speri.comment: the political economy blog

What next for Labour’s ABC tendency

The party desperately needs to go back and come fully to terms with what went right and what went wrong during the Blair/Brown era

Professor Tony Payne, Professorial Fellow, SPERI

Tony PayneMany words have been spilled already on the Corbyn phenomenon and more will be added today as Labour’s new leader speaks to the party conference for the first time.  The winners of elections always necessarily generate the greatest attention.  But it’s important, and it might even be more important in the long run, also to consider what next for what I will call here Labour’s ABC (Anyone But Corbyn) tendency.

Most comment on this issue has been focused so far on the inadequacies of the campaigns of the candidates who either challenged, or could have challenged, Corbyn.  For sure, some of this bears reiterating.  The whole leadership contest started too early, never probed with any depth or acuity into the reasons why Labour lost in May and in the end became depressingly repetitive and formulaic in its core content.

As for the ABC candidates, as actually they quickly became, Liz Kendall had the mantle of Blairism thrust upon her from an early stage and was thereafter steadily choked by the association.  Andy Burnham started as favourite, but was pulled from right pillar to left post as the hustings proceeded and ultimately wasn’t able to establish with any clarity the ideological ground on which he stood.  Yvette Cooper began cautiously and uncertainly, albeit then growing in confidence as the summer unfolded and even flirting momentarily with the notion of reforming capitalism.  But, in the final analysis, she too never really got beyond offering some sensible ‘retail policies’, as they have come to be known, underpinned by a rhetorical and unoriginal embrace of information technology.

Others didn’t even make it to the starting line.  Chuka Umunna touched base briefly with Labour’s failure to appeal to the ‘aspirational classes’, but then appeared shocked to discover that contemporary political life in Britain involves relating to the media 24/7 and withdrew.  Tristram Hunt made perhaps the most intellectually substantial contribution to the campaign by urging Labour to adopt an approach that was ‘neither Podemos nor Pasokification’ and calling for the party unequivocally to position itself on the ‘centre-ground’.  But, even in what was generally a thoughtful speech, he didn’t go on to set out his own alternative social democratic political economy and, of course, he didn’t ultimately succeed in getting himself nominated to stand by enough MPs.  In his regard at least, the ‘morons’ kept their nominations to themselves…..

All in all, it has to be said that the collective efforts of Labour’s mainstream figures were not impressive, a reality made worse by the series of overbearing interventions that subsequently ensued one after the other from Labour’s old guard.  The consequence, as we can now see only too clearly, was to allow Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters to mount a powerful and effective narrative that pretty much everything that had happened within Labour since Neil Kinnock’s fight-back against Militant in 1985 had been grounded in an unprincipled pursuit of electoral success that ruthlessly cast aside both ethics and ideology.

So, what now for the ABC tendency?  Its initial decisions have been about whether or not its adherents should join Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, with different people taking different stances.  No doubt too there will be efforts made in the coming months to set up new groupings or factions within the party (Hunt and Umunna have already set up something called ‘Labour for the Common Good’) and maybe some figures are quietly toying with the idea of breaking away and forming a new party like the SDP of old.  If so, they need to remind themselves immediately of the harsh realities of Britain’s ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system.

In my view, there is an imperative prior task to be accomplished before any of these essentially tactical considerations are even contemplated – and that is to come to terms fully, properly and honestly with Labour’s record in government under Blair and Brown between 1997 and 2010.  Astonishingly, this still hasn’t been done (although of course there still takes place amongst Labour people plenty of discussion – too much, to be honest – about the personalities of Blair and Brown, factors which are now beside the point in charting a future direction).

With virtually the sole exception of admitting that Iraq was a mistake, Ed Miliband’s team took an early tactical decision to try to ‘move on’ from this record and generally thereafter sought to discuss it as little as possible.  But, in politics, just as in life after a death or the ending of a relationship, ‘moving on’ can’t be accomplished until the problematic event or issue has not only been fully analysed, but also thought through and, in politics at least, talked through publicly.  This is what didn’t happen after 2010, thereby exposing Miliband to awkward embarrassment in the actual election campaign when asked, for example, about the deficit being run by the Brown government at the time of the financial crisis in 2008.

It will be a grave mistake now if Labour’s ABC tendency again fails to do the intellectual work that is needed to clear the ground for political rebuilding.  After all, what is there to fear?  Unsurprisingly, the record will show that the Blair/Brown administrations made other mistakes than Iraq.  But it will also reveal many substantial achievements that ought to stand Labour in good stead when it comes to seeking again the confidence of the British electorate.

As Peter Hain noted in a recent article, ‘before the banking crisis, Labour delivered a record ten years of continuous economic growth, low inflation, low interest rates, record employment, record infrastructure investment and rising living standards’.  This isn’t a bad basis from which to fight back.  Of course, this record can, and indeed should, be questioned in all sorts of ways.  Did Labour get too close to the City and to bankers?  Did it fail to focus sufficiently on growing inequality?  Did it get the balance right between public and private investment?  All of these questions – and many, many more – need to be asked, researched if necessary and then evaluated, with lessons learned and new positions taken up on the basis of the analysis.

In a nutshell, Labour’s mainstream politicians cannot prosper if they purport to be ashamed of and unwilling to discuss sensibly and critically the complex political economy of the Blair/Brown years.  The ABC tendency badly needs to develop a radical and yet realistic programme of its own from which to move forward into the debate within the party about economic policy that Corbyn seems keen to initiate.  As so often in difficult situations, the best way forward is first to step backwards a bit and understand where you have come from.

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