“Divided, extreme and out-of-date.” These are the words that have dominated a torrid few months of headlines for Labour. News of Andrew Adonis’ recent appointment as chair of Osborne’s National Infrastructure Commission has added to this image, with Labour insiders squabbling publicly over the merits of the move.
Many centrists in the party, feeling neglected and unrepresented, fear they have no choice but to speak out – rather divided and right than united and politically neutered, perhaps. It’s easier to lament the election of Corbyn as leader, and to pretend that Diane Abbott’s 17,000 votes for London Mayor were from a Labour party to which they do not relate.
Policy disagreements are inevitable in this climate and will be hard to juggle as Corbyn settles in, but there’s another casualty, too: Labour’s achievements in government. Labour has lost that sense of collective pride, and with it, the Party’s killer instinct. Only collectively can it be regained.
Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t a ‘Blairite pragmatist v. Corbynite idealist’ issue – Labour have had some strong policies over the years from all corners of the party. The problem, however, is one of ownership. Passion and conviction play their part in politics, but so too does ownership. Without it, the other qualities become obsolete.
Labour, isn’t good at taking credit, and hasn’t been for some time. The Tories, on the other hand, are excellent at it. The successful and popular installation of hire-bikes throughout London were the brainchild of Ken Livingstone, former Labour London mayor. “Boris bikes”, however, will define their legacy, and honour London’s current Conservative leader. Lord Freud worked for years on welfare reform, a policy area that was the heartbeat of the Labour party, before defecting to the Conservatives where he worked to bolster their policies instead. The Conservatives celebrated their coup and resulting ‘softer’ policies triumphantly. Labour hung their heads in silent shame.
Since the election, Osborne has thrown himself into the role of “magpie chancellor”, and Tory ministers have trotted out ideas almost identical to those in Labour’s manifesto. Income tax policy, business rates, the living wage – all areas where Osborne has poached from others. A political triumph for the Conservatives, another chance gone begging for Labour.
Why is the party not up in arms, bellowing in rage that these were the brainchildren of their movement? How has it become this easy for the Conservative PR machine to claim credit for Labour triumphs, and pitch itself as the party of working people?
When the Adonis announcement was made, the headlines suggested on first glance that he had torn up his Labour membership card and jumped on the Tory front-bench. In fact, his specific talents had been acknowledged by a committee that needed a forward-thinking, proactive politician at its helm – he resigned the whip, not the party.
“A full-throated endorsement of Adonis’ appointment,” was needed, argued John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former director of political operations. The opposite came. Labour were left babbling that the move provided a distraction for the Tories’ true agenda of tax-cuts for the rich and increasing austerity for the poor. Only one side came out looking mature and in control.
In fact, McTernan claimed at a recent Fabian event that “there has been systematic undermining of Labour’s progressive achievements for years within the party” – a result of deliberate political manoeuvring from the Brown camp as a means of getting Blair out of Number 10. The installation of Milliband and his entourage saw them swiftly jump on the same bandwagon. As Blair’s name became synonymous with the Iraq war, so too did many of the party’s successful policies from that era.
This ‘Blair conundrum’ weighs heavy on the party’s moderates. Minimum wage, education policy, the Good Friday Agreement – all are inextricably linked to Blair. The Party still finds itself afraid to champion its achievements and to claim them as its own.
Jeremy Corbyn and his left-wing policies aren’t the dividing factor – instead, it’s the Labour party’s inability to champion its successes as a united group. It is in its failure to unite behind common achievements that Labour demonstrates how divided it is.