Blair’s Coup d’Etat or Why the PLP is so right wing

Quote

In the same way, as the dark side of the EU project was exposed by the Greek crisis, the campaign leading to Jeremy Corbyn’s staggering win of the Labour Leadership has exposed the gulf between the grassroots and the Westminster establishment.  So how did this happen?  Why are the vast majority of Labour MPs so far to the right of the grassroots’ membership?

The following review of political scientist Lewis Minkin’s book, The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management  goes a long way to explain how the left were excluded from becoming MPs during the Blair/Brown era.  It is particularly insightful because the review is written by Alan Simpson who was a prominent left wing MP who experienced first hand the Blair years.

 

The Blair Supremacy under Scrutiny

By former Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson

Reading Lewis Minkin’s new book The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management is like sitting alongside a skilled forensic scientist as he dissects the multi-layered elements that contributed to the death of the body in front of him.  This isn’t quite where Blair left the Labour Party, but it’s not far short.  The book reads like a thriller.   What makes it captivating is Minkin’s grasp of the scrupulous planning that went into Blair’s managerialist coup, which, for a time, took ownership of both the Labour Party and the country.  Minkin reports a ‘wry comment from Blair describing “New Labour” as “the newest political party on the scene and the smallest.  It has about five people.”’  ‘From within New Labour,’ Minkin continues, ‘the takeover of the party by this small minority was quietly and sometimes boastfully acknowledged to be a coup d’etat over the party.’

Minkin describes it as a ‘rolling coup’ in that ‘it involved a series of unilateral major moves over several years’.  These moves are what the book reveals.

I once described how the Blairite revolution turned Labour from a political party into a Tupperware party, but I was wrong.  The description is far too benign.  No one falls out of love with Tupperware, at least not in the way the country fell out of love with Blair.  Tupperware is also as useful to the poor as to the rich.  And Tupperware never stripped meaning and values from everything it touched.  Blairism did.  In doing so, it ruthlessly exploited (and then dumped) a lot of decent people whose lives had been devoted to the Labour Party.

Even today, many of these – MPs as well as party loyalists – have difficulty acknowledging how extensively, and cynically, they were taken for such a ride.  For them, the book should be compulsory reading.

If it has a weakness, Minkin’s analysis falls short only in the absence of a meta-narrative; this is something like explaining the Chilean coup without any reference to the USA. I shall return to this later.

Reluctant admiration

The Blairite plan was never just to lead the Labour Party, but to emasculate it.  To do so, every aspect of the party’s machinery of governance had to be subjugated to the leader’s whim.  Minkin takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through this process and the machinations that lay behind it.  Minkin describes the greatest unity of the small vanguard of ‘modernisers’ as their shared ‘negative appraisal of the party, including and particularly its affiliated unions and associated collective body – the TUC.’

Minkin’s dissection covers the entirety of my parliamentary life (and more).  It always puzzled me how, despite all the warnings and bollockings, I never got expelled from the parliamentary party.  Now I know.

It wasn’t that Blair’s ultras lacked a desire for purges; it was just that they screwed up more often than they expected.  Their ‘managerialist’ obsessions, which politically house-trained the party, created a space in which MPs, whips and others still backed away from pooing on their own carpet.  The machine knew that Blair would get the blame – ultimate proof that his control‑freakery had no limits.  And since protecting the leader had already displaced promoting the party as the Supremacy’s overriding duty, the hounds always got called off.

To be fair, some of this was also down to the wiser counsel of whips such as Nick Brown and George Mudie.  Both were better people than the Supremacy deserved, and it was good to see Minkin recognise this in his description of events.  I guess that many of the Labour rebels were also saved by divisions between the Blair and Brown camps, in what was to become the running distraction throughout the Labour years in government.

The Blair-Brown distraction

For me, the friction between these two characters – equally damaged, equally obsessive – was often a manipulated divide, spun out to lock the parliamentary party into the smallness of playground politics rather than the bigger canvas of real politics.  Loyalty invariably displaced integrity (or clarity) in the debates of the day.

