism, provided it is expressed in constructive rather than oppositional terms. As far as I can see, Progress respects the boundaries of legitimate debate.

Yes, some of those who supported David Miliband for leader reacted to his defeat with an unforgivable petulance and sense of entitlement. They have been desperately trying to undermine Ed Miliband’s leadership ever since. But while this dwindling band of misfits and malcontents may share Progress’s general ideological outlook, it is hardly fair to blame the organisation by association. All the evidence suggests that Progress is working hard for a Labour victory.

There is also an important issue of political values at stake. If this is indeed a “struggle for Labour’s soul”, as one internal union document has apparently put it, then the bit I’m most anxious to defend is the principle that we should resolve our differences through democratic debate, not power politics and organisational fixes. Without that Labour risks becoming a narrow sect of heresy-hunters, not a broad movement of the democratic left.

I don’t want a party in which people who think differently from me are tolerated provided they agree to shut up and toe the line. The alternative to a vibrant internal democracy is political stagnation, which is one of the reasons Labour failed to renew in office and now finds itself in opposition. The era in which New Labour amounted to an official party ideology, sucking the life out of internal debate, is now over. But New Labour remains a legitimate strand of opinion within the party and should be entitled to contribute to its policy and organisational development. The only condition should be that it accepts democratic decisions and shares power instead of trying to monopolise it as it has in the past.

The final argument is about realpolitik. If Labour is to form a government after the next election, it needs to broaden its appeal instead of finding new ways to narrow it. That is why an attempt to drive Progress out of the party would rebound on the very people who think they want it. Labour can’t do anything for trade union members in opposition. It can only restore the growth needed to create jobs, spread wealth and rebuild a healthy public sector in government. But to win it needs the support of a broad electoral coalition, including many who voted Labour because of Tony Blair, not just those who deserted it or stuck with the party in spite of him.

The unions can buy a fan club willing to tell them whatever they want to hear. But what they really need is a party of power that shares their values, sympathises with their concerns and is willing to deal with them fairly. It is important to realise that they can only get the former at the expense of the latter.

Having said that, the row over Progress has highlighted a deep reserve of pent-up union grievance that Labour must now address. Paul Kenny’s speech to the GMB is moving testimony to just how abusive the union-Labour relationship has become in the recent years. The unions have basically been treated as cash-cows to be milked repeatedly before being put out to graze once again. Understandably, they have had enough. Progress has become the target of their frustrations, but the problem is one the party as a whole will have to deal with.

Rebuilding the relationship between Labour and the unions will require patience, hard work and good will on both sides. The unions can’t expect Labour to echo their every demand. Occasionally, Labour will have to take positions that differ sharply from what the unions want. But what the unions are entitled to expect is a relationship based on respect, influence, an agreement to consult on sensitive announcements and policies that meet the aspirations of their members.

Progress and the unions may occupy different wings of the movement, but Labour needs them both. They also need each other.