Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Ideas alone are not enough

The lesson from losing is not that fighting is wrong, argues Conor Pope 

It is easy, when analysing a situation, to simply come to the conclusion that it was always inevitable. Every action take beforehand simply becomes a step towards a single conclusion. It is basic ‘history is written by the victors’ stuff: the losers have to admit they got everything wrong.

That throws up some problems, as Progress director Richard Angell briefly touches on in his latest article for the magazine. ‘Victors often do not reflect in the way losers are forced to,’ he writes.

As the National Executive Committee this week signed off a package of proposed rule changes from the leader’s office – including a further, wide-ranging review into reforms led by a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s staff – our wing of the party looks to be on the losing side yet again.

And it is true that we have not been good enough at self-examination – I have said as much before.

The idea that modernisers and moderates appear to have too little interest in values and policy is one that is widespread and deeply damaging. It is a perception that undoubtedly played a big role in Corbyn’s rise from obscurity. Stephen Bush today quotes an aide to the leadership as saying that our wing ‘need[s] an Anthony Giddens’ more than anything else.

While it is not always without truth, the belief we are bereft of answers for the challenges of the future is something we are keen to dispel. The cover essay for the conference issue of the magazine deals with one such big pressing issue, as Anthony Painter tackles what the role of progressives should be in shaping the role of the state in the 21st century. From universal basic income to individualism, it does not shy away from radical solutions.

The danger, of course, is that we still get dragged back into the internal warfare of motions and amendments.

But, frankly, that is unavoidable – for two reasons.

New Labour – which as Painter points out, ‘now feels very behind the times’ – did not just sweep the party on the simple brilliance of its philosophical underpinnings. It also needed the vulgar organisational victories in the party structures of the 1980s in order to succeed. If beating Militant was simply a case of having better ideas than the Trotskyist far left, the entryists would never have got anywhere in the first place.

To shy away from all matters of party reform, brow-beaten, is no strategy for longterm success. Yes, we may be unhappy with the move to reduce the member of parliament nominations for leadership candidates from 15 to 10 per cent, but it is telling that the hard-left has had to temporarily abandon its favoured five per cent aim. After months of Progress and Labour First making the case against the ‘McDonnell amendment’ (yes, on the basis of simple, strongly-held principle too), even Corbyn, with the year he has had, could not quite sell it. His allies did not strike a compromise out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they had to.

The other reason was articulated, surprisingly, by Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani in conversation with Richard earlier this week.

During a discussion about mandatory reselection, Bastani admitted that even though he ‘was an optimist, I didn’t expect that [Labour would do so well in the general election]’ – which should rather put to bed the idea that it was a lack of ambition from party staffers that held us back.

But on making the case for mandatory reselection itself he said that ‘looking back to the second leadership race with Owen Smith last summer, I simply believe Labour would not have done that well had there not been “the coup”.’ Far from holding Corbyn back by failing to get behind him, the logic goes, Labour MPs in fact helped his prospects by forcing a campaign.

There is a view on the hard-left that in the election, being against the establishment in Corbyn’s own party was as important, if not more, than being against the establishment in the country. It might be Donald Trumpesque as far as strategy goes – after all, it worked for the Republican candidate last November on the other side of the pond – but Corbyn’s team have never shied from being a cross between Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Bastani confirmed what a number of his have believed for sometime: the Corbynites want the internal conflict. In fact they have spent all summer trying to re-start it with no avail. Paul Mason at Progress annual conference told modernisers to ‘set up a new party’; Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott refused to rule out deselections; Chris Williamson made crass comments on ‘weaponising antisemitism’ (among other things); and the constant threat of further rules changes to come. Both Corbyn’s inner circle and outriders are struggling with the fact that they are Labour’s new establishment.

What some elements on the left want is to be a permanent disruptive force in the Labour party. Rolling over to allow it, and not calling it ‘a factional power grab’ for fear of that being unpopular, will not stop it. When one of Labour’s own election co-ordinators says the party has become ‘too broad a church’, making our ideas better will not save us. Bodies starve as well as hearts; we need bread as well as roses.


Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope

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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress

1 comment

  • Steven Bush’s article and analysis, n the New Statesman, is spot on:

    “But the Corbynsceptics’ difficulty is that their organisational bases need members and money to function, which encourages both bodies to appeal to the worst instincts of a committed core, rather than aiming to build out and reform themselves. That allows Corbynsceptic organisations to survive financially, but actively inhibits them from thriving politically.

    The preoccupation with finding some reason, any reason to oppose the latest Corbynite manoeuvre means that they are not using the time to find a new Giddens. The posture of opportunism that characterises so much of Labour’s Corbynsceptic activity is so unattractive that a new Blair is likely to spend their time elsewhere, while those MPs who might fit the bill will surely look elsewhere.

    Just as Corbyn enters the conference season with reason to thank his Conservative opponents for their self-obsession, he has much to credit his internal rivals for too.”

    Read more at:

    Today’s Conor Pope article title reflects a misdiagnosis! The problem, identified in the sequence of articles below, is actually the lack of intellectually coherent ideas, that would have an appeal outside of a narrow and diminishing clique.

    If Progress/Labour First continue to talk only to themselves, refuse to constructively engage or cooperate with the rest of the Party, cannot evolve and develop new rigorously evaluated ideas, then as Phil Collins states: “it is by no means obvious that the moderates have a glowing future, they do not deserve a future in the Labour party.” You have has two years to undertake this task but instead have mostly wasted time and effort on attacking and obstructing at every opportunity.

    A vacuum of ideas Edward Jones | 21 August 2017 |

    Title says it all!

    Comfort zone analysis Conor Pope | 10 July 2017 |

    “One thing the election result did was settle some internal questions for a period. That gives us on the moderate flank of the party opportunity to debate ideas, free from the prism of who exactly those ideas ‘belong’ to in some ongoing factional tug-of-war.

    While another candidate with Corbyn’s politics may not have struck the chord he did, the Labour leader undeniably values ideas, even if he is strictly wedded to a certain few. By interrogating why those ideas are suddenly more popular than they ever have been before, we might be able to work out some of our own.”

    Seriously Corbynism Philip Collins | 11 July 2017 |

    “For a couple of years now the Labour moderates have offered nothing more than arcane rubbish about this committee and that procedure and how there is some organisational route back to credibility. Relying on the deputy leader and the National Executive Committee to engineer a solution behind closed doors has produced little.

    The only way forward now is to start thinking, writing and inspiring. Then, if the Labour party is open for persuasion, perhaps future modernisers can inherit that mantle. If not, and it is by no means obvious that the moderates have a glowing future, they do not deserve a future in the Labour party.”

    Out of the wilderness Chris Carter | 25 August 2017 |

    “I challenge those who ought to be leading us out of the wilderness to have courage to act. Give us the ideas, policies, and sense of mission to take us forward.”

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