Minkin captures this brilliantly in his description of the seminal moments surrounding New Labour’s first internal rebellion – the vote on lone parent benefits.  ‘Dealing with the issue of a cut in lone parent benefit became a significant landmark in the early management of New Labour in government, and had major consequences.  For Blair and Brown,’ Minkin surmises, ‘showing prudence and control on this was all the more important because the left-wing Campaign group appeared to them to be the driving force of a limited opposition.  They, the usual suspects, had to be faced down and publicly pulled into line some time or the other, so why not over this early issue and now?’

Minkin describes much of this as a tactical misjudgment on Brown’s part rather than a cynical move on Blair’s.  Standing in the middle of it felt slightly different.  Many of us saw no real divide between Blair and Brown.  Neither showed an ability to step back and accept they may have got something wrong.  Both were obsessed with demonstrating their power as leaders.  Loyalty and obedience became articles of faith, outside of which Labour’s world would crumble.

In the same way that the Mafia asks you to destroy something precious to demonstrate loyalty, Labour MPs were asked to give a kicking to some of the most vulnerable in society.  This was a difficult step for many to take.

For the machine, however, it was the first big test of their ability to put the squeeze on people; and there were members of both the Blair and Brown camps who loved it.  MPs could be leaned on, cajoled, abused or bullied, all in the name of loyalty.  Many had their constituency officials phoned and told to kick their MPs into line.  Some had their families phoned and told not to get too comfortable with an MP’s life because they would be thrown out before the next election.  All were told it was New Labour (i.e. Blair) that they owed allegiance to.  Conscience was a liability, not an asset.

Both Blair and Brown may have wished to run with their ultras’ demands for a purge of the 47 rebels who ignored these entreaties, but the impact on the parliamentary party was different.  Most were reluctant to expel those who went into a division lobby that their hearts told them they should have been in too.  It established an achilles heel that was (fortunately) to remain throughout the Supremacy.

Lies, damn lies and New Labour

One of the strengths of Lewis Minkin’s book is its description of how all the groundwork for this managerial coup had been done long before the 1997 election.  The machine may have been surprised by the scale of the Labour victory but it already knew that it would rule by manipulation and disinformation, rather than through a new era of democratic engagement.

When Blair talked of ‘an unbroken line of accountability’, he meant everyone, and everything, being accountable to him.  His (initial) personal popularity was played out in talk of ‘direct democracy’ – a leader connecting directly to the people.  It was a great way of sidelining every structure of accountability that the party had ever created.  Minkin describes this with painful accuracy.

Minkin details how ‘the Blair coup’ set out to turn the parliamentary left into ‘a sealed tomb’: one that would not be re‑opened by new, dissenting, Labour MPs entering parliament.  Under the guise of ‘improving the quality of candidates’, Blair’s machine filleted the panel of those approved for selection by ‘eliminating candidates who “appeared not to have a pragmatic line on policy disagreements”’.

At the heart of what Minkin calls the ‘rolling coup’ was Blair himself – vulnerable, charismatic, insecure and obsessive – the centrepiece of a giant political Ponzi scheme.  Truth was always a moveable feast.  Statistics, or supportive polling data, would always be found to justify the latest move to ‘marketise’ and individualise everything advanced by New Labour.  It wasn’t just Clause Four that Blair wanted shut of; it was the whole notion of collectivism.  Business, particularly big business, wanted none of it.

So it was that, under the guise of new social partnerships, huge tranches of the social fabric of Britain were transferred into the pockets of the private sector.  My only quibble with Minkin is that this was as much Brown’s agenda as Blair’s.  The debacle of PFI and PPP debts that remain tied round the neck of public services is their common legacy to the country, not just a Blairite one.

The shadow of Nuremberg

Without doubt Blair was a consummate performer, with an unparalleled ability to lie for any cause.  It is only fitting, however, that his greatest lie should be the source of his ultimate undoing. On most issues he simply moved on and the machine behind him swept contradictory evidence under the nearest carpet.  But war doesn’t work like that – not, at least, when it is a war of choice.

As the chair of Labour Against the War, I knew how far we had gone to bring real ‘evidence’ within the reach of MPs.  Weapons inspectors had come into parliament, assuring us they had no evidence of any remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  International diplomats had arrived urging more time, and more diplomacy.  We even circulated our own detailed pamphlet to all Labour MPs on the eve of the Commons debate, dismantling the claims made in Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’.  But most of us knew that Blair had already promised Bush the war he was looking for.  Nothing was going to deflect Blair from his own jihadist inclinations.

