Leaving the Labour Party is not easy; nearly a year after the event, you still follow the debates, discuss things with your former comrades, still feel a certain emotional pull. The Labour Party is far too much like a family – admittedly one, to misquote Orwell, with the wrong members in control – for its own good; it means Labour Party people find it hard to be dispassionate.
I’ve been made acutely aware of this by the reaction of many of my former comrades to the news that Jess Phillips is to stand as Labour leader. To an outsider it seems a little like the Second Coming – or, perhaps a more appropriate analogy given what Labour has become under Corbyn, the hopeful diagnosis emerging from a long battle against an aggressive cancer. And I’m very aware of the moral pressure on we, the departed: will you rejoin to save the Party you loved? To vote for a return to real Labour politics and values?
The answer is, no: it isn’t that simple. My problem is certainly not with Jess Phillips, whose biggest advantage appears to be that she’s a fully paid-up member of the human race; I respect her directness, her emotional honesty, her hinterland (running a women’s refuge while her critics were discussing obscure points of doctrine over the quinoa), her obvious belief in creating a better world; and the fact that she has an admirable gift for getting up the noses of all the right people. Above all, she has the ability to connect. You may not especially like what she says; but at least she doesn’t patronise you by not saying it, or finding weasel words.
But the real questions amidst all of this are – what is needed to make Labour a serious progressive party once again? And what difference will electing a different kind of leader make?
It’s worth casting an eye back to 1983, that catastrophic general election defeat and the leadership election that followed it; and to the struggle that Neil Kinnock faced to defeat Militant, and to restore Labour to electability.
First, some statistics. Neil Kinnock was elected leader – and Roy Hattersley his deputy – on a “dream ticket” that attracted 71% of the total votes cast and more than 90% of the votes of Party members. It was about as unanimous a vote as you could ever expect; there was never any argument about Kinnock’s mandate. Moreover – and crucially – Kinnock’s background was firmly on the left; it gave him a moral authority in dealing with entrism by an organisation which – like the Momentum today – had aims and objectives that were fundamentally incompatible with Labour’s values and constitution.
And, crucially, Kinnock had the Labour organisation behind him. Kinnock’s candidacy had the backing of the unions; and he was supported by a Labour organisation that functioned and did what it was supposed to do to protect Labour’s values and structures against entrism.
But the problem today is that the entrists now are the structure. The Leader’s Office and the higher ranks of the Party’s orgnaisation are populated by people from outside the Labour Party – people in some cases whose entire political careers have been forged in opposition to Labour values and structures. The Unions, similarly, are unlikely to contemplate change – not least since their declining relevance in the real world is likely only to increase their determination to keep a grip on Labour’s structures.
In other words, whoever becomes the Leader of the Labour Party will inherit a structure whose aim and purpose will be to push back against any change. In 1983, Kinnock and his allies controlled the Party structures and kicking Militant out of the party was an epic bloody battle that nearly destroyed Labour. A new leader who wants to effect change will be faced by a party organisation, by unions, and by constituency parties which are all controlled by people who are ideologically committed to resisting that change.
And so my question for those who are rejoining in order to vote for Jess Phillips, or Keir Starmer, or anyone else who wants to challenge the Corbynite mindset that has just gifted the Tories their Brexit and a majority of 80, is: how far are you prepared to fight? How far are you prepared to become active in your CLP, to organise against the cultists of Momentum, or to take on the comfortably-salaried union apparatchiks who sustain, and are sustained by, Union leaderships who back and fund the cultists?
For what its worth, four years of Corbynism – of granstanding, of posturing, of Jew-baiting, of closed Brexitering – have convinced me that while the values that sustained Labour for a century have never been important, the Labour Party as an organisation is rotting from the core outwards, and no longer deserves the respect or loyalty of its erstwhile supporters: to say, as some will no doubt, that they were born in Labour and will die in Labour, and that they will never leave, is in my view a piece of sentimental self-indulgence, a determination to feel good about themselves while the people who have traditionally looked to Labour for support – the poor, the vulnerable – feel the full force of Johnson and his ideological Brexit. As Tawney wrote in his classic essay on the choices before Labour in 1931, to kick over an idol you must first get up off your knees.
I do not believe that a new leader of any persuasion can win the fight; ultimately, I do not believe the Labour Party as an organisation – as distinct from the values that animated it for most of its history – is worth saving. It is no longer fit for purpose as a vehicle for progressive, democratic, rational politics. To perpetuate it makes progress less, not more likely.
A very long-standing Labour member – more than thirty years – told me at the time of her resignation that it wasn’t the Labour Party any more. It had the name and the assets, but nothing of the values that inspired her to join as a teenager remained. I can fully agree with that view. And, however personally admirable Jess Phillips may be, my own judgement is that neither she – nor any of the other candidates – is in a position to change that. Progressives need to be ruthlessly realistic, not idealistic about where Labour stands now.