Monday, 30 January 2012

Is The Holy Grail Of Member Involvement Achievable?

Today, an article appeared on the Progress website entitled Labour's Holy Grail. It was a very poor article, and I rip it to pieces below ... but it nonetheless made me fear that we will never be allowed to achieve our dream of meaningful member involvement in the Party's policy-making process.

I’m going to get into trouble for writing this blog from a number of my friends on the Labour Left facebook group.
Because I am going to criticise an article on the Progress website.
This will distress and even anger members of the Labour Left group, because most of them are systematically determined NOT to countenance or encourage anything which smacks of schism
anybody saying anything which looks divisive gets short shrift!

But things need saying, and so I’m going to put my head in the noose!

What is ‘Progress’?
If you haven’t met it before, Progress is the New Labour pressure group within the Labour Party. Its website features a message from Tony Blair. Its chair is Andrew Adonis and its President is Stephen Twigg. One of its advocates is the enthusiastic and able Luke Akehurst, an NEC constituency member.
Progress’s contribution to the policy debate has been the ‘Purple Book’, but its website regularly also features ‘Black Book’ articles; thus Progress stands generally to the ‘right’ of the Party. Most of all, Progress members acknowledge that, unless Labour captures the politically-centre, middle class vote, it cannot win the election.

Progress is well-funded, and is currently running a nationwide series of conferences to spread its message. In particular, it runs an excellent website with a blog that is usually well-worth reading …

Labour’s Holy Grail
Apart from today, that is. For today, the Progress website hosted an article by an anonymous blogger named ‘the Progressive’. You can get an idea of his political standpoint if I tell you one of his previous posts was entitled: In defence of TESCO.

Today, ‘The Progressive’s’ contribution was an article entitled: Labour’s Holy Grail, which discussed ‘the Labour party’s current quest for the “centre-ground” of modern politics’.
It was a confrontational article, which might well have had as its aim a desire to split the Party. When Labour has achieved its Holy Grail, it started off by telling us, the Party ‘will likely be … an inhospitable terrain hostile to old-style leftwing politics’.

After an irrelevant and indulgent introduction about ‘monomyths’ – apparently derived from Wikipedia – the author advanced a set of assertions (not ‘arguments’), every one of which made my blood boil.
I invite you to read it for yourself and see what you think, bit this is what I thought:

1. Are we REALLY sure that the critical ‘swing voters’ in the next election will be ‘middle class or skilled working class’ with the political attitudes that the author ascribes to them? Merely continually asserting such does not make it true. What evidence have we that supporting politically popular Tory policies will attract these people? It may well be that there is a political sub-class out there who, if we pursue fiscally-conservative policies, might vote Labour … but what evidence is there that their impact will be critical in the critical constituencies? Most of all, can they be persuaded to join in sufficient numbers to compensate for the membership haemorrhaging from the left of the Party as a result of the right-wing policies we are adopting to try to woo these ‘centre’ voters?

2. I was irritated by the article’s reference to Foot and the 1980s. It is SO just a cheap propaganda point which surely nobody actually believes. I witnessed the battle to oust the hard left in the 1980s, and I can assure you that ‘Labour Left’ are no Militant. Similarly the cautious and Keynesian Trade Union leaders who momentarily voiced their disappointment with Labour’s post-New Year policy announcements are far from wannabe Arthur Scargills. And therefore to relate the current situation to the 1983 manifesto is a crass and meaningless ploy; EVERYTHING about 1983 was different – the people, the economy, labour relations, the international situation, the deficit etc. etc. I would actually probably agree that a manifesto which called for ‘a major increase in public investment in transport, housing, and energy conservation, a huge programme of construction, and a crash programme of employment and training’ would lose us the next election … but to ‘prove’ this simply by invoking 1983 is intellectually barren.

