The Labour right and how it got here

by Tom Miller

I’ve recently read this Jacobin article about the Labour right and its history, which is a good left critique, though it doesn’t dip too much into some of the bigger differences on issues of policy. That’s actually a welcome departure, as much material assessing the various splits of opinion between Labour’s traditions of thought and organisation seem to concentrate exclusively on that. As important as policy can be, it’s more important in my view that we talk about politics in terms of social and political forces, and in terms of schools of thought.

The reason I say this is that most of Labour’s membership is new, and in my experience a tremendous amount of it is very opinionated about Labour and its history, whilst simultaneously unengaged with it and thus very badly educated. I think in terms of bringing together the Labour Party of 2025, it is vital that this situation turns around, and that new members in particular have a better understanding of (and greater respect for) what they have joined.

Another key thing of interest for ten years hence will be the right of the party and where it goes. God knows, those of us coming from an Open Labour perspective have plenty of problems of our own, mostly to do with a lack of finance and organisation impeding our ability to speak out and organise. But I can write about that another time.

I have a lot of respect for the Labour right, and particularly the older social democratic right, very much along the lines of the Jacobin article. Even the Blairites are responsible for some big gains for working class people, and I prefer their lines on constitutional reform and Europe to those of the old right. In other words, both have had things to offer, and as a stronger socialist myself, as long as I am not denied mine, both have a place in my party. But they are difficult neighbours, and my god, they are bad at taking care of themselves.

A lot of the Labour right can be highly invested in anti-intellectual ‘get on the doorstep’ ‘practical’ type culture (what Marxists loosely term ‘workerism‘, in a social democratic sense). In my view this is based on a stereotyping of working people as not engaged in debate and as uneducated, which is bollocks, but that’s also an argument for another day. What it means is that only some strands of thought on Labour’s right flank are into thinking, mostly around Progress and the Fabians. Even then, it seems that introspection is particularly steered around.

Personally, I’ve always felt that it’s good to learn and develop, good to know yourself. But I think that’s particularly true when you are in the shit.

The party right often make it very difficult to have any sympathy with them, basically because both of its wings seem very set on not evolving. Labour first has made big strands in making a jump from being a semi-secret organisation into the open light, and started organising, which is commendable. They are ahead of us in the soft left and have raised money for it well. But it’s a bit cosmetic, and the numbers are very simple, and if we are to have a Labour party which represents a broad spectrum of democratic left opinion rather than two separate poles, then it’s the right which is going to have to do the bulk of the work on trust building, and the left which is going to have to do the bulk of the work on tolerance and inclusion. For the right in particular, there is no other way forward.

The problem is, they don’t see it this way at all. The solution is always to escalate conflict and never to evolve, coexist or compromise. When the numbers aren’t there, change the rules, boot someone, administrate the problem away. I say when you are outnumbered, escalating big open conflicts is exactly what you want to avoid – it’s a trap. And don’t bother thinking you will rescue everything with some NEC vote, because you’re still ignoring the numbers problem and your dying roots as it gets worse for you.

What holds both parts of the party right back is about both attitudes and policies. Their approach to both of these issues has built a long and slow burning anger which has massively helped the left to organise. As someone who experienced this for a long time as a party left, for over a decade pre-Corbyn, I have to say I think attitudes has been by far the biggest thing. One of Open Labour’s members, Charlie Mansell, has identified some very clear points about some massive historic own goals racked up by the Labour right whilst in office, which have effectively destroyed any trust in them.

– “Intensely comfortable”
– “You have nowhere else to go, you must back us”
– “You have to support everything that you feel is totally contrary to you values”

These are all messages those of us in the left or centre of Labour had to soak up for years. If you’re not one of the people on the recieving end, perhaps ponder for a moment how that feels?

I’ll add in some of my own:
– “Outvote us and we’ll ignore  you, or abolish this”
– “Unions. Vested interests.”
– “Politics is about MPs and media, not you or your life”
– “Party members should deliver our leaflets but don’t actually matter”

Most of these are a bourgeois way of saying ‘fuck you’. To even bother implying them in a magazine or from a platform is an insult to intelligence.

This is was sometimes done to deliberately provoke a reaction, which not only tells us that nurses and checkout staff are to be used as pawns in stupid speeches, but more importantly what the emotional climate has been like between people who identify with factions or schools of thought inside Labour.

Taken together, the attitudes above and their replication in GCs across the country gives a picture of a wider macho political culture, and a right in power which acted a bit like an abusive partner. If you were outside them, they still wanted rights to what your labours and affections, but the condition was that they wanted total control over you, would never acknowledge your concerns or motivations, and wouldn’t under any circumstances give back what you put in.

These outlooks and behaviours on the Labour right were (and continue to be) the most potent mobiliser of people on both the soft left and the hard left of the party. If you’ve bought into them before, bury them now. For years such interventions have bound a lot of people from the dead centre of the party spectrum to the same critique as the broad left – they are unifying points, because simply put, nobody likes a bastard.

Miliband voters came from the centre right through to the hard left, and were able to organise behind the same change of direction. This radicalised significantly in 2015 as austerity tightened, and despite the bleatings of some of the right that Ed was to blame, I can say with confidence that 9/10ths of Corbyn’s success in internal politics was actually caused indirectly by them. Even a substantial number of people who voted for David Miliband then voted for Corbyn. But two years on, I have seen incredibly few attempts to actually deal with this – it seems to only happen at Labour Vision.

The Labour right is in a dodgy state politically. There are obviously strategic and policy goals to work out. You need to get organised, but what for? What do you want the country to look like? What do you expect from the Labour Party? What do you positively offer to either of them? How will you win enough people over, and who the hell are they?

But it’s about behaviours more than beliefs.

It’s simply a mathematical and historic fact to say that you have no alternative to a total rethink regarding attitudes and political culture. Personally speaking, I think policy can wait. It starts with respecting people who differ from you – remembering that they also need to trust, and that they are also politically diverse. How you get to that position will be everything.