Friday, May 18, 2007

Lessons

Some quick thoughts about the leadership fiasco:

*It would have been better for the Labour Party, irrespective of what people think of John McDonnell, to have had a leadership contest. It would have helped with the membership drive, it would have helped to get the different ideas that Brown and McDonnell have debated and challenged in public, and it would have meant that we had more time to show people who are interested but not obsessed with politics that we can have a comradely debate about the future. Some of McDonnell's ideas were not so good, some were great but probably unaffordable, and some are immensely popular and achievable and should be part of Brown's policy agenda.

*John McDonnell's campaign team ran a sharp and effective campaign over the past year - it didn't quite get him on the ballot paper, but a year ago it would have been utterly improbable that he'd have got so close - the strategy of campaigning at the grassroots was the correct one and also a very positive one. They are people well worth listening to when it comes to future campaigns.

*Leaving aside who ended up nominating who and why, Jon Cruddas is obviously and publicly the most left-wing of the candidates for the deputy leadership. If in future McDonnell supporters want to argue that there is a strong support in the grassroots for leftie candidates and therefore we wuz robbed, then spending the next few weeks sulking at Cruddas or backing a less left-wing candidate out of spite is silly. If the deputy leadership contest ends up something like Blears 1st, Johnson 2nd, Benn 3rd, and Cruddas 6th with a pathetic vote, then the lesson will be that New Labour has won and lefties in the party are a tiny and irrelevant minority. If Cruddas wins or gets close, then it sends the message out to the PLP and more generally that Labour ought to listen more to the unions and shift a bit leftwards. This is important both for the future direction of the party, and for the next set of elections, whether they are in 2 years' time or many more. Most of the left-wing MPs who nominated McDonnell are old and likely to retire soon, so any future challenger from the left needs to start making friends and allies now, not lashing out at the 'careerists' or 'anti-democratic traitors' or whatever.

*There is no law against running a good campaign, and no point complaining when your opponents within the party do it. Gordon Brown has run an extremely good campaign, and we need to work over the next couple of years to make sure that we can do to David Cameron what Brown did to his rivals within the party.

3 Comments:

At 6:44 pm , Anonymous The man speaks sense. said...

DP, if only everyone was as sensible as you.

 
At 12:22 pm , Anonymous angus said...

I agree with most of this, but:

"John McDonnell's campaign team ran a sharp and effective campaign over the past year - it didn't quite get him on the ballot paper, but a year ago it would have been utterly improbable that he'd have got so close - the strategy of campaigning at the grassroots was the correct one and also a very positive one."

I would not question it being a well run campaign but in retrospect I do question whether its aims (even in terms of getting on the ballot) were ever realistically achievable. I am not necessarily committed to the view I shall now express, but...

It was always apparent that John had few committed supporters in the PLP, but he claimed to have interest from others and judged that there was a realistic chance of enough MPs nominating him if some grassroots pressure was put on. From an outside assessment of the PLP that didn't seem to be the case to me but I was prepared to trust his judgement, even if I thought he was (legitimately)exaggerating the extent of the interest in parliament. Otherwise presumably he wouldn't have been bothering. Meacher on the other hand was clearly deluded.

But in the end, John was not 5 or 10 short, but 16 short, got relatively few non-Campaign Groupers and even many Campaign Group MPs had had to be cajoled into nominating. The fact some 'Meacher' supporters 'defected' at the last moment is irrelevant because nobody believed many of Meacher's supporters were serious. And the campaign only got as far as it did because no Right wing candidates chose to stand against Brown and there was a demand for a contest. And saying he would have got on if Brown had been nicer is not a good answer. The fact we 'nearly' made it is not the issue, the issue is what the expected probabilities of making it were when the campaign was launched.

So I do wonder on what basis John thought the campaign was realistic last July when, it would seem apparent, he can only have had even uncommitted interest from a handful of MPs. Unless he had an unrealistic expectation of how much grassroots pressure could be brought to bear on *40* MPs who had no expressed no interest at all in nominating him, or how effective such pressure could be. Or underestimated his own unfortunate personal unpopularity with many of those 40 MPs. The point is there was a miscalculation somewhere.

