Common ground emerges between Labour’s warring tribes

Tribalism starts to recede into the past as Labour consolidates its stance on the state.

The left has always enjoyed a good argument, but Labour's recent history has been characterised by bitter division between its warring tribes. Whether it be New Labour v Old Labour, Blairites v Brownites or Progress v Compass, the left's tribalism has been a defining feature of the past few decades. However, recently common ground has begun to emerge.

Opposition has focused the mind and humbled the chiefs of these tribes. Most of all, the competitive nature of the five-horse race that the Labour leadership contest has become has given pluralism on the left a new lease of life. A new collection of essays produced by Soundings and the Open Left project at Demos scoops out common ground between the candidates. The left is becoming defined by a debate between pluralists and centralisers rather than divisions between left and right. 

Labour's defeat has allowed those associated with New Labour reformers of public services and defenders of globalisation, such as James Purnell, to accept bravely that "because we were too hands-off with the market, we became too hands-on with the state". He argues that New Labour's attitude to globalisation "too often sounded to voters like they were on their own". The lesson of the last election, he writes, is that Labour had stopped sounding like reformers and that globalisation became "the way New Labour told the Labour Party it couldn't have what it wanted".

Unison's Heather Wakefield argues that the knowledge, commitment and experience of public-service workers was "at very best submerged in 'social partnership', generally overlooked and at worse derided". This frustration with the way social partnership was conducted is a crucial challenge for Labour's next leader, because of the divisions that the coalition's cuts agenda is certain to create within public-sector unions.

Andy Burnham's introduction of "preferred provider status" for the NHS and the social partnership with education unions was an important move away from the public-service reform agenda in Labour's second term that Ed Balls has recently criticised. But Wakefield highlights an obvious failing when she points out that Labour left the gender pay gap "to be dealt with through costly litigation rather than cheaper government intervention". Here was an obvious case of being too hands-off with the market, even when it was affecting public-sector workers.

The key common ground emerges in Jonathan Rutherford's argument that a "covenant politics" should be based on the "ethic of reciprocity". So Labour's public-service reform agenda might, in future, be grounded in the principle of mutualism, and on giving users and workers a democratic stake in the functioning of hospitals and schools. At the same time, a reform agenda in global markets would regulate the banking sector to encourage long-term sustainable investment and reform corporate governance to bring firms under greater stakeholder control -- agendas recently embraced by Ed Miliband and David Miliband, respectively.

Anthony Painter imagines that in 2015 in austerity Britain, the state will not only be smaller, but will be one in which benefit and tax credit cuts have undermined the public's faith in collective and redistributive welfare. He argues that there will be a deeper scepticism about the state among the public, which may be more difficult to reverse than simply waiting for a backlash against cuts. Again, the ethic of reciprocity is called forward as an answer, where the state creates mutualist or voluntary organisations to achieve social-democratic outcomes previously pursued by the state.

While the Labour leadership candidates seek distinction for advantage at the hustings, a new post-Labour consensus is emerging and common ground is starting to take shape. This latest essay collection is the best guide yet to the likely direction of Labour's renewal, whoever ends up as leader.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.