Open Labour: looking outward at last?

Today has seen the launch of a new, activist-inspired grouping within the Labour Party; Open Labour. It positions itself as an expression of the mainstream democratic Left within the Party. Its launch document, a letter in today’s Guardian, talks of the need for a clear anti-austerity stand from the Party, developed through open, constructive debate; it also talks about the absolute imperative of developing a narrative and a style that can win elections.

It’s a welcome development in many respects.  Open Labour places, unequivocally, opposition to austerity politics at the centre of its agenda. In doing so it appears to recognise the most important lesson from the Summer’s Labour leadership campaign; that there is a huge and growing recognition that the economic consensus around austerity has failed, on its own terms, and something different is needed.  There is deep irony in Tony Blair’s recent piece in the Spectator claiming that the Corbyn leadership is asking the wrong questions; the point is that the Corbyn leadership campaign was the only one asking the right economic questions, with the others, to the extent they addressed economics at all, simply offering warmed-over austerity-lite.  Since the election, John McDonnell has done much to flesh out what a Labour alternative might look like; it is impressive – and actually not especially radical, essentially representing a return to basic economic values in the face of a wholly ideological narrative –  but it has got lost in the noise.

Against that background Open Labour potentially addresses the need to shape and develop public debate about economics; to develop a narrative that people will trust and support at the ballot box.  And that economic narrative already exists; austerity is failing on its own terms, even against its own success criteria, and there is a properly-grounded and well-argued alternative.  But it needs to be expressed passionately, clearly and unequivocally, in terms that relate it to people’s everyday experiences.

One key question is whether, given the existence of organised ideological groupings with the Party like Progress or Momentum, Labour really needs another grouping just now.  It’s a difficult question when the internal squabbling between those groupings – organised, well-funded and apparently concerned with fighting battles from the past – is so desperately unhelpful.  Open Labour’s position appears to be that it is wholly of the Labour Party (unlike Momentum) and is volunteer-led and transparently-funded by small donations from its supporters (unlike Progress).

In any event, Labour needs overwhelmingly to look outward, not inward, if it is to build the consensus it needs to win elections. And internal debates need to be conducted in a more civil and less abusive way, especially on social media.  Can another internal grouping really deliver that?

The roots of that abuse and recrimination seem to me to lie in entitlement; those on the Labour Right refusing to accept Corbyn’s mandate, those on the Left seeing it as a way of rationalising ideological hegemony.  Neither is remotely in the Labour tradition.  Both need to realise that Corbyn’s mandate is real, based on a realisation that things have fundamentally changed and that Labour can no longer accept the framing of austerity – and that for the forseeable future the question of who leads the Party is settled; but at the same time that those changes mean that repeating the Leftist mantras of the 1980s and 1990s is a trivial and irrelevant response to the economic and social challenges of post-austerity Britain.  If Open Labour is to succeed on its own terms, it needs to understand that background.

Looking at the first three months of the Corbyn leadership, it seems clear that it needs critical friends – people who understand the fundamentals of why Corbyn won and the need to win support beyond its hardcore support.  There have been serious errors by the Leadership team, and they need to be addressed and understood, and the messengers need to be welcomed, not vilified.  If Open Labour is serious about its agenda, it has the potential to play a significant part in that process.

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