Banging the Blairite drum
Eddie Ford is less than thrilled by the leadership candidates on offer
Following Ed Miliband’s near instant resignation after the election, the Blairites have not been shy in offering their diagnosis for Labour’s defeat. It was far too leftwing under Ed, apparently, with even a whiff of class war. Instead, they tell us, Labour should appeal to the ‘aspirational’ and cater for ‘all sections of society’ - Blairite code words meaning that the party should openly serve the interests of capital. Tony Blair understood this and won elections, we hear, but Miliband did not - and look what happened to him.
Of course, this Blairite narrative does not fully compute. The prime reason for Labour’s defeat was Scotland, where Labour was regarded as not leftwing enough - ie, ‘red Tories’. There is also the fact that Miliband’s more ‘leftwing’ policies seemed to have a measure of popularity: mansion tax, restoration of the 50p tax rate, pledge to freeze energy prices, tax non-doms, etc. Only a fantasist could believe that pure Blairism would have won back voters from the Scottish National Party, or think that a ‘centre ground’ could be found between the SNP, Greens, Ukip and middle-class English voters. But this appears to be of little interest for the Blairites and other Labour rightwingers determined to totally distance the party from anything resembling progressive politics - not to mention the unions. An agenda enthusiastically endorsed by the pro-Tory press.
Alas, it also appears to be the view - to one degree or another - of the current candidates for the Labour leadership. As time goes by, it looks increasingly unlikely that any more contestants will emerge, even if there are intermittent rumours about Jamie Reed, the shadow health minister and MP for Copeland in Cumbria, who has described himself as a “Jedi” and “good Methodist”. Certainly no beauty line-up, the four declared candidates are Liz Kendall, the shadow social care minister, Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary (wife of the ex-shadow chancellor and ex-politician, Ed Balls), Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, and Mary Creagh, shadow international development secretary. Those so far competing for deputy leader are Rushanara Ali, Ben Bradshaw, Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint, Tom Watson and, recently, John Healey - the MP for Wentworth and Dearne who felt compelled to stand, as he had become “dismayed at how narrow and shallow the debate has been so far” (meaning that mathematically at least one or two of those already declared will lack enough MPs’ support to make the ballot paper).
As our readers will know, there were two other candidates for leader, but they dropped out of the race. Blairite poster-boy Chuka Umunna, shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, said he found the pressure of candidacy “uncomfortable” and was concerned about the “impact” on family and friends - with one source close to Umunna claiming that his mother had been “followed home” by a reporter. Interestingly, in 2007 he supported Jon Cruddas’s unsuccessful bid to become Labour deputy leader, but is now backing the ‘moderniser’, Liz Kendall (ie, Blairite), as she has been “courageous in challenging conventional wisdom”.
As for Tristram Hunt - the shadow secretary of state for education and also the author of the rather good The frock-coated communist: the revolutionary life of Friedrich Engels - he gave up the fight for the simple reason that he could not get anywhere near enough nominations. He was blocked by the number of MPs that had quickly committed themselves to either Burnham or Cooper, the two clear favourites. Hunt admitted that he had not been prepared for the “speed” of the leadership campaign, commenting: “It is surprising that the nomination process to select a leader for at least the next five years appears to have been largely decided within, at most, five days of a devastating general election defeat”.
In 2014 he was widely denounced by the press for waging “class war” when he proposed that private schools should be required to form “partnerships” with local state schools if they wanted to keep their charitable status. Clearly a dangerous revolutionary. He too backs Kendall - obviously a fellow revolutionary - and has sharply criticised the “timid, institutionalised caution” of the ‘35% strategy’ of the Miliband team, when what is needed is a “100% strategy” - one that is “broad-based, forward-looking”.1
The result of the ballot for Labour’s next leader and deputy leader will be announced on September 12 at a special conference, before the full party conference on September 27. The timing means Labour will also delay the election for its London mayoral candidate until September. The leadership elections will happen under the reformed rules outlined in the February 2014 Collins report (led by the esteemed Baron Collins of Highbury). The three-way electoral college has gone and in its place is a ‘one person, one vote’ system - open to both fully-fledged, card-carrying Labour Party members and registered supporters (for a £3 one-off fee). This means, for example, that members of Labour-affiliated trade unions will need to register as Labour supporters in order to vote. And, of course, candidates need to be nominated by at least 15% of the Parliamentary Labour Party - ie, 35 MPs - with nominations officially opening on June 9 and the ballot papers sent out on August 14. The vote, as in previous elections, will be held by the alternative vote (instant run-off) system.
