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Labour Party - the clock's ticking

In a special article, four Labour activists pose questions that every Labour Party member ought to be asking if Labour is to win a 4th term ruling Britain.

Tim Pendry thinks New Labour has 18-months to rediscover pluralist internal party democracy.

Any party of the centre-left has to maintain a careful balance between vigorous internal debate and discussion and the acquisition and maintenance of power, which brings with it responsibility.

Classically, the two extremes are represented by the anarchist and by the communist or vanguard party traditions. Traditionally, democratic 'bourgeois' Left parties have managed to get through by allowing steam to be let off in public, setting certain boundaries but then letting the leading figures in the Party sustain popularity and a Government.

The high point of this system seems to have been between Attlee and Wilson where disagreements could take place in Cabinet and across the Party but the whole thing would then cohere against a common enemy on the centre-right, with a constant rearguard action against the Communists providing an unstable boundary against complete collapse and, bluntly, the army moving in. This system seems to have broken down with the mobilization of the 'Generation of '68' with ambitious Leftists around Benn. This reached fever pitch in the late 1970s and it smashed the consensus that had allowed Labour to attract 'ordinary' votes and so form a Government - the shift was towards the anarchic from around 1971/2 until a tipping point was reached under Kinnock. The next swing of the pendulum was when the Partnership in Power 'reforms' effectively created a vanguard party, not a Communist one, but one from the Right.

This is where we are now but with the problem that this vanguard party is losing the support of the general population because it allowed itself to become ideologically inflexible. The Attlee-Wilson Party was a world of vigorous public debate at the highest level but with collective responsibility, tempered by resignation on issues of principle. In the new vanguard party it is much more difficult to see vigorous public debate, and I am pessimistic about this emerging despite the crisis.

A grassroots revolt could break the logjam, but most Labour people who have remained within the Party have internalised a preference for solidarity and vanguard thinking rather than rebellion and what they fear as anarchy. Remaining Party members have so internalized the New Labour narrative that they now regard disunity and a Tory media exploiting this as a sufficient reason for not rocking the boat whatever disasters happen, like the Communists used to, only they cited foreign powers and 'Trotskyists' as reasons for supporting monolithic centralism.

The New Labour narrative is at its own tipping point and if the centre left does not act my prediction is of a counter-coup by the Blairites, using public distrust of Brown as an excuse. This will be the final and permanent shift of the Labour Party into a centre-right position in which the membership of the Party will be nothing but cannon fodder and what Lenin called 'useful idiots'.

If this happens, it will only be a matter of time before something new emerges to its Left which may have as many traditionally right-wing as left-wing characteristics, at least based on what is happening elsewhere in the world. A critique does not have to be political in terms of policy (that is the Bennite way), but it can be political in terms of competence and accountability. If there is blood on the floor, so be it.

The faster this is done, the greater the possibility that the recovery might lead to the return of a reformed Labour Government at the next election, even one run by David Miliband! There is a window of eighteen months to transform the Party and the Government - and to defeat the Tories at the next election. Use it or lose it.

In 1996, Tim Pendry, as vice-chair of Labour Reform, co-founded the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA) to run candidates for Labour's National Executive Committee


New Labour Project in freefall

In the second article in this special section Trevor Fisher describes New Labour's unprecedented accountability crisis

New Labour has lapsed into a crisis unprecedented since the eighties. The events which led acting Liberal-Democrat leader Vincent Cable brilliantly to describe Gordon Brown as going from “Stalin to Mr Bean” are more than just a chapter of errors and individual misjudgements even though these have of course been present. They are the culmination of a strategy which has gone badly wrong.

By the end of 2007 Labour had squandered the advantages of ditching Blair. At the start of the year the opinion polls had showed Labour slightly behind the Tories at 34% to 37%, with the Liberals on 17%. At the height of the Brown honeymoon before Labour conference the figures were 42/32/15. By the end of December the Tories were ahead 42 to 32 with the Liberals on 16%. It would be a grave folly to see this as just another short term trend which will remedy itself.

The events which have undermined Labour since September have a common thrust in the politics of the Project. The exception is the double shuffle over the election date which was purely Brown's reaction to falling opinion poll ratings, which then assisted other developments in undermining Labour's position.

New Labour's Project rests on triangulation to the right – moving deliberately into right wing territory to win over Tory swing voters. Progressives and the Labour Party and unions are marginalised to woo the right, for as Mandelson said, we are all Thatcherites now. Brown played the game, picking up a Tory MP, inviting Thatcher into Number 10, and above all stealing Tory Policies – notably over education and inheritance tax. Well heeled Tories got billions in Darling's mini budget, while the poorest children get a committee headed by Ed Balls. The two Jon's Cruddas and Trickett, in their recent New Statesman article, described New Labour “raising the white flag and inverting the values of social democracy”. This delivered success for a decade. It is less and less likely to do so in the future.

