A bridge over troubled water?

by: Open Labour | on: 31.12.15 | in: Comment | tags: , , , , ,

By Cllr Alex Sobel / @alexsobel

BridgeAt present, our party doesn’t look like a united party to those looking in from the outside. It doesn’t even get close to looking like one on social media. And the reports from within Parliament make grim reading.

We have been as united as I can ever remember in the last couple of years leading up to May 2015, and that didn’t get us close to winning – but a level of unity and consensus is still a prerequisite to building a party which can win, as a minimum.

Building consensus is a two way street, and it is important that right across the party we remain aware of Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate and the broad brush of his campaign.

He campaigned in opposition to austerity and to create a more economically equal society, for Democratic collective action opening up how we are governed, and to engender a new politics. His policies included taking our railways and the energy sector into public ownership, a large scale social housing programme, and rent control for tenants living in private sector housing.

These are the issues that got him a 60% final share, alongside his ability to communicate straight down the line. They require some fleshing out of course, not least in terms of how the party will persuade sceptics of these ideas to back them. But Corbyn has a mandate around them and the direction of travel has the democratic backing of the party, and the last few weeks have not changed this.

In addition to these policies, which in any event are subject to the will of conference, Corbyn built his leadership campaign on the idea of the ‘new politics’. A call for a new politics isn’t an idea Corbyn invented – I have sat in meetings talking about creating a meaningful ‘New Politics’ and how we can reach it for 10 years or more, and many readers will have similar experiences. So we have a vague idea of what this means.

‘New politics’ is not a set of policies or even principles, but a way of organising politics and relating to each other both in the party and society at large. It is an emancipatory and democratic approach, aimed at trying to include everybody that wants to engage, so through a process of rigorous but open and respectful debate a political programme can be created.

It is not a politics of an elite vanguardism, or the obsessive centralising which partially links New Labour’s command and control with small Trotskyist factions (where the Central Committee decides the ‘line’ activists must give). It is meant to move beyond both of these old fashioned and naturally divisive approaches. It’s harder, messier, and requires a huge amount of tolerance and patience.

Labour Party members and supporters, new and old, should be prepared to give this new politics a chance if we are offered a policymaking process based on its principles. Much of the mechanics which would have realised this were meant to be put in place under Ed Miliband, but were never carried through; partly due to a lack of political will, and partly due to the electoral pressure that builds in the run up to polling day. This resulted in a fudge around both involvement and policy making. It leaves Jeremy Corbyn with work to do, and a gap before it is complete.

The Leader and his Office have an opportunity around this to reach out and maximise unity, building the processes which will seed an inclusive and participative political culture, and embody the hope and change which so many felt in the summer. To do so would create a path to consolidation and a settled model of leadership by consent. This is the obvious path for the new leader, and probably the path that should be chosen. Such an approach should have the PLP and party uniting around creating a narrative together as equals, a story we can all tell on the doorstep, which speaks to the country and overcomes the Tories economic story, which is built on a great lie that our nation’s economy is like their household budget and we crashed the economy.

There are differences around policy areas, particularly foreign policy, but we have a lot of talent in the Shadow Cabinet and across the PLP. These differences of opinion are genuinely held and will in some way find an expression. Such a situation is a challenge Labour has coped with in the past and which is to be expected now. People will however still want to see solutions from us, and a ‘new politics’ approach could give each part of the party a voice in creating them, even if it is often hard to keep everyone happy.

There are many areas of consensus. Now is the time to try and move forward opposing the damage the Tories are doing to the fabric of the nation whether in public services, climate change, social housing or the squeeze on pay.

We must avoid the party turning inwards. A choice is opening up for leadership and the PLP, who are together facing a key moment. In the weeks to come, they could choose to embrace the new politics and move forward – or face a deepening divide in the party that we all love and have given up so much for. Open Labour can act as a bridge for those in the party who want to act as an anti-Tory alliance based on an inclusive and empowering politics. To achieve this, MPs, unions and the rest of us must bear Corbyn’s mandate in mind, but choose means which are tolerant of difference and encourage different strands and personalities within Labour to listen to each other. Only through an open dialogue can we reach consensus, or indeed have had a stake in majority decisions.

Labour’s differences may prove to be irrevocable as the most fundamentalist doommongers on the wings of the party constantly tell us. But without an open dialogue, how will the mandate given to Jeremy Corbyn ever be given a chance? And how could any common ground be identified? Without testing the core contentions of Corbyn’s platform, we may never be a settled party, or regain the unity of purpose we need to win.

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  • Open Labour should ensure it can facilitate the future discussions we need within the party.
    Ensuring the debate remains structured and free of antagonism should be our key priority.

    We need unity before we can tackle policies.