For what it is worth, at the time of writing William Hill gave the following odds for leader: Andy Burnham 11/10, Liz Kendall 5/4, Yvette Cooper 5/1, and Mary Creagh 33/1 - though if you are feeling really lucky, John Cruddas is 100/1.2
Rather frighteningly, or perhaps comically, the Blairites are loudly complaining that Burnham and Cooper are “squeezing out” the ‘modernisers’ - ie, Kendall and Creagh, or any other rightwinger who might still be contemplating having a go. In other words, for the likes of Lord Mandelson and Alan Milburn, the two front runners are still too leftwing: not truly in touch with ‘aspirational’ Britain.
Having said that, there is a kernel of truth to what the Blairites say. Burnham and Cooper are understood to have secured more than 100 nominations between them, which by definition means most other candidates - declared or undeclared - will not get a look in. At this stage, it is not even certain that Kendall has the required numbers. Creagh is in trouble. Yes, the 15% rule, or barrier, is very high compared to the Tory Party, where a candidate requires just a proposer and a seconder. Standing is made more difficult by the candidates’ obvious self-interest in amassing as many nominations as possible, which inevitably drains the pool still further - exactly what happened in 2007 and 2010. Hence the entire nominations procedure tends to encourage cronyism and favouritism: ‘You scratch my back and I might give you a juicy position in the shadow cabinet’.
One senior backbencher and rightwinger, Barry Sheerman, has darkly claimed that Unite supporters were “pressurising” new MPs to back the frontrunners - principally Burnham. For him it was a “fix” by Unite’s “merry men” in 2010 that stopped the saviour from across the waters, David Miliband, from becoming party leader, and “we cannot have that again” - had David been chosen, he believes, “the reality” is that Labour would have won this year’s general election. Forget Scotland. More generally, he continued, “we have to be realistic about the role of unions in society”, as they are “smaller than they ever were” and are “increasingly rare” in the private sector: they no longer provide “troops on the ground or at general committees”.
Lord Hutton, the Blairite traitor who took up a job under the last coalition government, also thinks Labour can no longer appeal or depend on a “diminishing trade union vote”. He thinks the party needs to “skip a generation” and wants to see a “big debate”, requiring more than two candidates. As one senior Kendall supporter put it, “We want as many modernising forces on the ballot paper as possible” - after all, “we are not just trying to challenge the politics of Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband: we are also challenging their way of doing politics”. Similarly, Lady Morgan, a Labour peer and advisor to Tony Blair for 10 years, pointed out that in 2010 David Miliband ensured some of his supporters nominated the leftwing Diane Abbott to make sure she appeared on the ballot paper. Morgan would like to see this happen again - except in reverse, with the current front runners getting a certain percentage of their supporters to nominate Kendall or another rightwinger.
Naturally, papers like the Daily Mail are trying to scare us with the idea of the unions flooding the Labour Party with ‘registered supporters’, and in that way getting the decisive say as to who becomes leader - even if Harriet Harman told The Times that “there’s absolutely not going to be a stitch-up by the unions in this election”. In reality though, it is far more likely that these ‘registered supporters’ will be mobilised by the unions to support Burnham, who will then become ‘Red’ Andy in the (largely anti-Labour) media.