The central assumption of the culture is a belief in professional politicians' ability to control any situation, and avoiding any real politics of accountability to lay bodies such as Labour's National Executive Committee. Jack Dromey says that as Party Treasurer he had no knowledge of the dubious nature of the gifts, both in England and Scotland, which have tarnished Labour with the image of sleaze. And eighteen months ago he had no knowledge of the loans that sparked the cash for honours crisis. The reality is that the ability of the NEC to scrutinise the situation and act over issues for which they may be legally responsible for has been eroded.

The short term prospects will be determined by events external to the centre-left, particularly if there is court action that makes the issues subjudice. However a longer term programme can be operated probing the root causes of these developments in the cynical machine politics of New Labour. A politics which is dominated by the manipulation of processes including news and media presentation must inevitably risk degeneration.

The New Labour project does not recognise this reality. Brown could have broken with the Project, but instead chose to be its standard bearer. Specifically by removing democracy at Party Conference, he completed the New Labour Project. His action however means that Labour's activists cannot be held responsible for the crisis afflicting Labour, and fundamental shifts in the Party's operation may now be possible. For example: those who hold power in the Party have to be elected and not given posts by patronage. The position in which the Party Chair is chosen by patronage is unacceptable, and at the heart of the issues which now must be confronted is the manner in which Harriet Harman was elected to one post - quite properly - then appointed to another by the Party Leader by patronage.

There are clearly problems of openness facing all parties in modern democracies. The funding of political parties is a continuing problem for all, with both the Lib Dems and the Tories having problems with dodgy donors. The flow of money has to be addressed. But this is not just a supply side problem. It is also a problem of demand – lavish spending on politics in all western democracies means that democracy has become the best system money can buy. However, only New Labour can be accused of breaking its own laws.

A systemic attempt to confront the issues head on through an accountability working party open to all interests on the centre left is now needed. It must consider the immediate issues of the Labour Project, and more broadly to consider how, in an era of professionalisation and declining political literacy and participation, the long term future of political accountability may be addressed.

Trevor Fisher is an elected member of the Compass management committee. As a member of Labour Reform, now incorporated into Save the Labour Party, he was also involved in setting up the CLGA.


A recovery plan

In the final article Andy Howell and Peter Kenyon set out how Labour leaders and grassroots loyalists can work together to win back the progressive consensus

This is a pivotal moment in Labour Party history. There are times when issues are better dealt with quietly. Which loyal member wants to give our political opponents ammunition? Today, we are way beyond discretion. Members need to know there are people out there fighting for them, asking awkward and difficult questions.

Ideally, it should have been Labour's new leader who led the charge. The LabOUR Commission offered an interim 10-point plan. Instead, Gordon Brown went in the opposite direction. He expanded patronage inside the Labour Party. Conference debate was stifled. Brown promised to rebuild the Party in his controversial plan, Expanding and renewing party democracy. Little has been done. Now is the time to act.

There are three areas of party activity requiring urgent top level attention:

  • Political management in No. 10
  • Party discipline in the Parliamentary Labour Party
  • Rebuilding the Party's spirit, reputation, finances and membership to win a 4th term.

Time is pressing. Labour lacks a narrative. There is a Spring Conference in late February in Birmingham. There are London Mayoral and Assembly elections in May, plus a raft of local government contests in England. The Party has no General Secretary.

Central to Labour's current problems are its difficulty in government to maintain boundaries between state and party. It is not the Government's job to bail out the Labour Party. Neither is it the role of the state to rewrite the constitutions of political parties as Labour's former leader, Tony Blair sought to do with regard to the role of the Trades Unions in Labour's federal structure.

There needs to be an explicit aim through the recovery plan to reach the progressive constituency. Most members and supporters – including lapsed members who are waiting to see whether it is right to rejoin – are not going to be reading Chartist, Tribune or the blogs. To reach the progressive constituency, Labour needs an active policy regarding engagement of the mainstream media. It also needs a clear and positive assertion of a shared vision, values and a clear narrative.

The thrust of our proposals centre around a democratic model of party politics as set out in the LabOUR Commission Interim Report.

Labour's vision for 2008 and beyond has to include the construction of a new consensus around how we conduct our politics in Britain, especially in the Labour Party, embracing party democracy and dismantling the command party structures.

The opportunities to start this process do not have to be manufactured. They are already available. First, the Labour Party has to recruit a new General Secretary. Second, Labour in government committed in the 2007 Queen's Speech to bring forward new legislation to regulate political party finances.

Labour in government is there for the country. Labour's NEC is there to manage the party on behalf of members to enable candidates for elected office to win power. It is essential that those functions are clearly separated in thinking ongoing at No.10 about party funding.

While the Labour Party's national officers think through the recruitment of a new General Secretary, they face two other equally important questions: Is the Labour Party solvent, and is it a going concern? Both these will have a considerable bearing on the Party's ability to recruit. It is evident from recent statements and answers to questions in the House of Commons and at the Prime Minister's latest press conference that the No. 10 political managers are stuck in a time-warp over the funding of political parties.