I am not saying the results of the campaign were negative or something to spend time regretting (unless it leads to divisive bad blood between McDonnellites and the soft left which is the real danger)but it was John himself who kept on saying the left must never again make the mistake of starting an enterprise in which it is virtually impossible to succeed-which in this case didn't of course actually mean winning the election but did at least mean getting on the ballot.

 
At 7:03 pm , Blogger Owen said...

Firstly, I think that Dan's post was (as ever) well-considered and balanced.

I just want to respond to Angus' comments.

The parliamentary aspect of the campaign was always going to be an uphill struggle. The Brown camp had long since decided that they wanted a coronation. They had at their disposal huge powers of patronage derived from the fact that Brown had long since been regarded as the inevitable successor to Blair - since they had decided it was to be so in a North London restaurant 13 years ago. The fact that we are in the nearly unique situation of not having a Labour leadership election (the first time this has happened for three quarters of a century) - and that John McDonnell ended up being the only candidate to go head-to-head with Brown - shows just how successful the Brown machine was.

From the beginning, we accepted that the "Meacher strategy" (of sitting MPs down for cups of coffee) was never going to work. The parliamentary left has long since fragmented. It was intensely divided, lacking coherence or any grasp of the "big picture". Many would be better classed as "mavericks" rather than consistent socialists. Some retained illusions in Brown based on the perception of a wink here or a nudge there. The only hope of confronting the huge power of the Brown machine was to build up sufficient head of steam - that is, counterveiling pressure to challenge the power of the Brownite faction. Otherwise, what incentive to stick your neck out and potentially write off your parliamentary career?

There were, of course, flaws with this strategy. There was a vicious circle: people lacked the confidence to throw themselves into this campaign unless they were sure that John could gain the nominations of 44 MPs; but of course it was unlikely to gain those nominations without people doing just that. Furthermore, MPs could, in reality, ignore grassroots pressure. For example, Preston Labour Party overwhelming demanded that their MP nominated John McDonnell; but Mark Hendrick, in rather more diplomatic terms, told them where to stick their resolution.

There was also the problem of the Meacher candidacy. His "campaign" had a corrosive effect: encouraging the idea that no left candidate could get the 44 because the lift was hopelessly split; and also encouraging MPs to keep away from what looked increasingly like a rather embarrassing mess.

It sounds like sour grapes to say it, but the truth is that the Brown machine went into overdrive after last Sunday to prevent a contest. Despite publicly suggesting that he would welcome a contest Brown personally went round ringing potentially McDonnell supporters (or, rather, those who wanted there to be a contest). As we know, he'd already won over about 80% of the PLP and therefore there was hardly any need for him to win over any other supporters. The demand was for unity; to avoid any divisive contest. That pressure successfully peeled away sufficient numbers of MPs. If John had started off with 35 nominations on Monday, the prospect of a contest would have seemed likely and we would have made the ballot paper. In the end, we started with 27 - and the campaign died instantly.

In the aftermath of a disappointment such as this, I understand the temptation to blame the candidate. Firstly, inn truth, if John had not stood, Meacher would have spent the past few months as the chief representative of the left - before himself failing to get the nominations. Although I have a personal stake in this, I would argue that the left has not run a better campaign - in terms of presentation, exciting people, and building grassroots support - since 1981.

Furthermore, I don't accept that nothing has been gained. Thousands have joined or rejoined the party: some will leave, but many won't. Others who had long since dropped out of politics have been re-engaged. Strong links have been formed between activists in the party and unions right across the country. There is, once again, an organised Labour left. We now have to build on that.

In my opinion, Brown's tactics will further damage our already weakened party. He has no electoral mandate - other than being, effectively, the elected leader of the PLP. Party members - many of who joined to get the chance to vote - have been denied the right to vote for who leads them and, as a result, are demoralised. All of this will play right into the hands of the Tories at a time when they're stronger than they've been for a generation.

Yes, I think that the left needs to think things through. I personally advocate transforming the LRC into something along the lines of a Campaign for Real Labour. The left needs to look at ways of engaging people. We need to think more about presentation; to look forward-looking and yes (I hate to say it), modern. Perhaps we need to look more "Labourite" - and to bash the Tories more. An emphasis needs to be placed on policies with overwhelming grassroots support - not least those passed by Conference. And yes, we need to select MPs who are more responsive to grassroots pressure and who are more likely to support progressive policies that don't alienate our members and supporters.

Watch this space

 

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