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30 September 2021

Labour has become two parties. Can anybody make it one again?

Three things make today’s battles fiercer than those in the 1980s: the internet, identity politics and the evaporation of party loyalty.

By Paul Mason

Brighton, midnight, the bar at the Metropole Hotel. On the one side, burly trade union officials, veterans of the Cold War Labour right, more expert in averting strikes than leading them. On the other, young left-wingers in jeans and trainers, nursing plastic bags full of leaflets and newspapers, smuggled in by the few MPs who will talk to them.

As the rival groups jostle each other at the bar, stacked three deep with people trying to get served, banter turns into arguments – about the route to power, the meaning of socialism, the traditions of the towns they come from.

But the arguments are civil. They buy each other pints. They have a shared language, shared interests, shared political culture. There are no gratuitous insults thrown, for the very simple reason that, as part of that political culture, they would be swiftly followed by punches.

But this is the Labour Party conference in the mid-1980s. Before Twitter, before algorithms, before the union delegations were populated by women, people of colour and LGBT members. The “fringe” in the 1980s was a dull affair: meeting rooms were booked – to discuss Kurdistan, or Nicaragua – but rubber chicken dinners, provided free by the unions, in white linen hotels were more attractive.

Even the annual Tribune rally, fronted by veterans of the Cold War left, threw its critiques at the Kinnock leadership with good humour – a humour born out of the knowledge that it was already powerless; that the working world from which the shared culture came was doomed; and the intuition that the USSR, whose cultural diplomats dutifully rocked up with a stall every year, would probably go the same way.

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By contrast, this year’s Labour Party conference was the most fractious I can remember. If the left and right are a Venn diagram, then the overlap is down to a sliver the shape of a cuticle. As someone trying to inhabit that sliver it’s been painful.

At The World Transformed, the vibrant and largely good-humoured political education festival aligned with Momentum, I was heckled for suggesting that, while Boris Johnson has personality, Starmer has character. About half the people in the tent were outraged at the suggestion that there is any moral difference between a man who spent his life upholding the rule of law and the charlatan in Downing Street. And it was not mock outrage. It is a genuinely held belief among a large cohort of political activists on the left that Starmer is a corrupt liar in the pockets of the Trilateral Commission.

These activists are not the majority, and at left events you could see their dismay when, for example, John McDonnell told them: “The left’s task is to build party unity; to be the best fighters for it.” What’s entered Labour politics, and I can trace the start of it to the moment people realised Brexit was going to split Corbynism early in 2019, is a politics of denunciation.

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It is not confined to the left. As a despairing section of the left reacts to suspensions and expulsions with the kind of aimless, random and vindictive heckling Starmer faced during his speech, parts of the right – especially those schooled in Trot-baiting during the period of “high Blairism” – are responding in kind. “Crawl back to the undergrowth where you belong,” one Starmer staffer said of the left. A Labour councillor asked a senior politician to my face, as if I wasn’t actually there, “can we trust him?”

Bad faith is assumed on all sides. Of course the mainstream media don’t really see this, because they’re mainly outsiders to the movement and they count standing ovations as if they were spontaneous and real. The leadership, ferried from one hand-picked reception to the next, and never setting foot in the big and vibrant left fringe scene, experiences it only vicariously via Twitter replies. 

I left Brighton more convinced than I have been at any time in the last ten years that Labour has become, in reality, two parties. It is exactly the two parties northern working-class voters describe in focus groups: one focused on climate change, individual rights and minorities; the other focused on mild redistribution, collective rights and the management of capitalism.

Keir Starmer chose the eve of conference to signal he had ripped up the ten policy pledges he stood on in 2020 the leadership contest. For me, that signalled that the deal we thought we had with Starmer is over. I don’t want to depose him. I don’t support those who heckled him. I don’t want anybody to challenge him for the leadership. But the move away from energy nationalisation, when the UK’s energy security is in ruins and the demands for decarbonisation are urgent, signals his new priorities.

Almost every move is driven by the continuous polls and focus groups the party conducts in the Red Wall. If energy nationalisation sounds unpopular to ten potential Tory swing voters on a cold Thursday night in Morley and Outwood, it has to go. It’s left Starmer looking, and sounding, like somebody trying to hold the party together with string and tape – because that’s all that is left once you renege on the policy platform your supporters signed up to.

What makes today’s battles and purges all the more toxic are three things we didn’t have in the 1980s: the internet, identity politics and the evaporation of party loyalty.

The working-class men, left and right, who jostled each other at the bar in the 1980s, saw the Labour Party as a single and historic lifeboat for working people. You might fight for control of the rudder, and occasionally throw somebody overboard for mutiny, but you would never knowingly sink it. From the experience of Change UK, to the Labour leaks report, to the destructive behaviour of figures such as Chris Williamson, numerous factions are acting as if Labour’s days as a single party are numbered.

Social media, in addition, accelerates and amplifies all anger, outrage and disgust. When, at a fringe meeting, I told my story of physical abuse at a Catholic grammar school, I saw faces in the crowd smirking and came off the stage to find one left-wing “anon” had tweeted “the priest should have hit him harder”. I understand where this level of anger and dehumanisation comes from because I’ve spent two years studying it on the far right. It comes from acute powerlessness, combined with the normalisation of extreme language and outrage in the echo chamber of the political bubble.

I do not disparage identity politics but what it’s doing to political debate at a time when it is already too fractious. Every contact between the two de facto parties, even contact aimed at dialogue and constructive engagement, results in one side accusing the other of violating someone’s rights, through racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or transphobia. Bad faith motives are the default assumption.

And then there’s the inexorable weakening of party loyalty. Because the SNP,  Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Lib Dems all offer career paths, kudos, and support networks, few Labour members actually fear exclusion. 

Observing the battles at Brighton from the position of a would-be bridge builder and mediator, I think there are people on the traditional right and the extreme left who already no longer care if the Labour Party succeeds or fails.

This was preventable and could still be reversed. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s surprise, spectacular pledge to spend £224bn by 2030 on climate investment could be the framework for an uneasy but constructive joint effort. 

But when Reeves dropped her planned bombshell, the hardest of the left delegations on the floor were seen shaking their heads, folding their arms and harrumphing. She’s stolen our policy. She won’t deliver. She’ll hand it all to Serco. And anyway, it’s Rachel Reeves. These were some of the themes I heard muttered after she’d finished her speech.

So it’s still up to the leadership, the membership and the left. The left is clearly still a major force in the Constituency Labour Parties. That’s why so much of Fleet Street wanted Starmer to “do a Kinnock” on the hecklers. Signal all-out war. To his credit, despite sore provocation, he did not.

If we can’t have a leadership prepared to stick to elementary social-democratic pledges, the left needs to unite its various factions, sub-factions, mini media empires and rival MP groups around the single project of reversing the anti-democratic rule changes and – ironically – restoring the party’s commitment to Starmer’s ten pledges.

When we, in the Starmer campaign, drafted those pledges, we did so calculating that this agenda would form a default centre of gravity for the warring factions. I still think that is right. That is how I believe Labour can win enough seats to demolish the Tories’ majority and put proportional representation on the agenda.

But a lot of people will have to calm down. If we lose the Labour Party as the single vehicle for working-class politics in Britain during the next ten years, so be it, but I’d rather not and I will resist every gratuitous conflict that makes it more likely. 

[see also: Labour after the flood]