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This isn't the end. It's just a phase Labour has to go through

Far from ending its terminal phase, Labour is merely repeating recent history, says Kevin Meagher.

Reports of the Labour party’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite endless hyperbole in recent weeks about its “existential crisis” and growing fears about left-wing entryism, the party is actually just living out the age-old pathology of its renewal cycle: Govern. Disappoint. Backlash. Strife. Modernisation. Govern.

Yes, the party is in a deep fug, but every Labour generation has undergone this process following a period in office because every Labour government has ended up disappointing its core supporters, to varying degrees. Even the sainted Attlee saw three members of his Cabinet quit over the imposition of NHS charges.

In short, there’s nothing new about Labour’s current predicament. Every period in government in the party’s history has been followed by a backlash and subsequent period of internecine strife. It happened in the 1930s after the disastrous experience in office between 1929 and 1931 and the subsequent McDonald split. The party didn’t govern again until 1945.

Then again, in the 1950s, the Bevanites and Gaitskellites tore into each other after the 1951 defeat. Thirteen years in the wilderness followed before Harold Wilson led the party back to power in 1964. While the legendary feuding in the 1980s almost destroyed the party, keeping it out of office for 18 long years.

Why does Labour experience this organisational self-harm after it loses power? Why does the Labour tribe always turn on each other with such venom? Perhaps the bar for success is set high for centre-left parties. If your politics is rooted in wanting to change the world and your leaders only manage to make it better, then that is, relatively speaking, failure.

And, so, the conflict between the party’s idealists and pragmatists has raged for a century. So despite the many shining achievements of the Blair-Brown years their record in easily shaded out by those who see only their shortcomings, (the flaw, perhaps, of Brown’s “redistribution by stealth?”)

As we’re now seeing in opinion polls and the share out of constituency party nominations for Labour’s next leader, there is a sizable chunk of the membership – or more precisely the activist base – that is decidedly more left-wing than the parliamentary party and largely discounts the most recent experience/ achievements of government. This is the backlash phase, with activists angry at the accommodations of the last Labour government and the inability of the party in opposition to oppose austerity more full-bloodedly.

Indeed, the generation of activists whose politics were shaped by the bitter recollections of those four election defeats during the 1980s and early 1990s seems to be giving way to a younger generation that has not yet earned the scars on its backs turning the party into a viable election winner.

You can see it in their Twitter user profiles, loudly proclaiming their adherence to socialism or feminism. It’s not enough to imply it; it has to be proudly stated. These Macbook revolutionaries eventually follow a well-worn path where youthful idealism is eventually tempered by personal ambition. Ask former CND member, Tony Blair.

So, right now, the party is essentially split, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, between those who accept dealing with the world as it is and a new generation of fiery activists who look at the world as it could be and ask: “why not?”

Their rise is Ed Miliband’s legacy. His 35 per cent strategy was explicitly aimed at avoiding the hard choices around economy policy and welfare reform that created space for the fuzzy thinking of the “if-we-only-believe-hard-enough” crowd.

In Miliband’s defence, his calculations were driven by the need to keep the Labour family together. However, by failing to confront the ‘backlash’ and ‘strife’ phases following defeat in 2010, he simply postponed them. Hence, the current infighting.

The modernisation phase he left to his successor. But starting it is no straightforward task. If the process is rushed, a paralysing schism becomes inevitable. Kinnock knew that, as did the impatient Gaitskell. Push the party too hard too early and it will break. Previous leaders embarking on the modernisation phase were forced to fight one battle at a time in a drawn-out process of attrition. (Blair was fortunate in having the spade work done for him by Kinnock and Smith). So, by long and painful tradition, they relied on the inefficient and idiosyncratic use of multiple election defeats to give modernisation extra impetus.

In today’s party, this sees the pragmatists worry that the task of winning back middle-class voters in key marginal seats, who need reassuring that their big mortgage, two cars and foreign holidays will not be jeopardised by a Labour government expecting them to pay “a bit more tax,” will be fudged.

But any prospect of victory in 2020 has also got to see the party win back seats in Scotland too, where the SNP cleaned-up by campaigning to the left of Labour. It also needs to claw back those “left behind” voters in the North and Midlands who either stayed at home or switched to UKIP and who want a dose of the old religion. At the same time, it must please the urban modernists who see only positive effects from a fast-changing Britain.

Making sense of these mixed signals from the electorate provides a fillip for all sections of opinion within the party. Does Labour heed the call from Middle England for a return to Blairite pragmatism, or listen to the heartlands’ plea for a more familiar redistributionist agenda? Did Labour lose in 2015 because it was too left wing or because it was not left wing enough? No single narrative dominates the party’s thinking so modernisation needs to be pursued incrementally.

It’s all much easier for the Tories. The historian Andrew Roberts once remarked that an entire generation of Tory politicians were “emasculated” by their cataclysmic rout in 1945, when they lost 190 seats. Yet Sir Winston Churchill was returned as prime minister just six years later.

Perhaps, if your politics are mainly about preserving a set of beliefs, (or, in the Conservatives’ case, a social order) and modernity overruns that position, it is much easier to simply accept the new reality and move on, as the Tories did after 1945, accepting the Attlee government’s new settlement and contenting themselves to run it better than the socialists.

It’s probably harder for a centre-left party to move on so quickly. Labour people – from Corbyn to Kendall – didn’t come into politics to see people suffer and will always seek to mitigate their condition, to a greater or lesser degree. Supporting the government’s public spending cuts, at a time when so many people are in such need, does not come easy to anyone in the Labour family.

Ultimately, Labour will survive – as it always has done before. If it can come back from the Ground Zero of the SDP split and the 1983 general election annihilation, it can withstand anything. But this is not a quick process. The renewal cycle needs to be played out in full until a single dominant modernising story emerges that, however grudgingly, all sides accept. 

The bad news is that this might not be the final leadership process until the party gets to that point.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories