The Labour Party: taking stock

Submitted by AWL on 10 December, 2014 - 12:47 Author: Jon Lansman talks with Martin Thomas

Jon Lansman is a long-time activist on the Labour left, a leading figure in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and active on the Left Futures blog. He talked to Martin Thomas about how things stand in the Labour Party four years on from the end of the Blair-Brown era.

MT: In 2010, several factors suggested the possibility of a new start in the Labour Party. A new leader was emphatic that he was not Tony Blair. The fact that we had that new leader came from the unions asserting themselves more. In July 2011 Unite announced a new political strategy, at least potentially more assertive again.

The Labour Party had an influx of new members, not large by historical standards but sizeable by recent standards. There was an apparent opening in the review of party structure. And in July 2011 the leadership choice for General Secretary was defeated and Iain McNicol won, indicating a promise of cleaner and more union-friendly administration.

What went wrong?

JL: There is a space for debate and activity in the Labour Party which did not exist before. We were marginalised and excluded before to an extent that we aren’t now. The control freakery of the Blair era has faded.

Ed Miliband has been a disappointment. I think that’s partly because of his failure to consolidate his own base, a soft left, a centre-left, or even a centre. He’s weak, and he has operated as a leader through negotiations with the main power base in the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is the right-wing faction Progress.

You can see that he recognises his weakness, and as a consequence you have had occasional forays which look a bit more promising, but they never come to much.

The bigger disappointment has been on the side of the trade union movement. Ed Miliband appears to have failed to understand the purpose and nature of trade unionism even to the extent that a right-wing social democrat should, but I think the response of the union leaders, and of Unite in particular, has been a real problem.

It's not that Len McCluskey is a rightwinger. But, in our opinion, he has been wrong on tactics and strategy, for whatever reason. Now he appears to want to move Unite away from the Labour Party – to the left, in his conception - in a way which will weaken the left in the Labour Party and in general.

Things are bleak in Labour right now, but that doesn’t mean that McCluskey’s strategy isn’t more bleak.

MT: One thing there was the pensions debacle in 2011. The unions put all their anti-Tory eggs in the pensions basket, then that dispute collapsed in the end of 2011, and the left unions let it collapse. Both the union leaders and much of the rank and file have been badly demoralised.

JL: I am not from your political tradition, and I am not convinced that the industrial scene and the political scene are as linked as that. One can look at the union’s political strategies – to some extent – independently of what is happening industrially.

In 2010 I saw in the unions a recognition of how bad Blairism had been for the movement. But the unions have since made serious errors.

This has led to what I would view as a capitulation over austerity within Labour’s policy making process. Even though the unions are formally still against austerity, they have in practice allowed Labour to commit to austerity.

And we have the consequence of the unions taking the wrong line over Collins. Two years ago I thought we were in a position to create a new left-wing organisation which would unite constituency activists with the left-led unions. It could pull the centrist unions along behind it, destabilise Progress and open things up.

In the end what stopped that from happening were the maverick tactical decisions made by Len McCluskey on the Collins Report. The rest of the union leaders instinctively opposed Collins. If Unite had opposed it, then the Collins Report wouldn’t have happened in the form it did.

Then that led into the dreadful negotiations at the National Policy Forum in July 2014, which got no more results than in previous years. In the text there are some concessions here and there, but they are concessions which no-one will read again. If the union leaders had fought at the NPF, lots of things at conference would have gone our way in policy terms. But no.

Under Blair the control freakery was always uneven. There was toleration of dissident MPs, on the understanding that thanks to rigged selections, the number of dissident MPs would always go down. Officials intervened in Parliamentary selections a lot, and that has diminished.

But the Party membership now includes lots of people who have no ideological reason for being in the Party at all – they are managerialists, careerists and so on. That change in composition came in the Blair years, but we still recruit such people.

In that respect it’s chicken and egg – if the left wins victories, we will recruit more left-wing people, and if we recruit more left-wing people, we will win more.

The process of centralisation of power in the Labour Party around the leader's office has, in practice, continued under Miliband. In part it’s because they have let go of the National Executive Committee, where the left is now stronger, that they have continued the process of centralising power.

Next year, we will win more National Policy Forum seats in the constituency section – but if the unions are not prepared to fight in the NPF, then we need to fight to return to a resolution-based conference. I think we’d get support for that in the unions.

That doesn’t necessarily have to be accompanied by getting rid of the NPF – but we need to return to a resolution-based conference, because it will give us more leverage.

In some ways the reality is worse than how I have painted it so far. Len McCluskey has said he wants to go into the election focussing on candidates who he thinks are good, some of whom I don’t think are that good.

I think that if we want to win, then we need to win overall, and back rightwing Labour candidates as well, because you need a majority.

Things could start unravelling sooner rather than later because of Scotland. In Scotland, we will lose twenty to thirty seats in the May 2015 general election. Even if Neil Findlay and Katy Clark [the left candidates] win the leadership, we may lose twenty seats because you can’t turn things around as fast as that. If Jim Murphy [the right wing candidate] wins, then things will start unfolding straight away. There will be proposals from Scotland at the very least to permit Unite to disaffiliate from the Labour Party in Scotland.

Quite how the Party will react to that in England I don’t know. That might be a time when we have to go back to the "trade union party" idea [the idea of setting up a new party sponsored by the unions, linked to the Labour Party and supporting it electorally but organisationally distinct, in the fashion of the Co-operative Party].

We have to find a way of keeping the trade union movement focussed on the Labour Party. I still think that there is a possibility of turning the Labour Party around. The depressing thing about the last four years is that the trade unions could have done so much better. And they still could do so much better.

We need to democratise conference. That can be done with the help of the trade union leaders. We’ve had some reversals, but we have won other things as well. We can now elect the constituency representatives in the NPF, we have pushed back the "three year rule" to block rule changes, and so on.

That puts us in a better position to win democratic change if we can persuade the unions to step up.

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