Labour coups are good for the left

Losing the election will mean a rebrand, but the cleansing process has already begun

It is a common narrative on the right that once Labour loses the next election there will be great bloodletting within the party. Labour will stumble around in the wilderness for years while failing to land any punches on the Conservatives.

But such a view fails to recognise the nature of dividing lines within the party. And, paradoxically, the recent attempted coups against Gordon Brown make such civil war even less likely.

The conventional thinking says that following defeat, the left and centrist factions within Labour will fight a bloody battle for years. Groups such as Compass will fight for a leftward shift, while the centrists from Progress will advocate staying moderate to attract independent and Tory voters. Loud civil war will ensue.

While there will be discord, various factors mitigate the risk that the party will tear itself apart. First, the biggest unspoken dividing line between the left and Labour is not economic issues, but the Iraq war. This continues to haunt Brown and still defines the party and cabinet ministers around him. It is the single biggest issue that keeps lefties away from Labour.

And so the purge of cabinet ministers through failed coups is a positive move because it has ejected those tainted by the war as well as the expenses scandal: Geoff Hoon, James Purnell, Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty and Patricia Hewitt. Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and John Prescott are no longer at the helm either.

Second, the big beasts of the centre left (Jon Cruddas, Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband) are intelligent enough to recognise that the core Labour base alone won't win them elections. Cruddas has stated this repeatedly, even to Compass members, which has not endeared him to many socialists. But the hard left, for now, remains too divided and powerless to exercise excessive influence over the party's direction.

Third, one of New Labour's distinguishing characteristics has been to avoid the mistakes of the past (industrial militancy, lack of discipline) in almost paranoid fashion. This generation knows that the longer it pursues infighting after the election, the longer it will be out in the wilderness. Once the leadership contest is out of the way, it's very likely the party will be quick to turn its fire on the Tories again.

It is also likely that new media will play a role in ensuring a degree of discipline. When Blears and Purnell resigned in June last year, and when Hoon and Hewitt made their move, there was a swift and loud backlash by Labour members and lefties online. And on both occasions there were no visible signs of support for the coups.

Once Labour is out of power, party members and the broader left alike will want to see unity pretty quickly, so that anger can be directed at the Tories. The web will play its part in ensuring this happens.

That isn't to say that economic issues are irrelevant. Labour will have to move leftwards in opposition, to differentiate itself from the Conservatives, sound more populist and accept the need for a motivated base that delivers leaflets and fights for the party. But that does not necessarily mean electoral wilderness, given that the economic crisis has, in any case, made Britons less accepting of the City's largesse.

If Labour loses the election, a new leader will have no choice but to overhaul the Labour brand and admit to mistakes of the past. That will have to include saying sorry for the Iraq war to help mend bridges with many disillusioned lefties. Helpfully, the cleansing process has already begun.

Sunny Hundal is editor of the left-wing blog Liberal Conspiracy.

This article appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman, available from all good newsagents.

 

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Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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