Trevor Fisher argues divided parties lose elections. Labour’s purging of the left and dangerous swing to factionalism could unravel its chances of success
For Labour, with ostensibly 18 months to go to the election date, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the golden rule of British elections is working in Labour’s favour. The golden rule is that Labour never wins an election, the Tories have to lose it. With Boris Johnson and Liz Truss and a class of clowns making the party as attractive as a dose of the clap, the voters are looking to Labour, while the Scots Nats are showing that a tightly controlled top-down party can – and at the moment has – become a party with the attraction of a pub with no beer.
The bad news is that Labour’s dominant forces are either Blairite or Milibandite, and in neither case are the lessons of the past being learned – while a warning made in the Guardian by George Monbiot about factionalism is not being heeded. The first issue is the revival of New Labourism. For example, on 19th May, the New Statesman published a list of “the 50 most influential people shaping Britain’s progressive politics”, arguing: “Many MPs look to [Tony Blair]… because he is the only Labour politician born in the last 100 years to have won a general election – for now, Blair has incomparable authority on how to win.”
Twenty-six years ago, Blair, who was placed at #16 by the Statesman, did win a landslide, but New Labour then failed. The data on party vote share from the House of Commons library shows how Tory and Labour fortunes then reversed.
|Year||Tory vote share (%)||Labour vote share (%)|
The Tory share rose from the 1997 low; Labour fell from the 1997 high but a minor lift in 2015 concealed that Miliband had lost Scotland. The Corbyn experiment then showed a short-term boost in 2017 and a fall back in 2019 – but nothing shows that New Labour has anything to offer but short-term gain and long-term pain. While Blair is the headline name in the Westminster bubble, Gordon Brown is also being consulted, while the return of the control freaks purging candidates for parliamentary, council and mayoral selections should come with a health warning. Ken Livingstone was banned from the London Mayoral contest on the grounds that he was left-wing and unpopular. He stood as an independent and won.
The top-down party is not infallible, and on February 15th George Monbiot in the Guardian warned of the highly dangerous consequences of the decision to take five Corbyn-era officials to court over the leaking of an internal report on antisemitism. Monbiot thought the decision was damaging and that an expensive High Court action, which could cost £3m-£4m if the party loses, is “perhaps sufficient to bankrupt the party”. He quoted the press office as saying the party “‘is confident of the case it has presented to the court’. But it refused to answer my questions about the suit’s justification or cost, or the political damage it may inflict”.
Legal outcomes are never easy to predict, but it is the political damage that is crucial. As Monbiot wrote, “The impact of pursuing this case could be massive. It is likely to come to court early next year, coinciding with an election campaign.” The election may not happen till December 2024, but what is clear is that the Labour Party currently appears united, and it is the Tory Party which is divided. This legal action could remind the voters that the Labour Party has its own divisions.
There is clearly a take-no-prisoners ethos in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and this is shown by denying leftists places on long lists for parliamentary selections. Indeed, the New Statesman‘s top 50 had Starner spad Morgan McSweeney at #3 and highlighted his importance: “By centralising the longlisting of candidates, Labour has locked out left-wingers and almost anyone connected with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.” Factionalism has its limits, however.
It is possible to talk to people who link Blair’s victory in 1997 with Kinnock and Hattersley defeating the Militant tendency a decade earlier, concluding that left-bashing wins elections. But this is to misread history. Kinnock had beaten Militant in the 1980s, went through the end of Thatcher’s reign with substantial opinion poll leads, and then saw them vanish as the Tory Party regrouped under John Major. What decided the 1997 victory was the split in the Tory Party which forced Major to resign and stand for his own job, while Blair had a united party.
If Labour pursues this legal action, it opens the old wounds, while it is not impossible that a Tory Party which could unite around a new leader – Penny Mordaunt voted against Boris Johnson while Sunak ran away – could reprise Major’s resurgence before the 1992 election.
While this is speculative, what is not speculative is Monbiot’s comment about the legal action that, “once again, factional warfare seems to take precedence over winning an election”. Sensible people would call off the hounds and settle out of court. To continue with the action would give the Tory tabloids a field day. They are looking for a way to portray Labour as divided to shift the emphasis away from the divisions in their own party. A High Court action would give them what they want. The lessons of the Blair victory of 1997 is that unity is strength.