Labour’s moderate tradition defends constant values, not outdated policies
The creation of a special section in the Labour leadership election for people who do not support the Labour party has released forces into the mainstream of the party like a plague. It is like a horror film when the construction of a new underground railway unearths a deadly bacillus which has lain dormant for centuries.
This, combined with Twitter, the cowards’ communication of choice, led to a summer of insults. The worst of these was ‘Tory’, a classic attempt at delegitimising anyone with a contrary view to Jeremy Corbyn’s. It works like this: by calling someone a Tory, it means they are not valid, not legitimate, and belong somewhere else.
It is nothing new. John O’Farrell’s memoir of Labour in opposition Things Can Only Get Better recalls his first encounters with the hard left at Exeter University, just after the 1979 election: ‘There was me thinking that Jim Callaghan had been one of the good guys, when it turned out he was just a TOR-y. The word Tory had its own pronunciation back then – the TOR part lasted about three seconds. Merlyn Rees? TOR-y! Denis Healey? TOR-y! David Owen? TOR-y!’
If conducted against individuals at the branch level, it makes them less likely to turn up to meetings. It creates a combative, unpleasant atmosphere which most people would avoid. So when the resolution or delegate to conference is chosen, usually towards the end of a long evening agenda, the likelihood is that the organised factions of the hard left are in the majority, albeit five votes to four.
The great lesson learned from the last time the hard left was ascendant in the late 1970s and early 1980s was that to beat them, you had to become like them. In her book Fightback! Dianne Hayter describes the epiphany of the ‘traditional right’, grouped around Solidarity and the ‘St Ermin’s group’ of trade unionists, that if the mainstream moderates were ever to rescue the party, they needed to organise with as much dedication as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy or Militant.
Neil Kinnock understood this, and ensured he had a majority on Labour’s National Executive Committee (at times of one or two), that he had a majority at conference, and that he controlled the party’s policymaking machinery through the policy review, and then the National Policy Forum (which began after his defeat in 1992).
But organisation is never enough. The hard left’s attempts to delegitimise Labour moderates will work if Labour moderates have no valid politics. The Labour ‘right’ (always a problematic label) has an intellectual tradition in the Labour party as solid as any other part of the party.
I am happy to recognise Corbyn’s brand of politics as a legitimate strand of the Labour party. He stands in a tradition of George Lansbury and the Poplar Revolt, of the pacifists who opposed the world wars, of the nuclear disarmers and peace campaigners of the 1950s, of the post-1968 generation of anti-Vietnam, anti-LBJ protestors. That is why bandying ‘Trot’ around to describe the hard left is counterproductive, inside or outside the Labour party, as it blurs the line between the hard left and actual real-life Trots who belong to other parties.
The corollary must be that Corbynistas recognise that we have a place too. Ours is the tradition of Beatrice Webb, RH Tawney, Evan Durbin, Ernie Bevin, Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey and Tony Crosland. It is the tradition of the Fabians, like Leonard Woolf and Sidney Webb. The 1918 version of Clause IV, written by Sidney Webb, was deliberately crafted to beat off the hard left. It left the specific means of achieving ‘common ownership’ vague, to deny the Guild Socialists and others their chance to prescribe their own chosen method.
Our tradition is fiercely loyal to the Labour party as the engine of change in society. We are the political descendants of those who stayed true to the Labour party when the Gang of Four led the Social Democratic party into the wilderness. We reject any notion, whether it comes from Shirley Williams, George Galloway, David Owen or Ken Loach, that a breakaway party can refashion politics.
We proudly belong to trade unions, no matter how objectionable we find their leaders. We are broadly, although not exclusively, in favour of the United Kingdom, of greater engagement in Europe, of Britain staying as a nuclear power (thanks Clem!), of a mixed economy between private, public, co-operative and voluntary organisations, of military action when necessary, of full employment, equality, personal liberty and social justice.
Our political methodology is anchored in our values, which are applied afresh to the problems of each generation. This is the basis of what is sometimes called revisionism – the idea that values are constant but policies must adapt. That is why we are deeply suspicious of a worldview which was settled at some point in the 1970s, and has not changed since.
We probably admire and respect Tony Blair. He is part of the broader tradition described above. His governments changed lives for the better, by reaching into this Labour revisionist tradition, not by defying or transcending it. In New Labour’s Old Roots, edited by Patrick Diamond, the point is made that Blairism sits in an unbroken thread, stretching back to the ‘New Liberals’ who helped create Labour in 1900.
So if you consider yourself a ‘moderate’ and are appalled by whatever ideological excesses and eccentricities are to befall us, have confidence in your place in the party. Only by understanding that you stand on the shoulders of giants can you have the guts to walk into that party meeting packed with Corbynistas to argue your case. The only Tories are the ones running the country.
Paul Richards is author of Labour’s Revival: The Modernisers’ Manifesto
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