Former SDP leader David Owen said he had donated to Labour to help it "rescue our NHS". Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Owen joins Miliband's big tent with donation to Labour of more than £7,500

With the former SDP leader, Tony Blair and Len McCluskey all backing his reforms, Miliband has built an impressively large coalition of support.

David Owen is so impressed by Ed Miliband's party reforms that he's donated more than £7,500 to Labour (the exact figure has not been announced but £7,500 is the legal threshold for declaration). As party treasurers estimate the cost of Miliband's reforms, it's money that will be gratefully received. Labour figures have long hoped that the former SDP leader, who has previously spoken of his admiration for Miliband (and is close to him and his strategist Stewart Wood), could be persuaded to rejoin the party. He hasn't (yet) - he will now sit as an "independent social democrat" rather than a crossbench peer in the House of Lords - but his decision to donate is still a significant endorsement of Miliband.

Owen's stated reason for giving money is to help Labour "rescue our NHS". He was one of the fiercest opponents of the coalition's health reforms (as a former GP) and warned in the New Statesman in 2011 that "[if] the Liberal Democrats cannot call a halt to or, at the very least, slow down, these ill-conceived health reforms they will no longer be able to claim to be the heirs of Beveridge" (they did not). He said last night:

This is a brave and bold reform ... and one I strenuously argued for as a Labour MP at the special conference on Saturday 25 January 1981. This very desirable change, nevertheless, threatens to weaken Labour's financial support at a critical time, when I and many others are hoping to see the party produce a plan for government from May next year to rescue our NHS. Saving the NHS is my main political priority, and I suspect that of many others.

To help Labour reverse the 2012 NHS legislation without yet another major reorganisation, I have made a declarable contribution of over £7,500 to Labour funds. Unless there is a change of government, the NHS in England will be completely destroyed by 2020.

In response, Miliband said:

Today Labour has come together and shown the courage needed to change our party. The reforms agreed today are supported across the party, by trade union general secretaries, grassroots activists and former prime ministers.

In the 80s and 90s these reforms were seen as impossible but there is broad consensus within the Labour Party that change must happen. That is testament to how far we have come as a movement.

Lord Owen’s support today is welcome. It is 33 years since he left our party and much has happened since. In our many conversations over the past few years, I have come to value his friendship and insight into politics. I value his support and respect his decision to remain an independent member of the House of Lords.

With Tony Blair, Len McCluskey and Owen all enthusiastically backing the reforms, Miliband has built an impressively large tent (as I said last night). One of the quiet successes of his leadership has been maintaining the support of all wings of the party, while also attracting support from former Lib Dems and other progressives.

Before he announced that public spending would be cut under a Labour government, many predicted that the unions would break with the party and run their own candidates. Others warned that Miliband's repudiation of New Labour would lead to Blairite resignations. But both fears proved mistaken. Miliband has retained the support of all Labour's affiliated unions and leading Blairite figures (Stephen Twigg, Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne) have chosen to accept demotions, rather than retreat to the backbenches. The maintenance of party unity is one of the key reasons why he is in a strong position to win the general election next year.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage