"As for you, I tell you what the epitaph on you Scottish dissenters will be – pure but impotent. Yes, you will be pure all right. But remember, at the price of impotency. You will not influence the course of British politics by a hair's breadth. Why don't you go into a nunnery and be done with it? Lock yourself up in a cell away from the world and its wickedness … I tell you it is the Labour Party or nothing."
Nye Bevan, to Jennie Lee, on the possible disaffiliation of the ILP from the Labour party. 1931
I wanted to write a response to Alex Hilton's Cri de Coeur, published by Labourlist this week, not because I was outraged by his public loss of faith, but because I felt some sympathy with it. You can't have faith in something without the possibility of losing that faith, and since Alex and I are from a generally similar generation of Labour activists and hacks, I feel rather like a country vicar reading the furious apostasy of an old friend from seminary, disgusted by the hypocrisies of our shared church and the inadequacies of the Mitre-wearers who sit in palaces while sin reigns unchecked. There's some uncomfortable truths, but I can't hep but think of my own congregation.
Alex and I come from radically different places in the Labour party. Indeed, given what Alex writes about his political positions, (disgust with a loss of party democracy, the need to stand up for those who need us most, the need for more social housing) I could argue he should be happier with the current direction of Labour party politics and leadership, than I, a fiscal conservative, a fully signed up Blairite zombie, and a fairly unethical, (though more importantly, unsuccessful), capitalist.
After all, when people say of some bland centrist, "Why doesn't he bugger off and join the Tories, eh?" They're usually talking about me, or someone I agree with. I can tell Alex, that once you've heard that particular barb a few times, a small childish part of you is tempted to grant the accuser their profoundest wish, and bugger off. (I wouldn't join the Tories, no matter the internal provocation. There is some shit I will not eat, as the poet said).
So I have some sense of what it is to be on the uncomfortable edges of the flock, wondering if it's really going in the right direction.
I'm not alone in this, of course. I suppose one of the few things I share with the hard left is that we must all have wondered at some point whether the game was worth the candle, whether it might not be better to let these mad trots/dangerous neo-liberals (delete as appropriate) get on with it without our special genius. I have this mental image of Tony Blair listening to Derek Hatton in the early eighties and wondering what on earth the two of them were possibly doing in the same party, and Derek Hatton wondering the exact same thing. That one was eventually resolved, thankfully.
So my sympathy for Alex is driven by the fact that I too have had the crisis of faith Alex describes, if a slightly different variety thereof. Yet I have bitten my tongue, in public. (I make no claims for what I've said to friends, or over beer, or during one day conferences in central London, or even to advisers to the people I struggle to agree with). I've shut up, or passed over certain disagreements to focus on more constructive ones, because, for all my crises of faith, I still believe in the capacity of the Labour party to change Britain for the better, and want a Labour government, and want to be able to go up to the leader of the Labour party and say "Hello, Prime Minister". I've done that twice in my life, and it's pretty damn cool.
Just because I think like this is no reason for Alex to feel the same. I could argue that Alex is wrong about the state of the Labour party. I could try and persuade him that Ed Miliband is the greatest Leader in political history, that refounding Labour is a profound change to our party democracy, that our current vision for the country is clearer than the most perfect diamond. I don't believe these things, as it goes, but I could still make the attempt in the interests of returning the sheep to the fold*. There's something to be said for everything that Alex condemns, after all, and a defence that can be mounted for the performance of each.
- I mean, Alex, can you really not fathom at all why anyone might vote for Ed Miliband? I didn't, you know, but he's intelligent, personable, had been a decent minister and said he wanted to change the Labour party for the better and that we'd got a lot right but some big things wrong. I reckon quite a lot of people in the Labour party would say that's a pretty good combination of skills, views and experience. In fact, the only situation in which it would be irrational for anyone to vote for Ed Miliband is the alternative candidate was me, and sadly, I was not available.-
But while each of the propositions Alex puts forward can be fought over, they don't get to the heart of the matter. You don't restore faith by arguing over definitions.
Instead, I want to accept that everything Alex says is right. I want to tell him that yes, Ed Miliband is the worst leader of the Labour party in history, our reforms of internal democracy are a joke, that we are run by a small group of unprincipled careerists with no interest in the people beyond their own narrow circle who have no chance of appealing to the great mass of our nation. I don't believe any of these things either, but Alex does, and that's what matters.
Even if all these things are true, the Labour party is still worth it.
It is still worth it, because while the Labour party may be a flawed, imperfect vessel for our ambitions, it is the best vessel that exists for the building of a more just society. If Ed Miliband was not just as bad a leader as Alex suggests, but even worse, this would still be true. The Labour party is not just Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, and their comrades in the shadow cabinet and in parliament, because that apex is merely the tip of our political spear. The Labour party is also the canvassers, councillors, activists and members that allow them to sit in parliament. It is even the reviled spin doctors, the union fixers and worst of all, the thirty-something bloggers, like me, wondering exactly how it came to pass that they are never going to lead the Labour party to a record four election victories, but instead be forced to watch other numpties making such a mess of their chance to shine**.
I want to change Alex's mind not on his critique of the party, which is his right to voice, as much as it is mine to disagree, but on the choice he believe he has a result.
In his last paragraph Alex says "I’d like it if you were honest and told us who the Labour Party’s going to help, and how, and set your policy direction consistently with that declaration. And then if we didn’t agree with you, we could just leave rather than persisting with vain optimism."
But that's not the only choice. There's a better one. There's the choice to fight, not for what you want Ed Miliband to be, but for what you want Labour to be.
I've made my choice, to do what I can, to help the leadership where I can agree, to critique as constructively as I can manage if I honestly cannot.
I may be wrong about this, I may be being cowardly. Perhaps I should trumpet my dissent and mute my approbation, but that is the choice I made, to fight a quieter battle.
If Alex believes what he says, he has a different choice. He could call for the removal of Ed, and his replacement, if not by Stella and John and Hilary, but by someone, anyone who would be better.
That would be a lonely stance, and would attract even more opprobrium than Alex is attracting now. But it would also be brave, and noble, in its way, and a fight worth making, even if doomed to failure.
Stick. Fight. Win. and remember, always, even if you lose, you never lose forever. La Lutte Continue, and all that.
So, Alex, don't worry about the faith you have in Ed, or anyone else. Concern yourself only with the fight for the party you want us to be. Perhaps you'll lose, just as I, and my fellow zombies, feel we are losing now.
But only the alternative, of departing from the field, guarantees your defeat, and that, as Nye said, is an impotent purity.
*In Order: Ed Miliband has done well in getting us back to evens, though I fear that won't be anywhere enough, and I worry that no-one seems to be worried it's not enough; Refounding Labour is OK, so far as it goes, but won't change much; and our vision for the country is at the magic eightball level of meaningfulness.
**there's another element to this, which I suggest hesitantly as it is probably just me, not Alex. I'm getting older. It was a lot easier to accept the compromises and hypocrisies of politics when the careerist with high hopes of elevation was, um, me. To accept that the fight is still worth it even if you don't even get to be an attendant Lord, fit to swell a scene or two, requires a greater degree of intestinal fortitude. More positively, it makes it clear what you really care about. I want a Labour party that approaches the world in a certain way, and I've stopped caring whether anyone notices my role in making it that happen. In some ways, this is quite liberating. You get to be much more annoying, for one thing.