Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Social democracy’s darkest hour

Overcoming a political blizzard. Another dispatch from inside the Westminster Village

A terrifying gale blew. An unseasonable blizzard raged in the black of night outside, rattling the windows of the dining room. The snow fell and fell, as temperatures dropped below freezing, blocking the only road out.

Your intrepid insider was safely, well, inside, shielded from the storm and swaddled in the warmth of cheap red wine. Yet the scene was set for a blistering speech from Labour peer Roger Liddle, outlining, with Churchillian vigour, what he described as ‘social democracy’s darkest hour’.

‘Defeated across Europe … In Britain, Labour’s social democrats are in the most difficult place they have ever been’, he warned. ‘Things may well get quite a bit worse before they get better.’

This was the after dinner speech at Progress’ annual political weekend last month – a slot usually reserved for tubthumping optimism. But Liddle was not about to let anyone fool themselves over the challenges that await the centre-left. Moderates in the party, he began, are ‘standing alone in the hope that one day a “new world” of progressive ideas and action will come to the rescue of the old’.

Citizens of the ‘new world’ were there in abundance, luckily; your decrepit insider is a veteran of such events and, from all the attendees, perhaps only a tenth had been before. The rest were, for the large part, young people who were – whisper it – actually inspired by centre-left achievements rather than hard left promises.

Liddle, the progressive bulldog, tapped into the melding of old and new: ‘Labour’s social democrats need a plan for the future. And it has to be based on the economic, social and electoral realities of how Britain has changed in the past half century.’

‘We should have confidence in the social democratic principles at the core of our politics. A commitment to social equality – to the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to fulfil their unique potential. A renewal of the social market economy, reforming capitalism to save it from itself, that doesn’t see the private sector as its enemy. Strong public services that put the interests of the users first, as well as providing decent high quality jobs. And a faith in modern internationalism that puts working with Europe as its top priority.

‘Progress can help social democracy win the battle of ideas in the party and the country. It will be a long hard slog and at times an unpleasant one. But together we can set a new path for Labour and Britain.’

As Winston Churchill himself once said, and Liddle might have finished: ‘There is always a strong case for doing nothing, especially for doing nothing yourself.’ The lesson here was clear: nothing is not an option.

Blower’s ballots

Congratulations to Jennie Formby, whose ascendancy to the role of Labour general secretary was a triumph of central planning. A genuine threat to her chances, Jon Lansman, had to stand aside to avoid humiliation, and a more beatable opponent was put in place on the shortlist.

Formby’s supporters, which included the offices of both Labour leader and shadow chancellor, will have known that former National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower was unable to gain any moderate support. Blower has been a far left candidate against Labour in London in the last decade. She was the only other option put to the National Executive Committee. The final result was 35 votes for Formby, and just two for Blower.

Which got your insider thinking: who were the two? Early suspicions – and, indeed, reports – were that it was the two Momentum directors on the NEC, Christine Shawcroft and erstwhile Formby rival Lansman. The latter, however, has publicly denied it, claiming his vote in the secret ballot was with the winning candidate.

Shawcroft, who supported the idea of breaking Labour’s trade union link during the application process in her opposition to Formby’s candidacy, has been less forthcoming.

Your insider’s old comrades from student occupation days are now well placed to comment on this sort of thing. Claudia Webbe, it is muttered, can have a mind of her own. Pete Willsman, meanwhile, is at the vanguard of a growing anti-Momentum feeling on the hard left, and is considered unreliable. A crunch meeting of the Labour Representation Committee, Red Labour and Grassroots Black Left groups in early May will now decide whether to split the left slate in this summer’s NEC election.

Centrist Vlad

Why would Corbyn be so hesitant to come to the conclusion that the Russian state is culpable for carrying out a chemical weapons attack on British soil? Well, other than the obvious reasons.

Oh, alright, the obvious reasons, then. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, has appeared on panel debates with newly re-elected Russian president Vladimir Putin (what a victory!), condemned Nato’s work with eastern European democracies as ‘a threat to peace’, and defended Russia’s invasion and annexation of both Crimea. Stop the War (unofficial slogan ‘stop the west’), which Corbyn chaired until becoming Labour leader, has continually trumpeted the same line and, when it comes to Syria, has continually ignored Russia’s carpet-bombing of civilians while confecting outrage every time any government in the west so much as mentions the civil war. Corbyn himself has even called to ‘close down Nato’ for being obsolete in the post-Soviet Union world.

But, before your insider is accused of photoshopping words into people’s publicly-available articles, a word of balance. Milne did once dish out the harshest criticism of Putin that the hard left knows: he called him a ‘centrist’.

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Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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