Minkin is right in depicting the debate as one of Blair’s most outstanding parliamentary moments.  It was where he pushed ‘Trust me’ and ‘If you only knew what I know’ to its limits.  It was some achievement to get decent people to vote in ways that Nuremberg would have judged an inadmissible defence.

But the war, its consequences and the absence of WMDs turned out to be Blair’s unforgivable sin – the lie that will dog him to the end of his days.  Hubris had given the public, and the party, something to hate him for.

The meta-narrative

The only thing Lewis Minkin’s book lacks is a wrap-around.  For all we come to understand about the ‘how’ of Blair’s rolling coup, there is nothing that addresses the ‘why’.  It isn’t enough to put it all down to control-freakery.  To learn anything from this, we have to put it in a context.  Psychologically, Blair was always drawn towards wealth and celebrity, and has draped himself in more of it than can ever buy forgiveness.  His favoured acolytes all went the same way, becoming payroll beneficiaries in everything Blair privatised.  But the brains are to be found elsewhere.

My take is that Blair had long been groomed by the neoliberalism that was running away with American politics.  The agenda was not to make Labour ‘business-friendly’ but big business-compliant.  The global agenda of the time was about turning public services into corporate profit streams.

Deregulation of financial markets, the World Trade Organisation, the TRIPS agreement on intellectual property rights and a series of US adventurist wars were all part of a bigger project.  The creation of new global creatures – corporate citizens – required the creation of new cultural norms within which they could flourish.  Rights were to be transferred from citizens to corporations.  Duties went the other way.  Somewhere along this trajectory from citizens to serfs is where we are now.

Blair was not the architect of this.  His shallowness, vanity and venal interests just made him a willing partner.  The real Supremacy lay elsewhere.

Accolades to the invisible

Some, in parliament, understood this.  And it is in a tribute to them that I want to end this review.  The Campaign group of Labour MPs barely figure in Minkin’s book, but they were the only bolt-hole of real political thought that I found throughout my parliamentary years.  Some of their leading voices get no mention at all, yet they were the MPs you would always find on picket lines, at trade union and social movement rallies, on anti-war marches and at the forefront of campaigns to restore rather than exploit the planet.

Epitomised by Tony Benn, these were the Labour MPs – socialists – who set out to explain that we always had bigger and better choices open to us than the Supremacy would have had us to believe.  Of course, it is sad that neither the trade union movement nor the party had the courage to wrap itself around those holding out this bigger vision.  But if Labour is to salvage anything from the superficiality of the Blair experience it will be the knowledge that we cannot manage our way out of the current crisis, any more than we can shop our way out.

The world is locked into a series of crises for which corporate feudalism has no answer; crises not susceptible to individualised solutions.  Tomorrow’s security will only be found if we grasp just how interdependent we really are.  Solutions will have to be on the scale of a new post-1945 settlement – with the planet as much as ourselves.

Tony Blair was never going to be relevant to this.  But the very thing whose removal came to symbolise his rise to the Supremacy – Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution – could well be.  What if common interests and common ownership/stewardship turn out to be the only viable form of tomorrow’s politics?  Think about it: the return of Clause Four – in local, national and global terms.  Now that would really piss him off.

The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management by Lewis Minkin is published by Manchester University Press. Alan Simpson was the Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010

Campaign briefing – CLPD Autumn edition 2015 issue no. 79

First posted in Red Pepper 

Related post – https://think-left.org/2012/06/04/new-labour-excluded-the-parliamentary-left-in-a-sealed-tomb/

 

New Labour excluded the parliamentary left in a ‘sealed tomb’.

Quote

There is a strong argument that Tony Blair and New Labour are culpable for allowing this ‘economy and welfare-wrecking’ government to be in power.  Not only did Tony Blair leave the ‘door open’ for much of the Tory/LD legislation to be easily implemented but New Labour’s ‘Tory-lite’ policies succeeded in alienating both the left of the party and much of the Labour supporting electorate.  ‘According to Ipsos MORI, while middle-class professional support for Labour declined by five per cent between 1997 and 2010, support among skilled workers plummeted by 21 per cent.’ 

