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Challenge Labour and you'll find a horse's head on your pillow

It's all-round compulsory happy time in Labour ranks.

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the local election results with a Labour MP. I explained that my initial reaction had been that they were very good for Labour, especially in terms of number of seats won, but I was concerned that the party hadn’t been able to break through the 40 per cent barrier.

He nodded and said: “Thirty-eight per cent in midterm local elections, with the country falling back into recession, the cuts and the shambles the Tories are in. It’s nowhere near good enough.” Then he shook his head. “But you won’t find anyone saying that, of course.”

Several days later I was chatting to someone who had spent the day at the annual conference of Progress, the New Labour pressure group, and sat through Ed Miliband’s speech. His response was scathing. Could I quote him, off the record? “No. Sorry. We’re all being terribly positive at the moment.”

The next day I phoned a shadow cabinet adviser. “The worst thing is we were just starting to make some headway. The shadow cabinet was beginning to put down some markers on the economy and not just the usual suspects. Now everyone’s going to have to shut up and bite their tongue.”

And, on the whole, they have. The muttering against the leader has ceased. The demands for a more credible stance on deficit reduction and on how the party should respond to the cuts have been muted. Even Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson are reportedly poised to become paid-up members of Generation Ed. Labour is united. But united behind what exactly? A solid but unremarkable opinion poll lead? The Tories’ spring omnishambles? François Hollande storming the Bastille of austerity?

No debate

All of which may be a genuine cause for optimism. Or a recipe for complacency. But we’re not going to be finding out, at least in the short term, because such things are not up for discussion. Labour is instead opting for a period of dignified, and comfortable, reflection. Reflection, rather than dialogue. Or debate.

To look out across the Labour movement at the moment is to see an ocean of tranquillity. The party’s “refounding” has been completed; the contentious elements such as a reduction in union conference votes, a directly elected chair and open leadership primaries quietly shelved. The early new year unpleasantness between the leadership and the union leaders has been smoothed over; there is precious little talk now of “tough choices” or “having to keep all these cuts”. The policy review has been removed from the perfidious grasp of the ultra-New Labourite Liam Byrne and dropped into the lap of the party pin-up Jon Cruddas. “Independent-minded” Jon Cruddas, no less, just in case at some point down the road a touch of deniability is required.

Since the Budget, a window of opportunity has opened up for Labour, with George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Sayeeda Warsi and Francis Maude all hurtling out of it. However, Ed Miliband, for reasons best known to him, remains reluctant to scramble through this inviting aperture.

In the past month alone, we have witnessed the crisis in the eurozone, Syria’s descent into barbarism, the deepening of Britain’s double-dip recession, the Rochdale rape scandal, the collapse of the UK’s manufacturing base and government schism over universality of benefits. In response, Labour’s leader has announced a voter registration drive, a call for greater respect for vocational qualifications and a plea to embrace our Englishness, all the while clinging tenaciously to the comfort blanket of the Leveson inquiry into media practices and ethics.

Yet within Labour ranks, this strategy (or anti-strategy) is greeted with silent approval. Perhaps wisely, given that those who do opt to question the current “consensus” risk waking to find the equivalent of a horse’s head on their pillow. We have had Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, taking out a political contract on Ed Balls, Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg – the four shadow ministers who have been branded the “horsemen of the austerity apocalypse”.

MPs who fail to show McCluskey and his union appropriate respect have been threatened with the removal of constituency support. Byrne, who dared think the unthinkable on welfare reform, was subjected to what colleagues called “a punishment beating” as he fought to retain his place in the shadow cabinet. Maurice Glasman, who challenged the liberal orthodoxy on social policy, is now confined to what is described as “house arrest”. Progress is facing a concerted effort to see it expelled from the party. And even those idealistic dreamers at Compass are about to be elbowed aside by “Class”, the new union-funded think tank pledging to “cement a broad alliance of social forces and influence policy development to ensure the political agenda is on the side of working people”.

Union heavies

The New Politics was supposed to be open, inclusive and pluralistic. Instead, it is being ushered through the labour movement, head bowed, by a bodyguard of old-fashioned union muscle, Twitter warriors and street activists. To stand in the way of this “progressive” entourage is to invite accusations of being a traitor, a Tory, or, worse still, a Blairite.

To be fair to Ed Miliband, he is aware of, and not entirely comfortable with, this new tyranny of loyalty. “I think this is a bit over the top,” one Miliband supporter confided to me after Anthony Painter and Hopi Sen, the fiscal credibility advocates and authors of In the Black Labour, a pamphlet advocating greater fiscal responsibility, found themselves under sustained attack for lacking “ambition and integrity” from the pro-leadership website Shifting Grounds.

That’s where we are. In the perennial battle between loyalists and pragmatists, it is the loyalists who hold the whip hand. And they plan on using it. Which will simply demonstrate that no consensus at all has been reached among Labour’s various factions. Instead, we are witnessing a shift in the internal balance of power: sceptics neither courted nor convinced, but neutered. “We’re in survival mode,” conceded a Blairite shadow cabinet source.
But for how long? Before finishing this piece, I spoke to a Labour MP who talked eloquently about his frustrations with the leadership. “Can I print that?” I asked. “No,” he said, “not at the moment.” Then he paused. “Soon, though.”

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare