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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.