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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.