The limits of Hashtag Loyalty

‘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.

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  1. 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? []
  2. 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 []
  3. 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 []

14 Responses to “The limits of Hashtag Loyalty”

  1. Dan Garrigan

    Doesn’t this mean that the ‘broad church’ Labour party (to the extent it still exists) is doomed? A divisive leader (left or right) would likely haemorrhage members much as Blair did in the later years. If the leader were of the Progress wing of the party they could well see ever diminishing union money come in, which with fewer members would mean the party would be in an extremely precarious position financially.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      I think leaders are often prisoners of what their parties allow them to be. I’m not sure the Labour party would allow Ed to be much different than he is, in any direction.

      The challenge then is for the Labour party to change.

      Reply
  2. Phil Woodford

    Loyalty is great in principle, but I think loyalty to the British public comes before loyalty to a particular leader. If, by a ruthless coup d’etat before Christmas, Labour put itself in a position to win even a few extra percentage points in May’s election, then it might make the difference between a Conservative majority government and a hung parliament. Many MPs will be loyal to Ed until 7th May and then condemn him on 8th May. It’s a hypocrisy which might leave the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK facing a term of Tory government, another Con-Dem coalition or even – worse-case scenario – a Tory-UKIP coalition.

    Reply
    • Alasdair

      Just a quick point – a Tory-UKIP coalition is basically impossible, for both political and psephological reasons. If UKIP does well enough at the election to get several seats, the Tories will probably have done badly and are unlikely to be in a position to form a government. And politically, UKIP would surely never agree to coalition with the Tories – I believe Farage has all but ruled it out already.

      On the rest of your post – *if* there was a suitable alternative candidate to Ed waiting in the wings, who was both clearly more popular with the public and acceptable to the whole party, you’d be right. But as far as I can tell, there isn’t. In which case a leadership contest before the election would most likely simply cause further unnecessary damage to the party. Take a look at the troubles of Australia’s Labor Party for an example to avoid.

      Reply
  3. botzarelli

    I think you can be divisive if you have policies/values/strategies which would offset any loss of membership with gaining support from outside a party. That in turn leads the sensible majority of those who are on the wrong side of the divide to decide whether they want to carry on opposing or whether it would be better to go with a winner and so to be for all real purposes, united (much as I suspect happened under Blair).

    The problem faced by both main parties in this election will be that they both need to win support from people who didn’t support them in 2010. Cameron needs to persuade enough people who voted for any other party in winnable marginals that he’d be the better PM and lead the better government, just as Miliband needs to entice not just LibDems disappointed with the coalition but also Tory voters. The task ought to be more difficult for Cameron because reaching out to LibDem and Labour voters will often expose him to persuading other supporters to head for UKIP. So attempting to win the seats the Tories need in the Midlands and Northern suburbs risks their retention of formerly safe-ish blue collar Tory seats. The threat from the left for Miliband from Greens and UKIP (whose offering in Labour seats is much more Old Labour than Thatcher) is weaker because the places they might take votes are also ones which they are unlikely to win and where neither the LibDems nor Tories are realistically going to come through the middle and gain. So, if Miliband needs to be more divisive in persuading Tory and LibDem voters in marginals at the cost of whines from the “hard left” he could do it AND get unity through the support that would follow being the likely winner.

    If he were bold he could have been more radically left wing by reversing his incoherent position on the EU. Most of his policies/values announced over the last 4 years would fit better with a policy of exit from the EU. Commentators like Richard Murphy have started coming out against free movement of workers and it is implicit in things like Owen Jones’ bemoaning of Luxembourg’s tax haven policies that there should at least be sympathy for attacking freedom of establishment and free movement of capital. Debates over TTIP and the application of competition law to the NHS would be much easier to sell to the general public. And the policies which would come out of it would sit better in Labour’s mouths than in UKIP’s.

    http://botzarelli.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/is-miliband-quietly-leading-the-uk-out-of-the-eu/

    Reply
  4. Madasafish

    Political history teaches that after a long spell in Government, the Party which has held power and then lost it, needs to reinvent itself. New policies, junking the failed and out-of-date of ideas and recognising the reality of the future are needed.

    Just as important is the jettisoning of the failed old guard – those associated with the old regime which (ultimately ) collapsed.

    See Atlee, Harold Wilson/Callaghan, Mrs Thatcher – all had large majorities at one time.. and all eventually lost and were replaced for a decade or more by the Opposition.

    So what has Mr Miliband actually done on policy which makes a coherent appeal to “hard pressed” voters? An energy price freeze – which is then followed by a collapse in word wide energy prices… And? err lots of words but little of substance. Save the NHS? Well it is struggling but there has been increased funding..

    The EU ? No change. Immigration ? Lots of words .. no change in reality.

