The forthcoming national executive committee elections for the Labour Party are critical. The Party is running high in the polls reflected by good local election results. But as George Galloway’s Bradford West by-election result shows, there is an element of fragility in Labour’s support.
The mantra that the Tories are cutting public expenditure “too far and too fast” is a clever soundbite, but it is confusing. Either Labour stands for austerity, or it stands for expansion and growth; the attempt to triangulate towards middle ground in the quest for mythical swing voters in marginal constituencies is being pursued at the expense of developing a credible economic policy. The comments by Ed Balls and Ed Miliband that they would support public sector pay restraint both gave credibility to the Tory arguments, and also demoralised and disoriented a layer of activists and Ed Miliband’s allies in the unions. It also represented a genuine threat to the prosperity of millions of working people, and would be deflationary, reducing consumer demand. The inability to articulate a clear alternative to the Tories is because there is a deep belief in parts of the Labour Party that elections are won be competing for the middle ground, and spinning for electoral advantage around minor differences. However, since 2008 the economic paradigm has shifted, and it is necessary to say clearly that there is a fundamental difference between the approach of the Con-Dem government, and the Labour Party. To understand the problem we need to appreciate how it came about. Back in the 1990s, The bright and shiny clique of New Labour succeeded in winning the party not by becoming a majority, but by developing a convincing coalitional strategy for winning general elections. This involved both the now famous arts of triangulation and spin, but also hollowing out any distinctive ideological content of labourism. In the absence of any other electorally credible strategy they won over the centre right, and support from the traditionalist trade unions. In contrast, the left lost this battle because they seemed to be refusing to budge on a political programme that was increasingly out of tune with the voters, and were unable to convince the party centre that they represented anything but a one way ticket to oblivion. The key transitional figures of Neil Kinnock and John Smith represented complementary shifts: firstly of the Kinnockite left recognising that a General Election could not be won on the basis of the politics of the Labour left alone, and that a more coalitional approach was required; and secondly of Smith, perhaps the most heavyweight traditional revisionist in the party and who was backed to become leader by some of the left, consolidating the move by the Labour right in the direction of Thatcherite economic policy. Arguably, Neil Kinnock’s 1989 policy statement “Meet the Challenge, Make the Change” approved by party conference was a complete assimilation by a section of the former left of Anthony Crosland’s revisionist agenda. A party that loses four consecutive general elections has considerable motivation for rethinking itself. But whereas the Blairites could credibly argue that the left in the 1990s were stuck in the past seeking to refight the 1974 election, although times had changed; today it is the Blairites seeking to fight and fight again the 1997 election, without acknowledging that the acceptance of neo-liberal economics is deeply compromised. There is institutional inertia around these ideas, through the well funded and organised “Progress” organisation, which acts as a party within a party, and the “Labour First” clique. Ed Miliband is therefore under constant pressure from the right, who are overrepresented in both the PLP and the Shadow Cabinet. Tragically there is a consensus about the acceptable parameters of political debate between Progress, the Orange Book Lib-Dems and the Cameron, which is reflected in the media, which excludes alternative views. The potential counterbalance comes from the unions, who have an organic relationship with the needs and demands of millions of natural Labour supporters. However, the unions also need allies from the centre-left in the constituency party The centre-left held a lead in the nominations from constituencies, with Ann Black, Ken Livingstone and Christine Shawcroft leading the poll, Kate Osamor, Darren Williams and Pete Willsman also received healthy support. There is a prospect that the left could increase its representation in this year’s election. There is a growing realization in the trade unions that the very future of the Labour Party is jeopardized by the dominance of the organised right wing; and which is preventing Labour from realizing its potential of delivering radical and transformative change in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population. Electing these centre-left candidates to the NEC is essential to strengthen the hand of those who are loyal to Ed Miliband, but want Labour to be bolder and more radical in opposing the Tories. This first appeared in the latest issue of Tribune. A flyer about the Centre-Left slate for Labour’s executive can be downloaded here. Please circulate it to Labour Party members by email or print out and distribute.