The factions square up

There is, as ever within Labour, a third way, and this one seeks a return to the party's true values

The battle lines are now drawn and the fight for the soul of the Labour Party has begun in earnest. In some ways this is a blessed relief. David Miliband's pre-holiday intervention in the Guardian lanced a disfiguring conspiratorial boil that had been festering for far too long. The candidate of the "anyone but Miliband" campaign has yet to emerge, but already there is talk of a union-backed "bloke ticket" of the former deputy leadership candidates Jon Cruddas and Alan Johnson.

For ten years Labour had been a fragile but effective coalition. Now it is once more a set of factions, united only by the belief that Gordon Brown's leadership is heading for the buffers. Only a shift to the Blairite right or the social-democratic left, or a profound reshaping of the government's message in the centre, will rescue the party from oblivion. Gordon Brown's failure to communicate Labour's message is now identified as a potentially terminal problem from the cabinet down. Some ministers generously suggest that the government bears a collective responsibility for failing to get the message across, while others are more direct in their criticism of the Prime Minister. But the real question is whether insurrection will provide the remedy.

There is a possibility that David Miliband has moved too early. By tilting at the Prime Minister so aggressively, he has unbalanced himself, unsettling the Parliamentary Labour Party by such an open act of disloyalty and alienating himself from the unions and the grass roots. At the same time it has opened up the space for the centre-left Compass group of MPs to stake its claim to represent a different vision of the future of the Labour Party: more collectivist, more hostile to the private sector and unashamedly egalitarian. At present, Compass is the faction shouting the loudest in the Labour ranks. Its campaign for a windfall tax on the energy and oil companies is an obvious move to take ownership of the conscience of the Labour Party.

Both groups claim to have the ideas. The "modernisers" coalescing around Miliband have the backing of the Blairites in the Progress group within the Labour Party. Its ideologues are Richard Reeves, the new director of Demos, and Phil Collins, a former Downing Street adviser and speechwriter for Tony Blair. Their "Liberalise or Die" argument suggests that Labour needs to move away from its centralising, statist roots in order to survive in the 21st century. In contrast, the Compass group, led by Neal Lawson, a former lobbyist and adviser to Brown, has argued for a "conversation about tax". Writing in the Independent on Sunday on 3 August, Cruddas reformulated a familiar Labour mantra: "tax cuts for the many, and a fairer share from the super-rich".

There is, as ever within the Labour Party, a third way. This was outlined by John Denham in a Sunday Times article at the weekend urging an end to leadership speculation. In a call for a return to the true values of new Labour, an eminently moderate Denham wrote: "The future needs as much personal ambition and success as the past but most of us will succeed only if we also take care of the common good."

The logic of Denham's position is that Labour cannot present the public with a second unelected leader, so it must redefine its values under a Brown premiership. There is also talk of the need for a Chris Patten figure to act as cheerleader for the party, as the Tory chairman did in the run-up to the 1992 election to cover for John Major's inadequacies. More likely will be the emergence of a praetorian guard of seasoned TV and radio performers to protect Brown from the growing hostility of the media.

A comeback for Prescott?

One figure who may yet make a play for the Patten role is the former deputy party leader John Prescott, who has re-entered the fray as an unlikely blogger on the LabourHome website. His "campaign for a fourth term not a fourth leader" challenges MPs to put an end to the speculation and return to constituency campaigning (his maths isn't dodgy, by the way; he's including John Smith in his calculations). Unfortunately, in his second blog he likened the PM to the captain of the Titanic, but Prescott's re-emergence could yet prove significant.

A textual analysis of the Miliband, Cruddas and Denham articles shows that the three men have much in common. Indeed, there are those on the "liberalising" wing of the party who are very worried about Miliband's social-democratic, centralising tendencies. One conspirator said this past week: "The only concern about David is that he would turn out to be just like Gordon."

Miliband has been done no favours by the "über-Blairite" Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn, who have made it plain he is their candidate of choice. If he looks like he is their creature, his leadership bid is finished. The much-trailed reshuffle will be the most dangerous moment for all concerned. If Brown does not act against Miliband he will be seen as weak, but what if the young pretender does not agree to be shuffled? There is already talk among the insurgents of using a reshuffle to kick off a full-scale revolt.

It would almost certainly be fatal for Brown if several ministers refused new posts and returned to the back benches. The Prime Minister might be faced with the prospect of being able to reshuffle only his closest allies (as their loyalty is assured). His safest route may well be not to reshuffle at all.

But battle has been joined, and everywhere you look the martial metaphors are flying. Some are talking the language of modern warfare. This is an "asymmetric conflict", with one side top-heavy and the other side bottom-heavy.

Miliband has powerful ministerial friends including some at cabinet level. His base in the parliamentary party is weak, however, and polls suggest that his move against Brown has damaged his popularity with party members and Labour voters. The Cruddas faction recognises it has its own weaknesses, but it is ready for the war. One senior Compass figure admitted: "They have a few potential leaders but don't have the troops on the ground. We may not have the leaders yet, but we certainly have the troops."

Cabinet moderates such as John Denham may talk the language of peace, but it may already be too late.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

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Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.