‘The coup that wasn’t’ had a dénouement as predictable as a Tory split on Europe. Less revolt than a fearful shiver, it was always going to end in a rallying round.
I avoided both shiver and rally. I missed the shiver because our current position is where I’ve expecting us to be for a while (bar Scotland). When the spasm struck, I saw no reality in it, so clocked off for the weekend, and wasn’t one of the thousands of Labour supporters who tweeted ‘We Back Ed’1.
As someone who is both a Labour loyalist and a polling pessimist, it’s not easy to respond to shivers of rebellion or hashtag loyalty. Neither are useful. I can’t pretend I think everything is rosy. Yet nor do I think regicide equals recovery2.
Hashtag loyalty is an easy but mistaken response to political problems. It devalues what is truly useful in party loyalty – a willingness to pool our political sovereignty to achieve something together – in exchange for uncritical endorsement of the Leader personally.
This masks real political choices, especially when the identity of the leader, is the least important choice we face.
We shouldn’t confuse a choice over leadership with choice over a political project. One of the big problems with the Blair-Brown years is that loyalty to the man often eclipsed arguments over the political project. Blair’s praetorians saw the cult of personality as a very useful political tool and used it mercilessly. Still, it was at least reasonably clear what the cult stood for.
So I tend to find more fault with Brown, because when Gordon reached the apex it rapidly became clear that he had little by way of a meaningful political project and all the hints of values, winks at Compass lectures and nods at Fabian speeches soon dissolved into a mush that left Brown’s progressive supporters dismayed and the bruised ‘Blairites for Brown’ wondering what the long, brutal internal war they had just lost had been fought for.
So it is with Labour today. We mix up personal loyalty with loyalty to a project, and in so doing, lose sight of our real choices.
While I agree with Danny Finkelstein that Labour’s structure creates incentives that discourage effective conspiracy, Labour’s main challenge is that we are trying to manage a series of gulfs in vision over what sort of party we are and seek to be.
This is not entirely separate from the question of leadership, because Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader marked a desire to bridge those gulfs as painlessly as possible. On this, Ed has delivered, better than anyone has any reason to expect.
Ed has, while naturally promoting close allies and pursuing his social democratic passions, carefully and skillfully navigated the shoals and eddies of Labour fissures – a nod to egalitarian radicalism here, to public service reform and fiscal restraint there.
The unity of the Labour party over the last few years wasn’t accidental, it was a crucial part of Miliband’s appeal, of his political project, of what his offer to the Labour party was and is – a love for what the Labour movement represents, a passion for our vague ‘radical values’, an interest in the traditional mission of social democracy and in binding the party together, rather than tearing it apart.
Can any part of the party, from Blairites to Campaign groupers claim to be entirely ignored, to not have their passions reflected somewhere in the party agenda? I don’t think so. Sure, some have felt the cold shoulder of indifference, but that has been more to do with who has been prepared to go along to get along than any particular ideological disenfranchisement.
Yet that loyalty to the idea of the party as a unified social democratic force contains its own contradiction. Unity for victory is only valuable if it is expected to win. In Labour’s current polling recessional, we have therefore seen a flowering of disloyalties.
Some don’t even see themselves as being disloyal – calling for expensive radicalism in policy, but quietude on personality. Act as bravely as you speak, goes one cry. Yet to do that would destroy the leadership’s careful project of balancing the movement, electoral interests, and party unity. To ask Ed Miliband to commit electoral suicide by adopting an inauthentic tax raising radicalism is as disloyal as asking him to step aside. It is just a slower acting poison, not a knife to the guts3.
Others, like me, seek a policy agenda no less alien to that careful unifying project. No less divisive, no less risky.
The gamble the Labour party took with Ed Miliband was that we did not have to tear ourselves apart before recovering ground. In their different ways, the alternative choices would have led to the traditional internal fight in which it became clear who won and who lost.
What Ed Miliband offered was the hope this could be circumvented and a rapid return to government without an entire political reformation could be achieved.The gunfight has been avoided. That is the prize Miliband has given Labour. If it has proven incompatible with radical clarity, that is a feature, not a bug.
Replace Ed with any of his increasingly unlikely replacements, and the question that hangs in the air is not ‘would they look better eating a sandwich’ but what would they stand for?
If the answer is vague, it would end up in the same political result we face now, quality photo-ops or no.
If answer is not vague, it would be divisive. Which is why the party shrinks from it.
As much as the structures of the party, the dissension in the Party’s analysis of the future is Ed’s greatest political protection.
It is also a question the Labour party will have to answer soon, whether in office or out. If we lose, the debate will be inevitable. If we win, well if David Cameron teaches the Labour party anything, it is that skilful party management in opposition can rapidly become a divisive fracture in government.
Win or lose, the question for Labour isn’t about Ed’s political strategy. It’s about each of ours, about what kind of party, other than a united one, we want to be.
Hashtag loyalty is no answer to that challenge.------------------------------------------------------------------------------
- Nor am I much moved by today’s poll. Turns out leftish talk of a progressive realignment wasn’t a new political paradigm, but old-fashioned complacency. This is surprising? [↩]
- On top of that, Public frankness and private loyalty is the least valued combination in politics, while loud loyalty and private discontent has many adherents, most with their eyes on the main chance. Certain Politicians and activists, I am looking at you [↩]
- The soft left of the Labour party, the natural Ed constituency, are currently disappointed because they feel their strategy has not been tried, and they fear they’ll get the blame anyway. The reason it hasn’t been tried by Ed Miliband is that is an obviously incoherent strategy based on wishful thinking and Ed Milband can see as well as anyone that it can’t be pushed further than he’s pushed it without imploding. This is not welcome news to the soft left, but there’s little point telling them. They’ll just have to keep being frustrated by the repeated inability of any leader to convert their vaunted ‘values’ into a workable political strategy, and then getting into a cycle of self-loathing and blame at being used by people who have a strategy rather than just values [↩]