No other organisation in recent times has occupied such a significant role in the formation of a Labour leadership and yet appeared so nebulous. The Sunday Times on 12 November accused Labour Together of being a “secretive group” run by the “secretive guru” Morgan McSweeney, Keir Starmer’s campaign director. Its report included that in 2021 the group was fined by the Electoral Commission after being found to have breached the law in regards to the reporting of donations and other payments. Labour Together said these breaches were the fault of “human error”.
Politico has called the organisation an “influential think tank quietly shaping the direction of the party”. The Guardian claims it has “put Starmer and Labour on the front foot”. Labour Together is an invitation to conspiracy theories and, sure enough, a book is due by the author Paul Holden that will reveal its “chilling nature” and how it has turned Labour into an “authoritarian machine”. Each of the responses – the conspiratorial, the sensational and the promotional – tells us little about the group. To make sense of it one must recall Labour’s crisis in 2010. After three terms in office, it had lost much of its working-class support as well as its historical purpose. It needed a reckoning.
In 2020, when Starmer won the party leadership, he inherited a centre-ground politics that was a vacant lot. Labour had no politics and no story about the country because it had no diagnosis of its problems. The organisation that had tasked itself with the party’s political renewal and recognised the depth and nature of its existential crisis was Labour Together.
The organisation has two origin stories. The first lies in Blue Labour, a small group that began in 2009 by arguing for a more conservative form of socialism. It was reviled by the left, and yet its paradoxical radical and conservative politics held the key to Labour’s future electoral success. The second belongs to the 2012-14 period of the policy review set up by Ed Miliband with the purpose of developing the themes articulated in his “One Nation” Labour conference speech of 2012.
At the time the Labour MP Jon Cruddas and I were running the policy review. Scott Langdon was chief of staff to Iain McNicol, then general secretary of the party. Maurice Glasman had founded Blue Labour and been made a life peer by Miliband. The fifth member of our group was Arnie Graf of the Industrial Areas Foundation, who had been invited by Glasman to introduce community organising into the party.
We were associated with the One Nation group of MPs, all from the 2010 intake. What defined our politics? Writing in the Guardian, Cruddas and Graf identified the three pillars of family, work and wages, as well as a place to belong. One Nation Labour stood for conserving a common life, and for a “politics of the common good that gives people the power and responsibility to take more control of their lives, their work and their communities”. These ideas were elaborated in One Nation: Labour’s political renewal (2014), based on the political work of the Miliband policy review, and they formed a framework for the 2015 election manifesto.
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None of this was straightforward. Among some Labour politicians there was considerable hostility. Talk of the family was supposedly anti-feminist. A sense of belonging was xenophobia. The idea that local democracy and reciprocity lay at the heart of a thriving society sounded suspicious to a party committed to the pursuit of equality by and through the state.
In the summer of 2015, after Labour’s second serious general election defeat and with Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, a new organisation was needed. Langdon and a Blue Labour activist, John Clarke, set up Common Good Labour. Its launch was leaked to the press as an anti-Corbyn initiative. It wasn’t, but the name had to go. An alternative was agreed: Labour Together. By September, a meeting in London brought together MPs from the One Nation group, council leaders and activists to discuss the party’s future.
The priority was to understand why Labour had lost. Labour Together set up a review under Cruddas and reported its preliminary findings to a meeting of 40 Labour MPs. Its message was forthright. Labour should be economically radical and fiscally conservative, stop patronising socially conservative voters, and recognise that it was becoming a culturally exclusive party of progressive social liberals. A few MPs nodded, some laughed incredulously; the majority looked unsure. Is it really this bad? The answer was yes. It would take two more election defeats before the message got through.
By November 2015 three MPs, Cruddas, Lisa Nandy and Steve Reed, had formed a steering committee that would unite the One Nation group of MPs and Labour Together. A small group of donors committed to its aims gave their financial support. In 2017 Morgan McSweeney became director of Labour Together and hired Hannah O’Rourke as the programme manager.
By then, Labour Together had agreed its core tasks. The first was the political project: it must win the philosophical, intellectual and policy arguments, within Labour and then in the country. The second was to build organisational capacity and develop a political leadership that could carry out this project.
Over the following years, Labour Together – which today has reinvented itself as a slick think tank – held conferences and away-days and organised working groups led by MPs. It hosted private discussion dinners for MPs and guests, borrowing the idea from Winston Churchill’s “The Other Club”. It supported Rachel Reeves’ The Everyday Economy. It developed bridge-building for a common-good politics, and in the aftermath of Labour’s defeat in 2019 it published a detailed election review.
Led by O’Rourke, a broad coalition of support was built inside the party for its recommendations. To win the next election, Labour would need to build an alliance of voters for a “big change economic agenda” alongside a robust story of community and national pride that bridged the cultural divisions in the country.
In June 2020 Labour Together took the next step and launched the Resources for National Renewal programme. Over 18 months, groups of journalists, experts and academics produced as many as 50 papers and took part in more than 40 webinars with Labour MPs, mayors and councillors. The outcome was Labour’s Covenant: A plan for national reconstruction (2022), and an invitation for a debate within the shadow cabinet.
As it turned out, there was no appetite for debate in a leadership that preferred to react pragmatically to fast-moving events. Tory failure was boosting Labour’s electoral fortunes. The relationship between the political realm and that of ideas – always tenuous – was broken. O’Rourke was replaced. A new-model Labour Together was created, well funded and staffed, which answered to the leader’s office and to the attractions of self-promotion and the pursuit of power. Our old website was taken down, along with the archive of Labour’s Covenant. In retrospect, its publication had marked the end of Labour Together in its original form.
There was no guru, no conspiracy and no secrecy in our work. Labour Together was a case study in the declining fortunes of the centre left and the attempt to reanimate it with vibrant ideas. Did Labour Together make a difference? We shall see.
[See also: Morgan McSweeney – Labour’s power broker]
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures