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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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.