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Labour’s Significant Divide

It must be quiet for the lobby hacks at the moment if Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer piece is anything to go by. With a nod to the silly dichotomies of managerial speak, simmering beneath party unity are five divisions: the 35%’ers vs “majoritarians”, “transformers” vs “realists”, “devolvers” vs “centralisers”, Camp Miliband vs Camp Balls, and “Gloomsters” vs “Zennists”. In the interests of accuracy, Rawnsley should have specified that these facile divisions are properties of the Parliamentary Labour Party. His grip on what happens in the wider party is no firmer than George Osborne’s understanding of economics.

And yet, there is a grain of truth in some of this. Not the actual cleavages spotted by Rawnsley, most of which are Westminster froth. but I am talking about the absence of ideological struggle, of the division of Labour into camps embracing sub-Trot reformism, Bennism, Croslandism, and “common sense” neoliberalism. Away from the economic front you have your Labour Friends of Israel and Labour Friends of Palestine, but these are hardly the lot of substantive divides either. As much as it might annoy the media and the Tories, Labour’s unity is less an effect projected by the leader’s office and more something substantive in its own right. But why? There are three things going on here.

Firstly, nearly all sections of the party are determined to win in 2015. Regardless of the motives, whether being in opposition “is crap” or because Labour is committed to protecting the most vulnerable, there is a widespread desire to turf the Tories out. Lambasting opponents in the party is good for a crack, but the blue party remains the enemy. The second is a shared consensus about what went wrong last time and how to put things right. All accept that the last Labour government was a soft touch on regulating finance and too chillaxed with market fundamentalism. Keynes is back in fashion and the mood music is for a different, more managed kind of capitalism. Thirdly, the labour movement itself remains in a state of flux. The greater the employment uncertainty there is in the wider economy, the more pressing the decline of lay membership in union structures, the more unions have to attend to their own institutional needs. Acting assertively in their party is lower down the priority list than was previously the case – though Collins might change this.

So much for political divisions. There is, however, another Rawnsley completely overlooks – again, because he’s not privy to nor interested in the wider organisation. This cleaves what you might call traditional political tribes, throwing together in the same bed people who’d have been at each others’ throats in earlier times. And this divide is between those who wish to rebuild the party anew, and those content on sitting in their committee rooms comfortable reading minutes, massaging the MP’s ego and waging the struggle through resolutions no one gets to see. This group is the “we’re all full up” brigade – a series of cliques of (mainly) long-standing members scattered across innumerable CLPs. They jealously guard the chair, secretary, and treasurer positions they occupy and are deeply suspicious of new people coming in. Hence they obstruct “up-and-comers” and ignore new enquiries. They refuse to campaign, release monies for campaigns, or, when they do consent to do something, they accidentally sit on leaflets they have been given. They are hidebound and conservative. Inert at best, harmful at worst, they cling to the old ways as if nothing has changed since 1974.

I’m not having a pop at “old people”. The divide between renewal and decay does not respect a generational divide, nor abides by a strivers vs the skivers narrative. Again, it’s not just a result of bloody-mindedness – the regularity of its spread suggests it’s a sociological phenomenon. Whether it be people clinging on because they’ve invested their identity into it, or it allows them to perform the part of a “player”, or they see themselves guarding the party against the predations of national/regional office or new-fangled ideas, as a divide it’s real enough, and is more of a factor than Rawnsley’s daft classifications.

Leaving it there, however, is not good enough. It’s not just a Labour Party issue. It’s the same right across the labour movement and politics generally. The Tory Association treasurer still counting cash after 35 years, the LibDem who’s been agent since 1970, the Trot party general secretary who’s racked up 49 years of service. Experience is fine, keeping a position for long periods is okay. But how does one stop it from becoming pathological and harmful to your party’s political interests?

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