Unfortunately, the exodus of left wing activists from the LP massively weakened opposition from within the party, particularly after Iraq, and facilitated further moves rightward.  A similar effect is currently observable in the LD’s grassroots .. those that remain are much more supportive of Conservative policies than those prior to the GE 2010.  In fact, New Labour moved so far from its previous roots that, as Owen Jones writes in the Independent ‘Time to demolish the Blair myth’ (1), Tony Blair’s greatest admirers are to be found in the Cabinet:

His influence is certainly “very firmly felt” among his adoring Tory fans, as they build on the foundations he laid. But Labour’s leaders would be best advised to leave the swooning to Cameron’s acolytes. Blair was fortunate to lead Labour just as Tory Britain imploded; but the old Blairite formula offers nothing to those who want a real alternative to the Conservative crusade.

The result has been disastrous for the UK which desperately needs to U-turn away from ‘austerity’ economics, and to reverse the dismantling of the NHS and welfare state.

Unsurprisingly, much of the electorate remains cynical that Ed Miliband’s LP has changed sufficiently, when there was so little difference between the Tories and the Tory-lite LP of New Labour.  This skepticism is particularly true for former left wing activists  However, at present, there is not a lot of choice … the only hope of removing the Tory/LD government is the Labour Party. 

It seems timely to consider what happened within the Parliamentary LP under the control -freakery of New Labour, and what of that legacy remains to undermine Ed Miliband’s LP in implementing a left wing agenda.  To that end, Think Left reproduces a Red Pepper article published in 2007, in the aftermath of Brown’s unopposed ‘election’ and the success of John Cruddas in the deputy leadership election.  This article quotes extensively from Alan Simpson MP, a leading member of the Socialist Campaign Group in Westminster, and the owner of one of the ‘greenest’ homes in the UK.  It is frustrating to think of what the LP might have been under such a ‘red-green’ politician who has now sadly left parliament.  It is even more tragic that the left were deliberately excluded throughout New Labour’s governing because subsequent events have shown that they were correct in opposing lighter regulation of the financial sector, Iraq, the hollowing-out of manufacturing, PFI and so on.

However, there are some rays of hope.  Ed Miliband employed Alan Simpson as an advisor, when he was at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in spite of hostility from both the civil servants and Gordon Brown’s cabinet.  The 2010 GE also saw the election of many more left-ish MPs, and the PLP contrasts favourably with the PLP of the previous 20 years. But most encouragingly of all is that the Unions are taking up the battle for the LP.  The most recent development has been the establishing of a union-funded think tank, Class: Centre for Labour and Social Studies which ‘seeks to shape ideas that can inspire the trade union movement, cement a broad alliance of social forces and influence policy development to ensure the political agenda is on the side of working people.’

It is hoped that the Red Pepper piece will provide a context for understanding the battles within the current LP and why there has been such a gulf between the politics of the ordinary Labour supporter and New Labour’s PLP. (Bold indicates my emphasis not Alex Nunns.)

What became of the Labour left?  by Alex Nunns  Red Pepper magazine September 2007

‘After more than a decade of a concerted attempt to silence the left in the Labour Party, Alex Nunns inquires into whether there is still life in this vital challenge to the power of the executive.

When John McDonnell conceded that he couldn’t get the 45 MPs’ nominations needed to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party, commentators leapt into action, gleefully declaring the death of the left. ‘It’s pathetic,’ Andrew Neil said to Diane Abbott on the BBC’s weekly political show, This Week. ‘Your lot can’t even muster 45 backers.’

Six weeks later it was different. Jon Cruddas’s strong showing in the deputy leadership contest prompted headlines such as ‘Why Labour is lurching left’ in the Sun. All of a sudden the left was a force that Brown couldn’t ignore.

So what is the true state of the Labour left after Brown’s coronation?

Sealed tomb

After a long period in power under the most right-wing Labour leader ever, who initiated a disastrous aggressive war, the left should be on the ascendant. The grass roots should be rebelling, and MPs should be getting braver. This would follow the pattern of other times – such as the end of the Wilson/Callaghan government.

But Alan Simpson, longstanding Labour MP and a key figure in the left Socialist Campaign Group in Westminster, believes the left is in ‘a seriously weakened position in parliament, consistent with the declared New Labour objective that the parliamentary left would be a “sealed tomb”‘.

