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5 April 2020

Where the Labour right go next

Labour First and Progress have joined forces in a bid to translate Keir Starmer’s leadership victory into enduring internal power.

By Patrick Maguire

The Corbynite left think they know why they lost not only the leadership of the Labour Party yesterday, but three positions on its ruling National Executive Committee too.

Thoughtful activists knew the two seats for constituency parties and one for black and ethnic minority members were just as important to Labour’s future direction as the identity of Jeremy Corbyn’s successor. Without control of the NEC, a leader cannot effect their will as straightforwardly as their title might imply. Had the left kept hold of the three seats that fell to Corbynsceptic candidates yesterday, the task before Keir Starmer would have been at least a little more difficult. Yet Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy could not agree on a joint slate, and several left independents ran too. The result was defeat.

While Starmer will find assembling a reliable NEC majority rather more difficult than some are predicting, Corbynites who warned of a split on the left will tell you that it is already over: they have surrendered their control over the party’s levers of power and failed to futureproof their internal dominance. It is a cautionary tale whose ending supporters of the new leader are wary of living for themselves.

That wariness explains why the Labour right have chosen the first full day of Starmer’s leadership to unveil an unexpected marriage of convenience in the form of Labour to Win, a new campaign group. Sources involved with the project frame it as a response to Starmer’s call for party unity. But its real aim is simple enough: to keep the Labour left as far away from internal power as possible. That is not what their internal opponents will recognise as the politics of unity.

Labour First and Progress, the two organisations who will sit under the Labour to Win umbrella, put it differently. They say they have joined forces to support Starmer’s leadership, and his efforts to “bring about fundamental change in the party’s culture and organisation”. To call it coded would be to do readers a disservice. Though they have not merged and have no intention to do so yet, their collaboration is something of a moment. Both represent distinct Labour traditions: Progress is the last bastion of organised Blairism within the party, while Labour First exists to keep the flame of the Old Right alive. But while their politics do not overlap entirely, they do share a strategic imperative. As a source close to the project admits: “Normal members and supporters of both organisations have been telling us that we should work more closely together for months. They no longer see the need for completely separate operations.”

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Fundamentally, both want to buttress Starmer’s leadership and ensure, in time, that he has control over the party’s democratic structures. Without it, of course, his capacity to enact the change both groups want to see – and, indeed, many of his supporters in parliament want to see – will be severely curtailed. There is a loftier ambition at play too: other ginger groups and socialist societies are in discussions about joining the project. They are also keen to involve the Corbynites who voted for Starmer over his anointed successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey, so that they can replicate the broad base of his successful campaign. Their aim is for Labour to Win to end up straddling the party’s middle.

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“There’s an appetite to recast mainstream, progressive political activity in light of Keir’s victory,” one figure involved in the initiative says. “We want to ensure that we are fighting fit for the decade ahead. We’re committed to rebuilding the party, restoring our reputation and returning to winning ways.” Of course, they are talking about the Labour Party in the country. But the sentiment also holds for its organised right, who do not want to squander their renaissance as the left appears to have squandered its hold on internal power. Doing so will mean – in the short term, at least – engaging in the sort of factional scrapping they profess to want to consign to history.