Dear Labour Comrades,
“Those who believe that all virtue is to be found in their own party principles push matters to extremes; they do not consider that disproportion destroys a state.” The evidence for Aristotle’s astute observation is only too readily available to us in 2016, from the punitive austerity policies of the Conservatives, to the dirty nature of recent election and referendum campaigns. Indeed, our very party stands toe to toe right now because of our inability to heed the lessons of history.
Let us now reflect upon that history, and in doing so seek to understand each other. Let us understand that we have young members who have no lived experience of serious Labour conflict other than that taking place right now. Let us understand that some of our PLP and party grandees have lived through things that understandably make it hard for them to accept how young people see the world; that they have a fear that prevents them from embracing the optimism brought into the party by our newer members. Let us understand that, between these two groups, there is a wide range of individuals each with their own knowledge and also their own biases.
We can continue to fight each other and watch our country fall apart, or we can work together to oppose a Conservative government that has persistently exploited the public in the service of their personal ambition and abused the parliamentary process in order to push through policies that have no real support. Out internecine conflict has created a power vacuum in British politics that has allowed the Conservatives to punish the public and enabled far right groups to bend ears the way they bend the truth.
The fear felt by those who know our history is real. From the very beginning of our party’s movement, we have had to fight in our pursuit of a parliamentary route to progress against a perception that we desire a revolutionary overthrow of that system. Our electability has been called into question because of the wider history of Socialism in the 20thC. The party has rightly had to develop mechanisms to guard against the dangers of populism. In doing so, we have at times created a party in which the PLP has failed to listen to the people.
Taken to its extreme, we have some politicians who feel they can dictate to the public, while we have others who believe the PLP should do nothing but the bidding of the corresponding CLP. There must be a middle ground between these two positions – and this objective truth is even more vital during times of great social and economic instability, such as we face right now and shall likely continue to face for a decade or more. As jobs become automated and wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few super-rich individuals, even without this year’s intra-party conflict and the UK’s departure from the EU, we would be facing a major crisis. There is no overstating the gravity of the situation.
We have lost trust. The trust we need the public to have in us is missing, and the trust we need to have in each other is likewise awol. Part of re-building that trust involves honestly acknowledging our failures, part of it involves us forgiving each other for the biases we bring to the party, be it from our knowledge of party and country history, or our lack of it. After that, we are required to formulate a positive policy platform that excites British citizens to put their faith in us. Let us not rush to reject the conclusions of comrades with whom we may disagree; instead, we ought first to ask ourselves why and how those comrades came to those conclusions so that we can address concerns co-operatively.
Aristotle also said that “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” We must all ask ourselves what we can do to better live up to that in understanding each other and finding common ground.
In my humble opinion, there is much we can do to improve the integrity of our party. This includes both social and economic policies we can pursue, and it includes our conduct and our constitution.
With regard to conduct and constitution, the decision-making process that took us to war in Iraq was faulty and rightly disgraced us in the eyes of many members of the public, as did our reluctance to acknowledge the problems with the Iraq War until now.
We assumed our support in Scotland to be a given, in spite of local level corruption and with a naïve belief that we can understand Scotland from London. The Scottish voice was trivialized and traduced. The work we undertake to win back the trust of Scottish people must involve genuine humility on our part as we seek to understand how best we can serve them going forward. The Scottish must show us how we can serve them, and we must let them show us how they need us to lead.
We are still haunted by the perceptions of corruption that were proven accurate by the expenses scandal. Had we sought to make transparency of government a cornerstone of our last period in government, we’d never have ended up in a situation where some politicians of all parties were intentionally defrauding the expenses system and others were caught up in a system that was far too permissible as to prevent excess. That sense of corruption (that the public feel about all parties) is further compounded by our choosing photo opps, and phoney over-rehearsed hand gestures, by our semantic gymnastics, and by our fearful over-reliance on focus groups.
Things like this must be said stridently, and then be learned from so that we don’t repeat our mistakes as we are doing now. All these examples are linked by a common theme of us growing complacent, ignoring the public voices, smugly assuming there was no urgency to act, and thinking that we (by which I largely mean Labour within Westminster) knew best by virtue of our supposed status.
In social and economic policy, we need to be clear with the public about the limits on our power – the state of the economy does constrain our spending options, for example. Yet, that does not mean we ought to forego optimism, for we can introduce bold and positive changes to improve public services in the long run. Let’s trust the public to understand that we won’t sell out future generations for flashy unsustainable improvements in the short term. Let’s trust them to understand that we will not drag our feet to bring substantive and lasting change within the limits of the circumstances of the day.
On civil liberties, we have much work to do in order to return to our party principles. In the climate of a terrorist threat to the UK, coupled with a desire to appear unquestionably tough on crime, we have at times pursued policies that have been needlessly paternalistic. For every progressive piece of legislation like the Equalities Act, we have suggested something deeply conservative, like ID cards. We need more consistency in our civil liberties work again.
But let us also remember the Labour party at its best. Let us think back to the outstanding successes of the Atlee government and how they were brought about by virtue of the fact that the various factions of our party came together to co-operate in government to bring that change about. For every Nye Bevan you needed an Atlee to know where to place him, or to know when he was going too far. The Atlee government is perhaps the clearest example of how great we can be when work together, but the same principle is true of every Labour government to varying degrees. Let us actively build upon that power of co-operation now.
Let us lose the labels of Blairite and Trot (and the rest) – all our little pejorative nicknames have no meaning because we rush so quickly to judge that we’ve too often labeled people without learning them. Let’s learn the person, not the label. We need nuance now more than ever before.
For a year now, our party has been at war with itself. But we know that dates back to, in one group, our disillusionment with Blair’s leadership and the centralization of power, and in the other our siege mentality at having a successful leader criticized from within. The removal of Clause IV was imperative to Labour’s survival, yet our surgery went painfully far beyond Clause IV. Our failure to ensure an open and productive space in which to resolve the conflict of the 1980’s has meant that we never dealt with the divide between us. We can choose to confront that now, or we can choose to cease being Labour forever. And it’s up to each and every one of us to make that choice in the best interests of every citizen in our land.
I’ll trust you to make that choice. Can you now honour the trust that’s being given? Because when we talk about solidarity in our movement – one of the defining aspects of what makes a Labour government good for Britain – that’s all we really mean.
A Labour party member