When journalists refer to the Labour left, they usually mean the Campaign Group. Formed in the aftermath of the 1981 deputy leadership contest, the group endured but is now steadily losing members – comprising just 24 of 353 Labour MPs. ‘The difficulty is the numbers,’ says Campaign Group MP Neil Gerrard. ‘We lost members at the last election. Next time a big chunk of the Campaign Group is leaving parliament. There are no new left MPs joining because they aren’t being selected for winnable seats. Is it going to be able to sustain itself?’

How can this gloomy picture be reconciled with the Cruddas result? In a way it is not comparing like with like. It was when Cruddas got beyond the parliamentary protection barriers that he really scored – in the trade unions especially. MP Neil Gerrard believes the deputies’ contest became a proxy for the leadership battle that never was. Parliamentarians felt more secure in nominating Cruddas due to the lack of an obvious front-runner.

Cruddas is also distinctly not of the Campaign Group. He is associated with the Compass think-tank. The lineage of this group is best illustrated by Cruddas’s own biography – he worked in Number 10 during Blair’s first term, representing the trade unions within government when, he says, ‘there were still spaces to occupy, like on the minimum wage’. He became disillusioned with the rightward drift in the second term.

The Cruddas campaign was not intended as a challenge to Brown – in fact Compass came under pressure from some of its own members because it refused to back either John McDonnell or Michael Meacher. Some see Compass as the re-emergence of the ‘soft left’ after years of loyalty to New Labour. But the breadth of involvement from across the left and the organisation’s openness to non party members indicates an attempt to go beyond the debilitating division between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ categories. However in parliament Compass has none of the organisational strength or purpose of the Campaign Group.

But does the state of the left of the Labour Party really matter? Many people working for social change decided long ago to focus their efforts outside parliament and the Labour Party.

Powerful actor

Like it or not, though, the Labour Party is a powerful actor. Due to the first past the post electoral system, it has significance even for activists who do not believe it can ever deliver radical change. Sooner or later, every campaigning organisation comes up against some noxious piece of legislation, or needs the help of an MP to discover information or get something done. Given the enormous strength of the British executive, when Labour is in power rebellions from the party’s left are among the few ways of holding the government to account.

The balance sheet over the past ten years has not been completely in New Labour’s favour. An early revolt over benefits cuts, led by the Campaign Group, provided the context for Brown’s tax-credits policy. On foundation hospitals, government concessions meant hospital trusts could not act as completely commercial organisations. Alan Simpson points out how ‘since the Kinnock years the Campaign Group has worked collaboratively with a wider coalition of dissenters, for example in opposition to tuition fees, academies and immigration legislation.’

The Campaign Group’s advantage is that its members have a shared lack of interest in conventional parliamentary careers. Government patronage has been the main mechanism for taming the left but it does not work on the likes of Lynn Jones or Jeremy Corbyn, especially when such MPs are organised in a group. One of the worries over the MPs loosely coalesced around Compass is that they might be more easily bought-off by Brown. Critics point to Compass’s failure to back a leadership challenger as evidence that this process has already begun, while in response supporters emphasise Cruddas’s decision not to take up Brown’s offer of a job.

But how did the left reach this state of apparent weakness on the one hand and vulnerability on the other? Any explanation must be set against the context of a decades-long beating at the hands of Neil Kinnock and then Blair. Since Kinnock’s 1985 Conference speech and the expulsion of the Militant Tendency, the Labour leadership has sought to delegitimise the left. Helped by the electoral system, Labour turned smashing the left to its advantage, secure in the knowledge that leftists had nowhere else to go.

These trends went into hyper-drive under Blair. For Simpson, ‘the weakness of the left is seen in the extent to which the party machine has become involved in virtually every selection of neutered parliamentary candidates, using open shortlists in a fast and loose way, mainly to ensure that left candidates are excluded or defeated.’ Neil Gerrard concedes most of his Campaign Group colleagues would have ‘great difficulty being selected as parliamentary candidates now compared to 15 years ago’.