3. Above all, this article read like an ultimatum. Its message to the left wing of the Party was clear: Your dinosaur ideas are going to turn off the political-centre and lose us every election until 2030. In a recession Labour needs to be ‘more brittle, less altruistic, more receptive of conservative rhetoric about self-reliance’. We need to be seen to follow increasingly right-wing policies on ‘immigration, fair taxes and benefits, the state of the high street, antisocial behaviour and jobs’. And although it does not state so explicitly, the language of necessity made its message clear – if you don’t like it, leave.

Ironically, it is ‘The Progressive’ (rather than my consensus-seeking colleagues from Labour Left) who seems stuck in the 1980s. He or she is still fighting a New Labour battle with Militant, a win-or-die battle for Labour’s future. The writer seems to feel that the left must be ‘defeated’, whatever the cost, or Labour will be unelectable.
It is the language of confrontation which can only divide and weaken the Party. Militant and the 1980s are long gone, and the Party which remains is generally desperate for an end-to-squabbling, and a clear lead on how we might get rid of these wicked Tories.

The Holy Grail of membership involvement in Policy-Making
What depressed me most about Labour’s Holy Grail, however, was the light it threw for me on another of Labour’s current struggles – the attempt to get greater membership involvement in policy-making.

How we increase member-involvement in policy-making is an expressed objective of the Party. There is a consultation, which ends tomorrow, which explicitly asks that very question.
In addition, almost every NEC candidate whose platform you can find is promising us that they will ‘lobby for a rethink in the policy process to ensure all members and CLPs felt they had been listened to and had a voice in Party policy-making’ [or some such]. You have to wonder whether they are just saying this to get elected, but the mere fact that they feel they need to say it shows how prominent this matter is in the Party’s agenda.

On the Labour Left group, three of us especially – Jon Lansman, Peter Kenyon and myself – have all thrown our efforts into this campaign. For many on the Left of the Party, it is this reconnection with the core vote – rather than any generalised appeal to the middle class centre vote – which will be the difference between winning and losing the next election.

The reason that Labour’s Holy Grail depressed me so much was that, after I had read it, I realised that we will NEVER achieve our aim. We will NEVER be given a greater say in Party policy.

Why Member-Involvement will flounder
Consider the following, simplistic political spectrum:

Hard left <*> Labour Left <*> Progress Labour <*> Centre <*> Tory <*> Nazi

Now, postulating that the rank-and-file Labour members were to be given a say in policy-making, where do you think Labour’s policies would end up on this spectrum?
Would it not – after a constructive debate – reach some kind of compromise around the asterisk between ‘Labour Left’ and ‘Progress Labour’ … i.e. somewhere in the middle between the two wings of the Party?
In fact, seeing as we all know what the rank-and-file think, there is every chance that a consensus involving the wider membership would end up more to the left than to the right of that asterisk!

The Party heavy-weights who support the Progress narrative about the need to appeal to the ‘centre’ vote, however, can never allow that to happen. For Labour to win, they believe, Labour Party policy cannot and must not fall anywhere to the left of centre. Their minimum-acceptable decision would be somewhere around the asterisk between Progress Labour and centre and – since they believe so fiercely that those centre votes are the difference between winning and losing, the further to the right the better. They can NEVER allow a policy-making process which might move policy leftwards!

These Party heavy-weights know this full well, and have known it for some time. Which is why rank-and-file involvement in policy-making has slowly been excised. Conference has been reduced to a show-case. The National Policy Forum is moribund (it has
allegedly not met for more than a year). The current consultation has been poorly advertised, post-dates the real policy-decisions, and publicly has been more about mobilising the rank-and-file than involving them.

Let’s face it, are they ever going to allow us a say in policy!

So I’m going to make a very cynical prediction of how Labour's Holy Grail made me fear that things may go.

Little will come from the current consultation apart from maybe some window-dressing. What does will be more about propagandising than policy-making. Successful NEC candidates will forget their promises. Policy will remain in the hands of the Party elite of leading MPs, academics, journalists and ‘advisers’. The Left will continue to hope, but – with or without Ed Miliband – Labour will go into the 2015 election on a platform which is essentially ‘Disraeli-Tory’-with-heart.

Is this what we have to look forward to?
I can only hope that Progress is better than this...

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