Tony Blair used to be accused of being just an opportunist. On hearing this, Michael Foot retorted, "No rising hope who offered himself to the Labour Party at a time when I was its leader can be accused of opportunism". Although they came from very different political traditions, Foot did his best to offer support and help to prospective candidates of obvious talent such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and continued to do so for several years after their election.
I thought of this when reading Pickles of A Far Fetched Resolution's response to my post on boosting membership for the Labour Party. He doesn't think that 'throwing a few bones to the oppositionalists within the party' would make a difference. I have been having this discussion, on and off, for six years with Pickles, so here's my latest response.
Pickles argues that, "The reality is that some people simply cannot cope with being in a party of government. That might be for very good reasons. They may well be completely wedded to an ideology that no succesful government could demonstrate any commitment to. They may be psychologically more comfortable criticising the particular with reference to the universal, or acting as the voice of the voiceless or unjustly treated. That's all fair enough. But no governing party can cater to their whims. It's simply not possible." This is, I think, an attitude shared by many in the leadership, that there is a direct trade off between things which the majority of normal people want and those that the whingers want. It helps that I reckon there is at least one person in every CLP who conforms exactly to this stereotype.
Rather than dismissing members' concerns, or positively welcoming them as a sign that a policy must be a good one, I think that the last nine years have shown that very often members who raised concerns about particular government policies have had a good track record of highlighting policies which proved unpopular and/or had to be scrapped. Let's look at a few examples:
*Introduction of university tuition fees (scrapped by the government a few years later)
*Cutting lone parent benefit (reversed by government which has boosted income of lone parents massively - which has proved very popular with members)
*Trying to prevent Rhodri Morgan becoming Labour candidate for First Minister of Wales (Rhodri Morgan now first minister of Wales)
*Trying to prevent Ken Livingstone becoming Labour candidate for Mayor of London (following humiliating election defeat for Labour in 2000, Ken now Labour Mayor of London, praised by the Prime Minister)
*Introducing vouchers for asylum-seekers (vouchers now mostly abandoned)
*Councils being encouraged to stock transfer their houses, and not build new council housing (significant resistance to stock transfer from tenants, lack of social housing generally acknowledged as factor in BNP gains in support)
Obviously, not every leftie criticism of the leadership has been justified or proved correct. But in each of the above examples, the fact that there was widespread discontent amongst members(not just those on the 'traditional left') could have served as a kind of 'canary in cole mine', and it can't seriously be argued that dropping or substantially amended each of those measures would have turned out worse than what actually happened.
It isn't 'gesture politics' to listen when your supporters are unhappy, and valuing the opinions of Labour Party members works better than treating it as a sign of political strength to ignore them. Every government has to take controversial and unpopular decisions sometimes (Kosovo is, I think, one good example of this, and to a certain extent the current situation with the NHS). But particular when a party is in financial trouble and looking to renew itself after a decade in office, giving people who care enough about Labour to join us confidence that they will be listened to is a necessary strategy for survival.
When Luke Akehurst writes that he is unenthusiastic at trying to re-recruit the 1,000 or so members who have left the Hackney CLPs because they just paid their money or Reclaim Labour looks forward to the day when the Blairites can be purged from the Labour Party, I wonder whether in fact they care more about beating the Tories or winning an internal argument in the Labour Party. No faction in the Labour Party has a monopoly on wisdom or good ideas, and when lots of members are unhappy about a proposed policy, there's probably a good reason for it.