I really don’t care that much about the internal politics and structures of the Labour party.
Oh, because I spent so long within the party, I have firm views about what should be done.
I want open primaries in small, inactive constituencies. I want an end to the block vote in policy making. I want a national policy forum that decides policy in the Labour party openly, not functions as a cage match between faceless fixers from the unions and the party one year in four and is an meaningless talking shop the other three years. I want a party selection process that isn’t basically broken (and so is manipulated, by everyone).
I want all these things, but I don’t really care about them so much that I want to make them the central issue in Labour politics.
None of them should be important, but they have become so because they’re all merely an expression of a bigger problem.They’re the consequences of a party and movement that looks inward, not outwards. The problem with the existing structures and culture of the left is the way that they encourage us to wrestle with our own demons in place of concerning ourselves with what ‘outsiders’ think, which often make us uncomfortable as a movement. It is that we have to change.
A small example.
Last week, I was asked to go on the telly to talk about the seven days wait for Jobseeker’s allowance. I politely declined, because I hadn’t had the chance to pay much attention to the detail of the policy, so wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. I then watched incredulously as the issues of the government’s reform turned into a struggle over what ‘being Labour’ meant.
This argument, typified between the debate between Owen Jones and Simon Danczuk, was less a debate about policy and more an argument about identity. As an experienced Labour hand, I understood all the references to Labour’s past (Ben Elton, Neil Kinnock’s militant speech, etc etc) I just had no idea how any of it related to what the government was proposing. “You sound like a Tory” versus “You’re an inauthentic Trot”
Invited to talk about welfare reform, we preferred to talk about ourselves.
So I went and had a look. I discovered that the government is not in fact proposing a reform to Jobseeker’s allowance.
It’s proposing a reform to Universal Credit, beginning in 2015, which would lead to a delay of seven days for new Universal Credit claimants under conditionality, providing they hadn’t made a claim in the previous six months.
As a reform, this changes things radically. It’s nothing like the rhetoric of Osborne in the CSR.
If you’re a low paid worker, you’ll presumably be claiming Universal Credit anyway, so how will this delay apply to you? If you’ve lost your job and claimed Universal Credit in the last six months, it won’t apply to you. So in those senses it might be better. Yet equally, as Nicola Smith at the TUC has pointed out it might apply to people who haven’t lost their job, as conditionality applies to more people than just those in JSA.
If the Labour party cared rather more for the people it seeks to represent, and rather less about what being ‘a good Labour man’ (or woman) was, we might have spent our time talking about these things, not about Ben Elton and Neil Kinnock.
This is where a politics of internal focus takes you, ultimately.
What matters is not what you do, or the impact of what you propose, but how much you represent the ‘real’ Labour party, whatever that is.
I even keep a sort of internal score for Labour ‘realness’. For example, I am a son of a single parent (plus ten points) who went to a state comp (plus ten points) in an inner city (plus five points) who joined the Labour party at sixteen (plus twenty points) and have been a union member all my life (plus five points). But I also went to Oxford (minus ten points), dislike canvassing (minus ten points) and talk kind of posh (minus five points).
This gives me a Labour credibility score of twenty-five, which means I’m more Real Labour than Owen Jones, but less Real Labour than Luke Akehurst. I can therefore pompously lecture Owen about the party, but have to listen humbly to Luke’s wisdom.1
The challenge for Labour isn’t about what reforms are going to be proposed to the NEC next week.
It’s whether, as a movement we want to worry about ourselves, or about the country.
We’re going to hear an awful lot about the millions of men and women who are members of Trade Unions. Quite rightly. But will we also hear about the need to represent the millions of people who aren’t?
We’re going to hear about the need to reform the way we choose our people. Quite rightly. But will we hear about the way we choose our policies and who they speak to?
We’re going to hear about the proud traditions of the Labour movement. Fair enough. But will we also discuss the millions of people for whom those proud traditions are either meaningless, or utterly unattractive?
The choice for the Labour party now is whether it wants to be the best ‘Real Labour party’ of our imaginings, a sort of fantasy party where Clem Attlee is the Leader, Barbara Castle is his deputy, Crossland is running the policy review and Bevin is the General Secretary of Unite, or a Labour party that seeks to represent and speak for people who simply couldn’t give a damn about the Labour movement’s proud traditions and values.
However good the reforms we make are, ultimately they will fail, just as Refounding Labour has, as OMOV has, as the NPF has, if they are about managing the Labour party, not about talking to the people not in the Labour party.
- I’m also way more Real Labour than almost anyone in the party leadership, who are all a bit too posh. [↩]
- not listening to Luke, obviously, very sensible that [↩]
- The current Euro-selections are a perfect example of this. It doesn’t matter what you think, or how good you are, as long as you do your doorstep, work in a caring profession and owe everything to your state school teacher. [↩]