The extent of New Labour’s control-freakery and the crippling impact it has had on the left is remarkable. Under Blair, No 10 and the Labour Party head office were obsessively concerned with every parliamentary candidate’s selection. Left-wing hopefuls, like Christine Shawcroft or Mark Seddon, were stopped at all costs. Party workers were tasked with personal lobbying for the leadership’s preferred choice, or were even told to chase up certain postal votes but not others. On the flip side, safe New Labour candidates were coached before selection meetings – events often packed with supporters. Blair was said to have taken a close personal interest in many selections.

These tactics have been used for elections to policy forums and in choosing Labour conference delegates. Conference management has been staggering. The renowned ‘delegate liaison’ staff – experts in arm-twisting – work tirelessly to ensure correct speakers are chosen and votes go the right way.

The upshot of this style has been the loss of many activists. Alienated by war and policies like the patchwork privatisation of the NHS, many feel a lack of influence over the direction of the party and leave. Labour’s membership tumbled from 407,000 in 1997 to just 177,000 in May 2007. Ironically, this hollowing-out has accentuated the effectiveness of these tactics – it is easier to manage a party that is an empty shell.

The weakness of the parliamentary left follows from this. Critically-minded MPs take strength from local campaigning groups. Without them they can feel isolated and more vulnerable to pressure from the leadership. This was demonstrated starkly in the failure of a challenger to secure enough MPs’ nominations to take on Brown.

Fragmentation

But it would be wrong to see the left as a helpless victim of attacks from the Labour right. Alan Simpson traces the left’s weakness back to its own ‘fragmentation’ in the mid 1980s. He says that vents like the Socialist Conferences in Chesterfield – which drew together a broad spectrum of activists and thinkers between 1985 and 1987 – ‘contributed to the erosion of the left. There was nothing wrong with getting Tony Benn to stand, but this happened at the same time as people were jumping ship. It led to a diminished left in the Labour Party.

‘The Chesterfield stuff was the origins of Blairism because we lost the discipline of the collective and said ‘the personal is the political, so everyone go off and do your own thing’. The right then picked up this individualism and ran with it. The left was dispersed, resulting in the chaos we have now.’

An alternative view would posit that Chesterfield-style connections between social movements and the Labour left could not have such a causal impact; after all they have not led to fragmentation in other times – for example, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when activists joined a more open Labour Party in significant numbers and added their energy to the Bennite campaign.

Indeed, it was these kinds of connections that John McDonnell attempted to rebuild in his leadership campaign, which comprised nearly a year of travelling and speaking to countless meetings. He is now channelling this momentum into the Labour Representation Committee, ‘a national network of Labour Party activists and trade unionists who are fighting for socialism in the Labour Party’, which is pointedly ‘open to members of the Labour Party or of no party at all’. Many argue that it is in opening practical and intellectual connections with campaigning movements that the future of the Labour left lies.

McDonnell’s leadership bid caused ruptures within the Campaign Group. He did not enjoy the full support of its members, some of whom, including Alan Simpson, backed Meacher instead.

The big unions refused to back either Meacher or McDonnell, despite the fact that both men stood on a platform that promised to increase union power and stop privatisation. Unions work within constraints – they often take the view that their members’ interests are best served by working with the Labour leadership, or in this case the leader-in-waiting. Within the union movement there is also a dense network of reciprocal ties that inhibit a union from going it alone. The large unions believed that a challenger to Brown would have no chance, and most of the smaller ones followed suit.

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, believes that the process wasn’t helped by tactical errors. ‘I think there was a miscalculation in the deal between Michael Meacher and John McDonnell on that Monday afternoon,’ he says. ‘I never thought it would be the case that Meacher’s supporters would all switch to McDonnell, but I think most of McDonnell’s would have backed Meacher.’

By contrast, when it came to the deputy leadership contest the lack of an obvious front-runner meant unions were more willing to throw their weight behind a candidate – Cruddas had the backing of the UK’s largest union, Unite.

Cruddas’s success surprised everyone, including himself. The Compass/Unite combination was key. In the first round of voting he actually came first with the highest percentage among trade unionists and good support in the constituency parties – gaining 19 per cent overall in a field of six candidates. Eventually he finished third, beating ministers Hilary Benn, Peter Hain and Hazel Blears.

