The Lib Dems and Labour need to remember why their activists go into politics

Activists shouldn't be dismissed as 'naïve' or 'immature' for expecting politicians to deliver on party policy.

While everyone else got irate about Kim Howells kicking off a 'unions vs. Blairites row' in his The World this Weekend interview (and I’m not about to intrude on private grief), I was shouting at the radio for a whole different reason. I appear to be in a minority of one, but why is it acceptable for senior politicians to say stuff like this about their own activists:

There are a lot of people inside the Labour movement who hate being in government because it means making very difficult decisions. They’d rather be a ginger group outside, they’d rather be calling for what we used to call ‘impossibilism’ because it sounded good and they fitted their rhetoric. It’s a nonsense of course…

Is it really a nonsense? And is it really "impossibilism"? I only ask because the progressive wing of politics seems to be terribly good at telling the folk who’ve been traipsing up and down the streets, banging on doors and shoving leaflets through letterboxes, that expecting their politicians to deliver some elements of party policy when they’re in power is 'naïve', a sign of political 'immaturity' or 'wishful thinking' and that we need to 'get real'. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Lib Dem councillors were told that:

If we try and turn back the clock, hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition, seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take, we condemn our party to the worst possible fate - irrelevance, impotence, slow decline.

Now, I don’t think anyone expects their party to go into government and not make tough decisions. But it's not the tough decisions that get the activists irked. It’s the decisions that appear to be the diametrical opposite of either party philosophy or party policy that get everyone worked up. And if we didn’t, you fear that the Snooper's Charter would now be on the statute books and the original NHS white paper might have gone through on the nod.

It does seem odd to me that politicians can’t see that one of the reasons their stock is not so much in the gutter as several layers further down is exactly because they duck the difficult philosophical decisions in favour of 'what they can get through'; and why, when backbenchers from all parties refuse to knuckle under and back the party principle, they get applauded by activists and the electorate alike.

Lest we forget:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Or to put it another way, Mr Howells: you may be happy to have "pragmatism over principle" etched on your gravestone. But it’s not why most activists go into politics.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Party members listen to a policy motion at the Liberal Democrat conference on September 25, 2012 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Getty Images.
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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.