You don’t have to be part of the Labour movement, nor a self-defined progressive, to be horrified at what has happened to the British Labour Party. What was once a true party of Government, one of the three great parties which have dominated British politics in the modern era, has become nothing of the sort. When the present Labour leadership is lucky they are defined only as incompetent. Otherwise they are characterised by their past and possibly present extremism, and by the behaviour of the menagerie of cranks and bigots which they have attracted into the party.
The state of the Labour Party is disturbing for anyone who cares about good governance, but it must be particularly galling for those who have dedicated a fair proportion of their lives to the party. Into this category falls Jo Green, a former senior Labour Party staffer who worked for the party during the 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 General Elections. I won’t layout all the positions Green held within the party, as a full list could cause my fingers some pain, but the more recent ones include Director of Planning and Head of Press and Broadcasting. I recently discussed with Green how the Labour Party arrived at its current position, what’s likely to happen to Jeremy Corbyn after the General Election and, most importantly of all, how the party can be saved. This article, the first of two drawn from the interview, addresses the first of these topics.
Green is clear that Labour moderates, which I’ll define very broadly to include just about anyone who isn’t a Corbynite, greatly underestimated the threat from the radical left. The idea of Corbyn as Labour leader was treated, quite literally, as a joke. Green recalls that during the 2007 Labour leadership election a wisecrack was going around Labour HQ. What if the radical left nominee, in this case John McDonnell, gets onto the ballot paper and then Gordon Brown is knocked over by a bus? As a result of the radical left within Labour not being recognised as a serious threat they were, according to Green, ‘indulged’. Green is clear that ‘Corbyn and McDonnell frankly should have been kicked out [of the Labour Party] years ago’, in McDonnell’s case for his comments supporting IRA violence.
Alongside this there was a sharp move to the left amongst the leadership of the trade union movement. As a result the trade union movement, which Green notes ‘saved the Labour Party [from the radical left] in the 1980s’, became sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn. Green attributes this to two main factors. Firstly the amalgamation of the union movement, which saw smaller unions combine to form a number of ‘super’ unions (Unite, Unison, the GMB etr). Previously the smaller unions used to ‘compete with each other’ for members, and to do this they had to focus on ‘the things that union members actually wanted’, rather than pursuing a hard-left political agenda. The second factor is that turnout at union elections became dismally low, giving disproportionate power to a small politically organised clique on the left to whom the leadership must pander. Green summarises this as ‘the leadership is motivated entirely by re-election…the people who re-elect them are broadly the activist types who are more left-wing’.
Unite’s Len McCluskey, who was recently narrowly re-elected as the unions General Secretary.
In addition Green argues that some time ago the Labour Party began focusing increasingly inward, concentrating on the views of its members rather than Labour voters or the general public. He explains that ‘the narrative during the Blair years was certainly…if you left everything to Labour members to decide then we’d never get elected ever’. According to Green this started to change during the 2007 Labour deputy leadership contest which was ‘probably the first time in 15 years that an internal leadership…election had focused almost exclusively on wooing members’.
A combination of the party becoming fixated with members over voters, the union leadership shifting to the left and the complacency of moderate labourites created the underlying conditions for a hard-left resurgence within Labour. However an additional spark was required to see the party capture the leadership of the party, which Green asserts was provided by the 2015 General Election. Prior to this election Labour had been ahead in the polls for years, and Labour members expected the outcome to be a hung Parliament at the very least. Thus the Conservative victory was accompanied by a very real psychological shock for Labour members. This led ‘a lot of people who were actually quite mainstream Labour people to say “…you know what we’re never going to win next time so why don’t we just go for this guy who’s got decent principles?”’
Jeremy Corbyn supporters rally in Liverpool during July 2016, protesting the attempt by the majority of the PLP to remove him.
We discuss in some detail the nature of democratic mandates, arguably the underlying cause of the ongoing confrontation between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and a plurality of the membership. Green asserts that, in this battle of mandates, validity has largely been attributed to the wrong side. Green’s argument, that support from the PLP provides a Labour leader with considerably greater democratic legitimacy than the backing of the membership, rests on two key principles. Firstly the PLP represents a far larger section of the population, having been elected in total by tens of millions as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members. Secondly MPs are required, by the nature of their jobs and the necessity of getting elected, to interact with a broader range of the public than the average Labour member. All major political parties are confronted with the difficulty that their membership is unrepresentative of their voters, who in turn are unrepresentative of the general public. In Labour’s case misunderstanding this dynamic has partly led to the present crisis.
I vividly remember the period in 2015 when it became apparent that Corbyn would become the next Labour leader. I was working in Parliament at the time and, far from being unnerved, Conservative staffers were almost universally delighted. They thought Corbyn’s victory would give their party another 5 years in Government, though this was mixed with a measure of genuine disgust at some of Corbyn past political associations. It’s not pretty going over what’s happened to the Labour Party, which to my mind shows what happens when a party turns a blind eye to extremism in its own ranks and prioritises its members over the general public. But it is important, and it would be a mistake to think that, if the leadership election rules were changed, a similar situation couldn’t arise in the Conservative Party. In the second part of this interview, to be posted shortly, Green gives his view on what is likely to happen to Corbyn after the General Election and how the Labour Party can be saved.