But only a paranoid Blairite or the Mail could think that Burnham and Cooper represent the forces of ‘old Labour’. Using typical neo-Blairite language, Cooper has warned against Labour lurching to the left or right and in a blog post for the Huffington Post hit out at those who think the party will be out of office for a decade - having a “vague plan” to maybe win in 2025.3 But in her opinion Labour needs to “reach out” and have a plan to win next year - London mayor, Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament. She might be disappointed.
Slightly Orwellian, she has condemned the party’s “anti-business, anti-growth and ultimately anti-worker” stance, declaring that Ed Miliband’s rhetoric about “predators and producers” was a “mistake”. Company directors and hedge fund managers are wealth generators, not “predators”. As leader, Cooper would back a cut in corporation tax and “reset” Labour’s “relationship with business” - creating a business advisory group that would invite bosses who did not support Labour to join it. Wildly leftwing stuff.
When it comes to Andy Burnham, to call him ‘leftwing’ is to stretch the term to breaking point - especially when you recall that he was responsible for the reckless PFI deals under the last Labour government. True, since then he has repositioned himself, saying that he would revert to Labour’s previous policy of giving the NHS “preferred bidder” status when considering contracts - effectively reversing the steady encroachment of private providers under the coalition. This wriggle to the left has been enough to make Burnham the preferred candidate of the unions (for the very same reason he is regarded as a turncoat by senior Blairites).
On the other hand, he has also said that the party’s mansion tax proposal spoke to the “politics of envy” and - having privately disagreed with Miliband’s line for some time - wants to bring forward the in/out EU referendum to 2016 for the sake of British businesses, which have been complaining of continued uncertainty. He will be joining Tory Eurosceptics in demanding a “tough but fair” settlement on immigration, telling The Observer that migrants should not be entitled to benefits for at least two years.4 Burnham is engaged in a complex manoeuvre of simultaneously trying to please the unions and outflank both David Cameron and Nigel Farage over the question of Europe and immigration.
Liz Kendall, the favourite candidate of the Tory press, has warned the party not to cling to the “fantasy” that Britain has swung to the left. She has told journalists Labour must “back business” and “embrace public-sector reform”, and she “won’t be pushed around by the trade unions”. Like the Tories, she is opposed to a permanent top tax rate of 50% and is in favour of an annual benefits cap, doubtlessly because it is a “basic issue of fairness” that a family should not be “able to get more in benefits than someone going out to work” (to use the words of Cameron). Impressed, The Sun commented that Kendall is the “only Labour leadership candidate who can win back Sun readers and working class voters” (May 24). Although Mary Creagh has come out with very similar sentiments.
Given the current balance of forces within the Labour Party, the best that communists can hope for at the moment is that Burnham gets elected - prompting a whole swathe of Blairites to storm out of the party in protest: good riddance to bad rubbish. However, that is quite unlikely. The bastards will stay. John Cruddas, now in charge of writing the report explaining the reasons for Labour’s defeat, has stated that the party is facing the “greatest crisis” since it was created - “epic in its scale”.5 This is a slight exaggeration - how about, say, Ramsay MacDonald’s decision in 1931 to dismiss the Labour cabinet and form a national coalition government? Yet there can be no doubt that Labour is in a pretty dire state and it is certainly true that Ed Miliband’s manifesto was an eclectic and incoherent admixture of bits and pieces, amounting to nothing in particular.
But, then again, if you chuck out the goal of ‘socialism’ - even in the thoroughly reformist and bureaucratic form of clause four - then what ‘grand narrative’ have you got left for essentially bourgeois politicians like Tony Blair and Ed Miliband? They have nothing to really distinguish themselves from the Tories, so ultimately everything becomes reduced to wretched managerial politics. By contrast, we communists want to get as many unions as possible to affiliate to the Labour Party, but not to accept Andy Burnham or any other Labourite misleader. Quite the opposite, we want to challenge such people and transform the Labour Party into a permanent united front along the lines advocated by Leon Trotsky.
1. The Guardian May 19.
5. The Observer May 16.