Labour has only ever won a general election from the autumn of 1974 onwards when its leader has been called &”Tony Blair”. Four other leaders tried, but they were not called &”Tony Blair,” and Labour paid the price. I find it hard to credit the left’s failure myself sometimes, and, equally, find it easy to understand how Labour supporters became riddled with self-hatred and self-doubt as they saw ‘their’ Blairite government in action. But it is going a bit far for Paul Kenny of the GMB to deal with the compromises of the past by calling on Labour to declare the Blairte think tank Progress an anti-party organisation and ban it
I won’t detain you for long with the obvious objections. This illiberal measure seeks to disown a part of the Labour movement, a part moreover, that has been involved in winning elections — a task which is normally beyond the Labour movement as I mentioned above. The unions’ comparison with Militant is absurd. Militant was a Marxist-Leninist group that wanted to create a totalitarian state. It could not stay in a democratic socialist party for the basic reason that it did not believe in democracy. Worst of all are the echoes of the past. After its defeats in 1931, 1951 and 1979 Labour tore itself apart, and did not win an election for 14, 13 and 18 years respectively. After its 2010 defeat, Labour held together surprisingly well — until now.
The more interesting question to my mind is why the unions are bothering. As the excellent Blairtie blogger Hopi Sen points out, the Labour left has won. Ed Miliband is leader. If a comrade calls you a &”Blairite” at a Labour meeting it’s the equivalent of Blind Pew handing you the black spot. Whatever argument you are making or motion you are proposing is finished. As for your hopes of securing a seat…
The best answer comes in a briefing from the Unite union from December 2011 on why its members should brand Progress an enemy of the people. ‘Labour party policies are often determined by a small group of advisers — far too often dominated by old thinking, neo-liberalism and the organisation Progress.’
It is a revealing fear. Once Labour is back in power — and I suspect even Spectator readers can imagine the voters returning Labour to office at the earliest opportunity — what will it do? The unions fear that a few right-wing politicians in the Commons will capture Miliband’s ear and dictate policy. They are not necessarily being paranoid, but they are missing the point. Unless we have an enormous and unforeseen stroke of luck, Britain will still be stagnating in 2015. We many not even have recovered the six per cent of GDP we lost in the great recession. That’s me being optimistic. As I look at the news from Europe, a lost decade from 2008 to 2018 in the Japanese style appears the best of the bad options. In these grim circumstances, Labour will have to succeed where the coalition has failed and become a government of national renewal. It will have to start thinking about an industrial policy — as even the left’s arch-villain Peter Mandelson did in his final days at the Business Department. It will have to reform our dysfunctional banking system. It will have to deal with new social problems that the coalition in its ignorance barely acknowledge exist — the need to protect the millions now stuck in rented housing, for instance, and give them some security of tenure.
Strangely enough, even Blairite members of Progress know it. In his autobiography, Blair himself reduces the crisis of 2008 to a couple of pages, as if he cannot understand that the time when he and Gordon Brown could let the City run riot and pick up the tax revenues was over. Others are more alert. In this morning’s Financial Times, the impeccably Blairite Andrew Adonis reviews Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson’s Going South: Why Britain will have a Third World Economy by 2014. Here is Adonis on reforming the City:
‘The state also needs to be bolder in tackling scandals that go the heart of the present problems. Consider one of Mr Elliott and Mr Atkinson’s facts. In 1980, the chief executive of Barclays earned 13 times the pay of the average worker in the UK. In 2010, he earned 169 times average pay, with a package of £4.4m. And this despite the continuing banking crisis — or perhaps because of it. &”The City,” they write, &”has conducted its equivalent of a military coup, a silent affair that required no tanks on the street … but saw an elite take control of the country and a disproportionate share of its wealth.” I would have used shades of grey. But they have a point. Unless and until the &”coup” is reversed, obscene corporate greed will be an ongoing source of social and economic strife.’
Not much neo-liberalism on display there. And here he is on transforming the economy:
‘It is increasingly obvious that Britain’s industrial base is too narrow. Its skills, education, infrastructure and financial systems need further radical improvement if they are to become engines of employment and growth. Simply promoting more of the things we do well – higher education, business and financial services, and a small number of industrial sectors, along with the Queen, the army and the BBC – is unlikely to lead to the sunlit uplands, particularly given the acute problems of the financial sector. As the authors note, mass youth unemployment is a prime characteristic of developing countries. Britain has a million under-24s out of work.’
Nor much old thinking on display there either.
The trouble for the unions is that Labour will inherit a ravaged economy. That does not mean it cannot be radical. The times may force it to be radical. The most radical Labour government, after all, came to power in 1945 when Britain was bombed out and bankrupt. Unless Labour’s relationship with the unions is entirely corrupt, however, restoring public-sector pensions and raising public sector pay will be so far down its list of radical priorities, they may as well not be on it.
In their hearts, public-sector union leaders must know it. So they invent conspiracy theories about coteries of neo-liberalism kidnapping Miliband, and come up with soft versions of Stalinist purges to remove them. Better that than admit that their members’ direct financial interests will be the least of the problems their party will face in office.