    And the people? Well anyone who retains Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor and expects or hopes to have any economic credibility is .. deluded.. And Burnham? The shadow of Mid Staffs hangs over him..

    So Ed has had four years to rebuild policies and people. Appeal to southern England voters? No English votes for English issues..scuppers his appeal there. For the sake of unity he has done : nothing of substance.

    So sometime or other there has to a bloodletting in the Shadow Cabinet and some real policies which appeal to voters.

    If he’s elected he’ll find a very difficult economic situation.. And he will have to find new policies then.. As President Hollande has found out, changing policies in mid term to ones you opposed when in opposition is toxic.

    Reply
    • Andreas Paterson

      This comment reads pretty much like a Tory attack line, I you’re going to concern troll at least learn how to be a bit more subtle about sneaking in your talking points.

      Incidentally Hollande never really changed his policies all that much, Hollande’s opposition to austerity never went beyond his pre-election rhetoric.

      Reply
  5. SpinningHugo

    I think you have underestimated the impact of the coup that wasn’t.

    So, there could be no formal challenge, we are beyond the last conference before the election and so the rules don’t permit one. AJ had made is as clear as anyone could have done that he was not going to be leader (strange how the man defeated by Harman for the deputy leadership is now thought of as the great hope). There are no other really strong candidates for conspirators to rally behind (although that may be slightly unfair on Cooper). So the party grandees were not in a position to ask the leader to stand down.

    But.

    If Labour doesn’t get back into government in 2015 it is now clear that the current leader would have to go. This non-event has made it quite clear that the plan to imitate Kinnock and have another crack at it could not be done. The PLP won’t stand for it.

    Indeed, comparing Kinnock and Miliband is instructive. Kinnock kept the party united in days of far deeper ideological splits (TB/GB was always more about personalities). He commanded far more loyalty amongst the party (ie amongst people like me), and was thought even by his enemies to have many qualities (he was a great orator). It is hard t imagine Miliband giving a speech as good as Kinnock’s “I warn you” pre-election address. That is why he got two goes at the task. The current leader will not.

    The post-2015 world was the significance of this week. It told us nothing of interest about the election or the run up to it.

    Reply
    • Phil Woodford

      I agree that comparing Kinnock and MIliband is probably unfair to Kinnock, who had more charisma and passion. On the other hand, his ‘I warn you’ speech preached to the choir and had absolutely no impact on the election result in 1983. Michael Foot was the leader at the time, of course. I increasingly think that Foot is the better historical parallel to Miliband. They are both extremely well-meaning intellectuals, who somehow lack the ability to connect with the electorate. During the 83 election campaign, the NEC held a news conference at which they confirmed that Foot WAS indeed the Leader of the Labour Party. One wonders whether similar kind of reassurance will be required in 2015.

      Reply
      • SpinningHugo

        I have always thought that the closest parallel to EM is not a Labour leader but IDS. Elected for who he wasn’t, rather than for who he was. No majority support among the Parliamentary party. Promoted beyond his ability. Appealing to only the very hardcore of the party.

        Foot was a bad leader, but in other ways a wholly admirable man with many qualities. I also doubt whether the 83 election could have been won whoever was leader, given the Falklands War. Perhaps Healey could have prevented the SDP, and the march back have been swifter.

        Reply
  6. Newmania

    Well its a little disingenuous isn’t it. Ed Milliband got the job by promising to look after the Unions who duly paid for his campaign and voted for him .
    It has subsequently been decided he was the unity candidate which means he did not challenge Union power or Party member power on behalf of voters . He has failed to do so since and is too weak to establish any clear line.
    There is also a problem with the man , during the conference season he was compared to David Cameron and found wanting .I cannot recall , easily, an example of such personal failure . In fact he was so awful you wonder if anonymity was the plan , and it may well have been. If so it has gone horribly wrong .

    Just a thought about trying to equate the Europe wars with Labour`s dismay at having picked a loser. I don`t think it has the same force it once had . It as if Labour are not involved at all in the question of the day while the action is all on the right .

    Reply
  7. Roger Fitzwilliams

    Labour leaders have to fight very hard to lose general elections, and in that sense, Miliband is landing a knock out punch.

    Reply
  8. Newmania

    One astute commentator said this about Ed Milliband

    In short, the case against Ed Miliband is that even if he is personally bold, his political strategy means he will end up not being a Leader, but a figurehead for the desires of a Party he cannot master.

    and

    I think a social democrat, soft left strategy will be popular.I’m just not sure it’ll be popular enough………..We’ve fought a lot of elections under Soft left banners. Some of Ed Miliband’s team have been key advisers in such fights.We usually lost.Why would it be different with Ed?

    Why indeed; and Hopi has not drifted far from this analysis since . Where his prediction was wrong was that he failed to see the how personally unattractive Ed Milliband would be but it was a long time ago now

    Reply

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