Where should there be action and where should there be caution? It is probably clear that two conditions need to be met. Firstly, there can be no move forward unless there is a consensus across the political parties. Secondly, we need to follow the thinking of the public. Would they put up with state funding? Public scepticism will reinforce the belief of the Tories that they should simply leave us out to dry. Thirdly, wouldn't it be unprincipled to take state-aid to redress Labour's own failures to keep its financial affairs in order?

That's how the public will see any attempt to increase the state-funding of political parties. Even the Fabian Society's General Secretary, Sunder Katwala in his latest Review Editorial, has joined the siren calls. Is there anyone in No. 10 awake to the fact that the Tories are in a win-win scenario over this issue? The series of funding fiascos means they can just keep on hammering Labour. They don't have to respond to Hayden Phillips' Inquiry into political party funding. They can be confident that while there is another police investigation into Labour's fund-raising, key marginals can be flooded with donations from rich Tories.

No. 10 political managers have got to think trust. How can a progressive consensus be achieved when your party finances are in tatters? The answer is counter-intuitive to Westminster villagers. No more state-funding, just caps on spending. The public would welcome relief from billboard advertising wars and junk-mail blitzes. Voters will gradually warm to Labour's readiness to put its own finances in order. The proposed legislation with Liberal Democrat support will expose Tory tactics to 'buy' votes. The controversial Communications Allowance granting £10K to every MP to get their message across passed through Parliament in 2006 may have to be sacrificed to reinforce the message to the public and encourage MPs to get to know their constituents better in person.

The NEC are not simply there to support the leadership. While Government sorts out election spending limits, the Party's NEC has got to think finance. The NEC must be able to manage the Party in trust for the membership. While mainly accounted for by the insistence on loan finance for the 2005 election which has inflated our debts, the current crisis is in part due to a desperate need to raise funds to pay for expensive electoral advertising, which the public isn't interested in unless it alerts them to a tax bombshell. NEC members should be in possession of a clear analysis that looks at actions and considers how these might have an impact on the financial bottom line over time. Someone must have done some financial modelling. There must be – or there should be – clear income targets that are needed to pull the position back. If these targets don't exist, then in any organisation you can think of board members or trustees would be demanding that these be produced. They have a legal duty to properly consider the financial position of the entity and then ensure that appropriate steps are taken to move forward. This is not an issue of political judgement but of financial responsibility. Members need to be told what is being done on their behalf.

The role of Party officers

Who are they responsible to? What is their primary purpose? How can independence be institutionalised through job descriptions, and internal procedures. Financial accountability to the Treasurer (on behalf of the NEC) needs to be absolute. A whistle blowers' charter needs to be part of this as well.

The General Secretary

What is the thrust of the job? What is the job description? How has the description been written in the light of what has happened recently? What is the general recruitment strategy? At the time of going to press we have been advised that recruitment may be delayed until as late as March. That should not preclude progress on setting an agenda, which will enable the Leadership and Labour members to work together. Headhunters have been indentified and a national advertising campaign is planned. Labour Party national officers are concerned about the poor response on previous occasions, namely the departure of David (now Lord) Triesman and then Matt Carter. After Carter's departure, the NEC did not even bother to agree a Job Description or Person Specification. This was subsequently a source of some embarrassment at least to the Trade Union representatives on the NEC, whose commitment to equal opportunities recruitment methods was found wanting. The NEC must include an essential requirement in the Personal Specification for the General Secretary post to demonstrate proven ability to run the Party in partnership with, but not at the whim of No. 10 Downing Street. That is, of course, in addition to the capacities to rebuild the Party's reputation, finances and membership and win a 4th term for a Labour government in Westminster. An NEC briefing meeting has been arranged for 16 January to update its members about recruitment, the Party's finances and the internal and external inquiries into its affairs. We hope this means there might actually be a debate by the full NEC about these matters before ads are placed and recruitment packs prepared. But that's unlikely as the meeting is only scheduled to last for an hour.

By seizing these opportunities, Labour's narrative could be developed, in partnership with members, to regain the trust of the electorate.

Labour is not yet unelectable – we can still pull together to turn things around, but that needs the energy and dedication of an inclusive and democratic party. But too much optimistic analysis comes from the Whitehall lobby. Yes, John Major did win an election he was supposed to lose, but we don't think you can draw too much from this. Labour is facing a far more effective opposition than Major did from Labour back in 1990-92.

It is increasingly hard to find swing voters who think that Labour can, or should, win the next election.

This is a long-term campaign that goes to the fundamental heart of a modern centre-left party in government. Nobody can accuse the Party's internal critics of making Labour more unelectable.

The clarion calls must be: principled politics, active citizenship, Labour values.

Responsibility for embracing this recovery plan rests firmly with the new Leader and the Party's NEC. Following de facto withdrawal from Iraq, there are plenty of policy postures, both inherited from the Blair administrations and created in the last six months, that can be jettisoned to rebuild the progressive consensus for Labour.

LabOUR Commission Interim Report 2007: Renewal – a two way process for the 21st century can be downloaded from: http://www.labourcommission.org.uk

Andy Howell, who was a leading member of Labour Reform, recently joined Save the Labour Party.

Peter Kenyon is chair of Save the Labour Party.