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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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