Imagine the Labour Party sat on a counsellor’s couch. The shrink asks, “So, when did the problems start?” “Oh it all started when Jeremy was elected… oh, no, probably actually when we lost the election… actually, people didn’t really like Ed did they? But, then, before that there was all that trouble with Blair and Brown but when I think about it people weren’t really happy when we got rid of Clause IV – we just sort of stomached it if we thought we might win an election. Actually, there were grumblings even before then – back when Thatcher came to power we just didn’t know what to do! But, then we’d been like that since right at the beginning. You know, when MacDonald went into a coalition government in 1931, no one really liked that – members thought we were selling out. Even before then when we made the decision to go in on an electoral pact with the Liberals, people weren’t happy. How much am I paying you for this by the way? We’re a little short of cash.”
The publication of the Beckett Report, Labour’s soul-searching analysis of why they lost the 2015 election, has continued the speculation by members, MPs, and the commentariat as to what the party needs to do to win back power. The findings conclude that Labour needs a clear vision, communicated through a well-orchestrated media strategy, offering up policies that seem relevant now and in four years’ time.
All of this might be achievable if Labour wasn’t wracked by deep, emotional divisions that started back well before Corbyn became leader – before he even first donned a sweater and sandals and marched to the tune of the Internationale.
All parties have to grapple with divisions and disagreements. Major famously had to contend with those “bastards” in his cabinet. But there’s something different about Labour – the issues that divide them strike at the heart of what the party is about. The Conservatives tear themselves apart over Europe but they remain signed-up to the prime rationale of the party: to shrink the state and promote a market economy. Where they differ is the role that Europe can play in achieving that ambition.
For Labour, the stakes are higher. I would argue that the party has never really resolved its own disagreements about the play off between what could be described as “electoral expediency” and sticking to its core economic and social justice values. When MacDonald split the party in 1931 it was over whether or not they should form a government committed to making spending cuts. The same arguments have been replayed ever since with the only difference being the extent to which they have been aired in public. In 1983 Benn and Foot were authors of the “longest-suicide note in history” – the election manifesto that many thought was so left of centre that it would destroy the Labour Party forever. The efforts of Kinnock to “modernise” the party after that traumatic event was seen by some members as a betrayal of Labour’s heritage. Ultimately outright civil war was negated by the rise of the Blair, Brown, and Mandelson triumvirate who secured election in 1997. That could at least satisfy party doubters for the time-being: better to have a less-than-perfect Labour Party in office than the Tories.
But you can’t bury your head in the sand forever and the fallout from those years in power are now clear for all to see. Reading the eloquent memoirs of Chris Mullin, a Labour MP who resided to the left of Blair and Brown, it is obvious how much the head-team ignored the grumblings not just of members but of the parliamentary Labour Party. It’s unsurprising that those on “the left” and ordinary members now think that it’s their turn to steer the Labour ship.
But in what direction? With so much internal disagreement over the way to win election and what to do with the economy, how can they come up with a vision? This wouldn’t be such a problem if the economy wasn’t, for better or worse, the pervasive question facing the electorate. Economics is politics and politics is economics. If Labour members aren’t united in their own feelings and understanding about the economy and the role of the state, what hope is there?
If – and it is an if bigger than the size of the majority the Tories are expecting to win in 2020 – Labour can resolve that fundamental question, they have a fighting chance. But it is going to take a lot of soul-searching. What they need to come up with is a clear one-liner, the kind of boilerplate that authors Chip and Dan Heath argue in their book “Ideas that Stick” need to be at the heart of any organisation’s operations and vision. Get that right internally and things externally might begin to look a bit brighter. But given that these divisions stretch back over a century, there’s a lot of work to be done.