Life in the party

‘There’s much more life in the party than I thought,’ says Cruddas. ‘When I started I thought the party had been hollowed out. But the result shows that the ‘virtual’ politics practised at the centre, the politics of positioning and messaging, was out of touch with the party.’

Cruddas set the agenda throughout the contest, raising issues of housing, immigration and foreign policy. ‘All the other candidates were saying the same things to start with but the terms of the debate moved as they realised that the centre of gravity in the party was not where they thought.’

‘Blears coming last was a fantastic outcome,’ he continues. ‘It showed that her message of what the Labour party is about was wrong. ‘

Neil Gerrard, too, sees the contest as a positive process that ‘opened up many opportunities – policy debates and stronger links with unions.’ But Alan Simpson is much more circumspect. ‘It’s important not to get carried away,’ he says. ‘Cruddas has a voting record outside ministerial responsibility that is not very adventurous.’

Indeed, ask Cruddas what he intends to do with his new standing and he is less clear. ‘How do you get alliances built across the unions, in parliament and in the grass roots?’ he asks. ‘Is there a case for an organisational capacity? That’s a debate we have to have.’

An interesting feature of the Cruddas result highlights a further dynamic within Labour. The left is now stronger in the unions than in the local Labour parties – a turnaround from the days when right-wing union bosses were the bastions of the Labour establishment against the Bennite constituencies.

In a supreme historical irony, this shift has come at a time when Labour’s financial crisis has left the party dependent on the unions for money. The concomitant influence was manifested in the Warwick agreement, in which the unions wrought concessions from the government in the run-up to the 2005 election.

Billy Hayes points to Labour’s last election manifesto as an example of the extent of union sway. The CWU was able to secure a government commitment not to privatise the Royal Mail, but only after swallowing glowing language about the liberalisation of postal markets.

Hayes believes this limit to union influence is largely down to the left’s lack of a well-presented economic alternative. The left agenda has retreated from the ambitious Alternative Economic Strategy of the late 1970s to a more defensive position of opposing privatisation, PFI, and private equity.

But union influence can be expected to grow. Hayes says the Labour right has given up trying to win back the unions, in part because of the mechanisms imposed by Thatcher’s union laws. In the mandatory elections for union leaders, turnout is generally around a quarter. That represents activists, who tend to vote left.

This worries the right. As New Labour blogger Luke Akehurst wrote following Cruddas’s result: ‘If we don’t ensure that the successors to the current generation of general secretaries are from the moderate wing of the party, we’ll end up in a decade’s time with Brown’s successor in a contested election being from the left.

New Labour set out to try to loosen if not break Labour’s links with the unions and create what Peter Mair dubbed a ‘partyless democracy’: consensus government ‘for the people’, which purports to be above special interests. But this project failed, and not just in the unions. The attempt to ‘marginalise’ the party brought with it all the features of control freakery that proved so devastating to the left. But this left the party without a campaigning base – which has turned out be much more important than the Blairites realised, especially for wining local elections.

Cash for honours has, for the time being, scuppered the project. This presents a golden opportunity for the left. Lack of money has reduced the party machine’s control. There has been a huge cut in staff – up to 70 per cent in some areas – meaning there is no longer the capacity to manage every selection.

What can be achieved in the absence of this management has been shown in elections to Labour’s National Executive Committee, where the one member one vote system has reduced the scope for manipulation. The Grassroots Alliance has been successful in getting candidates elected through simple but effective campaigning. If the left can get its act together, the chance is there to replicate this at all levels of the party.

And what about Gordon Brown? Can the left sleep easier in its bed, or should it be up and fighting? John Cruddas is cautiously hopeful. ‘The jury is out but lots of what he is doing is healthy. There’s a sense of relief.’ Neil Gerrard, too, says that opportunities are opening up and is pleased by the change of tone from the government on issues such as the NHS. But Alan Simpson is scathing: ‘The leadership coronation has led us to the same mistake of honeymoon loyalty that the party made under Blair. It ignores the fact that unacceptable legislation is being pushed through in shed-loads and without opposition, right now.

How ‘the left’ responds as the honeymoon effect fades will determine whether it really is weak, or vulnerable, or whether it has some life left in it yet.’

Red Pepper is a magazine of political rebellion and dissent, influenced by socialism, feminism and green politics.