John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

How can we get Labour working?

First Blair should take the rap...

Commiserations to all of those Labourites who either lost their seats or their councillors in the local elections. You will, no doubt, take comfort from the fact that there is nothing (short of bribing your constituents with alcohol and money) you could possibly have done. It sounds from the results that middle class voters split three ways and, this time, were not coming out to vote Labour in force. With regard to Labour’s traditional working class constituency, Tim Stanley and Alex Lee’s forthcoming book The End of Politics (Politicos) argues strongly that it has been steadily falling for years, somewhat under the media radar, and dropped dangerously low in heartland areas in 2005.

Here lies the problem: our traditional support base in the working class is abandoning politics, reacting in some areas quite negatively to populist campaigning and free-falling into "they're all the same" territory. Labour has done admirable things for them as individuals, but failed to arrest the community collapse that Thatcherism brought about. The civic space is not regarded as addressing the concerns of these people, as it focuses on the more electorally significant slice of around 150,000 middle class swing voters in marginal constituencies. All this just as committed Labour members from across the socio-economic spectrum are downing tools in disillusionment. We increasingly don't have the bodies to win people over.

Take, as a test case, the City of Cambridge ward of King’s Hedges. Once staunchly Labour, its contested seat went to the Lib Dems on May 4th. Just last year at the general election, the University Labour Club – of which I was a member – was asked to leaflet the area because there were too few CLP members to get out what represented the core vote. It was a little like trying to get blood out of a stone, for all the heroic efforts of those involved both at CLP and student levels. Yet delivering election materials in this modest and friendly ward was an eye-opener – there were several windows which had "Vote Labour" posters displayed. King’s Hedges contained many Labour members and proud trades unionists, but too few came out to campaign. Presumably, this was a result of the pincer movement of old age and disappointment with the leadership. In a volatile constituency, the sitting Labour MP Anne Campbell, despite having resigned from a government post to oppose the Iraq war, lost her 8,000 majority to the Lib Dems, who won with a 15% swing campaigning to remove “Blair’s MP”. The result tells us interesting things about how Labour is losing the educated middle class – but the King’s Hedges experience is more revealing as to how Labour is becoming removed from its vitally important traditional supporters. All over the country, we're not motivating our current members and have lost some 200,000 of them since 1997.

Worse, the leadership often defines itself by alienating the ones it still has.

Can a change of leader bring back Labour’s bite and purpose? With Gordon Brown the only serious runner (Alan Milburn for PM, anyone?), Labour members are unlikely to be offered a real choice about who it will be in the near future, so the subject should be approached with some caution. Brown is tribally Labour to the core, but many increasingly don't see him as the "renewal" candidate. If he does have a package of fabulous Brownite ideas to woo back the left whilst maintaining the necessary electoral coalition Blair forged in 1997, then great. But why has he waited? Where's the leadership? Where are his cojones? Whilst the party is rightly in awe of his captaincy of the Treasury, his policy pronouncements on Britishness and constitutional reform either sound opportunistic or timid.

For the hope of renewal with a purpose, we are best off looking less at personalities and more at the new crop of pressure groups and think tanks that are grappling with the issues. There are great ideas knocking about, and organisations such as Catalyst and Compass are as good a place to start as any. Far from being out to divide Labour, they are seeking to set an agenda to bring together a party that is already divided. John "f**k, I'd have preferred to go back to Health!" Reid's recent denunciation of Compass as Old Labour wreckers was pretty insane stuff, and a wee taster of just how deranged and out of touch the Blair court has become. Renewal under Blair has become an unworkable proposition.

Compass have been crucial in returning the PLP’s spine to its rightful owners, giving them the intellectual framework to get key concessions on the bonkers education bill and oppose 90 day detention without charge. Incredibly, they've managed to do this whilst overseeing a massive policy review with the aim of releasing a manifesto later in the year. The work in progress looks very promising.

Looking to the recent past and considering the future, it’s this simple: if New Labour goes on selling itself as a government of ideology-free managerialism ("what matters is what works") but then cocks up/gets caught with its fingers in the till (or elsewhere…)/inflames the Islamic world – or even just fails to trumpet existing major successes – it will continue to both lose the floating voters and alienate its members (who must win the floaters back) simultaneously. After all, why not vote for nice Mr Cameron, who's going to do all that lovely, friendly reform stuff that he agrees with Mr Blair is so necessary? In any case, he's saying he's more efficient and compassionate than Mr Blair...

This is the problem Blair has created in clinging to the New Labour concept long after the shine has come off. As Compass chair Neal Lawson has concisely put it, “the problem with New Labour is that it is neither new enough nor Labour enough.”

On the basis of Labour’s political direction, and for their sanity, some have wanted Blair to go for years. But realistically, this commentator for one was stoically resigned to seeing him take the punches until mid-2007 and bowing out after 10 glorious years – if only for it to make sense to the electorate that he bothered standing in 2005 at all. Give him a carriage clock, pat him on the back, and pack him off on his lecture tours. Now his continued presence, without any coherent agenda for the government other than a crazed Maoist cultural revolution of our increasingly marketised public services, is clearly poisonous.

Put simply: what is the point of him staying? What is he hoping to do? As it is actually more than clear that he doesn't really have a clue, he serves only to damage the party’s stability and leave it in an uncertain limbo. He should just gracefully jump – or be pushed.


At 2:58 pm, Blogger El Tom said...

Labour needs to come up with more holistically pleasing policy, bring out the things that guardianistas and the working class alike will agree on. It seems that the strategy since about 2000 has been mere crude triangulation: using the left as a target, to gain right-wing votes.

At a recent progress conference, I asked what can be done to promote party unity, and the reponse was that everyone should 'tone their language down'.

I think consensus actually needs to be found over policy.

Blair condemns rebellions, calls his bills labour bills... totally forgets that the PLP is to the right of the national party.

by the way, what's going on with the tribune PLP group? havent heard about them in a while...


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