  • We must talk about this ‘new politics’ and get the message across that we all have a voice and should use it. It is not about Corbyn or any other individual. He has been a catalyst for debate and change, well done to him. But it is the need to do things differently, to step away from the Westminster bubble that we must now espouse. Solidarity, unity, belief in justice for all. These are not new ideals invented by Jeremy Corbyn. These are a way forward towards a fairer more just society. Elected MPs and former ministers should be embracing this.

  • As 2016 starts, there are two ways to look at the road ahead. One is to call for Labour Unity, but to do this is to underline the fact that Labour is divided. The alternative scenario is to back Jeremy Corbybn to carry out a cabinet reshuffle and his mandate for change. What this mandate consists of is vague but one element, which brought him applause from members supporting Burnham and Cooper, was a commitment to a shadow cabinet of all the talents/. Removing people who do not agree with him 100% would break this commitment.

    Alex suggests that Open Labour could be a bridge over troubled water. However New Politics is too vague, and like the old Communist Party politics of New Times places too much emphasis on the newness of current developments. There is much new admittedly, but there are clear parallels with nineteenth century laissez faire and much to be learnt from the minimalist state provision of that period which the Orange book Liberal Democrats and Cameron Tories favour.

    For 2016, the key will be how voters react to COrbyn. If he proceeds with the reshuffle, he will be putting at risk all the candidates for election in May. Present indications are that Labour will lost 200 of the 1200 council seats in England it is defending. There has been no Corbyn surge among electors. Councillors should make it clear they do not want a reshuffle before the May elections.

    As for the wider New Politics-New Times agenda, which did little to help Compass, let us please NOT repeat the PR debate. The reality is that the voters voted for FIrst Past the Post, and this will be the system used for the 2020 elections and for council elections in England. If there is to be a soft left revival, and I would support this, please lets not keep talking to ourselves. It is the electors that matter.

    There should be no leadership challenge in 2016 and the focus should be on attacking the Tories, to win back lost support. This will be the decisive factor on attitudes to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership

    Trevor FIsher,

    • Trevor, if we limit our conversations to whatever “the electorate” feels to be of concern then we are straight back in the mire of using opinion polls to determine what we should and should not say (and ultimately what we can and cannot think). We have to be able to discuss all issues which we think are important, short, medium and long term. Somewhere in that there are certainly issues of constitutional change and electoral reform. It would, in my view, be daft to impose a vow of silence on ourselves on matters which are not of immediate concern to the majority of the electorate.We have to know how to have different types of conversations running simultaneously.

      On the reshuffle, the issue is not whether Corbyn would be well advised to remove or move people who do not agree with him 100%. How anyone could imagine that to be the situation bearing the current Shadow Cabinet in mind is, I admit, beyond me. The issue is does he have the right to remove/move people from positions where their views will be used as a basis for undermining his efforts to move the Party in the direction desired by the people who elected him? Trident and the moving of Maria Eagle is a good example and seems to me to be fully justified. The idea that Corbyn should be allowed no room for choice seems to me not to take into account the fluid and unstable situation that his election has created.

  • Trevor is right about the reshuffle, which if major would inevitably strengthen the anti Corbyn camp at the expense of the pro camp, on a ‘we told you so’ basis, and probably worsen internal conflict which threatens Labour’s chances at the elections in only four months time. We should concentrate on attacking the Tories on cuts and domestic policy and put foreign policy and Trident on ice – if this means another free vote so be it, we cannot sort this out without an extensive debate. On PR while I am a supporter I concede that it is not a vital issue at the moment.

  • “Labour Party members and supporters, new and old, should be prepared to give this new politics a chance if we are offered a policymaking process based on its principles.”
    I don’t think its the rank and file members who are opposing the new politics. Its a group within the PLP who are doing their utmost to derail it. This group doesn’t want discussion of policies to be broadened out to members and beyond – they want to keep all decision making power within their immediate control. They are opposing the proposed new direction because they want to keep power for themselves, and to remain unaccountable to the membership and the electorate at large.

  • Kim Tan is right, that it’s the so called “professional” politicians of the PLP that are the problem with their petulant and unforgivable theatrics. Not content on moving the Labour so far to the right that we became a shadow of the Tory party they refuse to accept the wishes of the grass root party members and our wishes for real change. On an daily basis, it seems, they go running to the right wing press with lurid claims of conspiracies to deselect (no evidence) and of Corbyn’s supposed unelectability. By doing so they are becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. It’s time for them to shut up and grow up. There’s a time and a place for discussion and debate, where differences can aired and arguments are to be had. It ain’t now and it certainly shouldn’t be conducted in the Tory press. I’ve got no problem with disagreement as such, but I do have a major problem with the way these disagreements are being played out. These manufactured disagreements appear planned, vitriolic in nature, concerted and coordinated and seemingly designed to cause the maximum damage to undermine Corby. Desist now. Conduct yourselves properly and in private or have the courage of your convictions and stand down or cross the floor.

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