Narrow and brittle, or broad and democratic?

This is a hard thing to write because I generally try to stay away from discussing individual disciplinary matters in the Labour Party. It’s difficult to know for sure what the real circumstances are in such cases, because after everything, details are still selectively leaked and briefed about anonymously. Often the individuals concerned will make a big public complaint about some areas of the concerns raised about them, but leave out important details, or whole areas of the complaint. In some respects, we will never know if the cat is in the box.

That said, we seem to be going through a particularly dark time for natural justice in the party. The most openly Machiavellian voices on the Labour right will simply resort to Lenin-style nonsense about eggs and omelettes to defend this stuff. These are the sort of people who would have looked at the Dreyfus affair and said “you know what, I think this is good for the military”.

Concern about this stuff is entirely justified. The factual gap is an obstacle for sure, but the moral argument for basic principles of justice should not be something which is up for grabs in any political party that supports democracy.

The opportunism that takes place inside our internal culture is really pretty stunning, and it’s amazing it doesn’t end up in much more press attention, or indeed legal challenge.

Factions in the Labour Party will all tell you they are the torch bearers for fairness and democracy, as long as they aren’t in control. The past couple of days have seen the NEC imposing its own members as candidates, and all sorts of anti-democractic chicanery involving disciplinary processes, which we are told are meant to be independent and above board.

Here is the reminder what their mirror characters are like in the upper echelons of the Labour right: the same in a lot of ways, and if anything, far more happy to be brazen about it.

There were many critics of similar (but it has to be said, less blatant) behaviour from the elite of the traditional left under Corbyn. This was justified, but a blind spot now is not. I can forgive where there is willingness to learn, and many members who joined the party during the Corbyn years could have been forgiven that the Corbynites were the only dodgy faction, or the only one that mattered.

The truth is that the Labour left between Militant and the Corbyn years was a lot less like this. For one thing, even with control of the Labour Party, the left still supports democracy and transparency in the party as a matter of principle. As simple evidence of this, look how the least democratic bits of the Labour left ended up tying many of them in knots when they wanted to silence the membership on Brexit.

Part of the reflex towards authoritarianism and stitch-ups in those parts has its roots in Stalinism, but the reason that this kind of politics received any license in the first place was in reaction to the right’s flogging of the same methods during the New Labour years.

Instead of the party ever learning these lessons and a new position emerging from the seemingly endless dialectic of Labour’s intolerant edges, we simply repeat the same cycle of recrimination and counter-recrimination, until it makes us unable to function, or represent a broad slice of the electorate from left to centre.

But the roots of this behaviour, in my opinion, rest with the faction who are usually in charge, and seem inherently much more comfortable with politics being decided by a backroom elite. Small and influential bits of the left are like this, but it sums up the bulk of Labour’s right.

We would all do well to remember this, and for those relatively new to the party, learn it.

This is not us.

The bulk of Labour’s membership is not like this.

Yes, it wants proper wrong’uns out and gaffes minimised. Along with his impressive leadership manifesto (!), that’s part of the reason Starmer is in office, and that his self-proclaimed allies run the NEC.

But our members are heavily motivated by their sense of fairness and justice. They want it done fairly and transparently, and this applies whoever is in charge.

Generally, our members do not believe in ‘ending’ people for minor transgressions, in purges of dissenters, or a vision of a narrow party where people can’t debate or disagree.

The same goes for the trade union movement, which often seems far politically broader than Labour, and is far stronger for it.

Labour seems to be heading for an election win. That’s great, but as someone on the centre left of the party spectrum, it should not leave me feeling so ambivalent and miserable about things.

Frankly, I am now very sick of posh people in suits conducting dick-waving contests and targetting their “opponents” as a means of governance, whilst the rest of us knock on doors and help our austerity-ravaged communities. It’s insulting.

Learning the wrong lessons

I’ve no doubt that MPs make mistakes that are worth an apology, and so forth. In some cases it goes far further (Chris Williamson!), and it’s indisputable by anybody with any understanding of human behaviour and emotions that this person should be expelled.

But the debate is now far bigger than this kind of stuff. When action is deliberately delayed and obfuscated over until members can be denied their choice at a selection meeting, that’s a systematic moral and democratic failing.

When NEC members are directly parachuted by their own colleagues and faction-mates into safe seats, that’s very much the same. When the way to get a seat is without a vote and because of working for the right person in politics, that’s also a problem, albeit a less serious one.

Basically, the political situation is bigger than individual cases.

Faced with a choice between a party that is narrow and brittle, versus one which is broad and pluralist, there is no contest. Faced with a choice between a party that hides behind locked doors, and one which honestly faces the people who pay its subs and deliver its leaflets, there is no contest.

Usually the faction in charge has been responsible for forcing these choices, and at the moment, that’s the Labour right. Their lesson from the Corbyn years has been that they need to be less tolerant of others and less tolerant of arguments for fair due process.

The underlying analysis is that there’s nothing wrong with stitch-ups or performative cruelty, and that adding these elements does not damage the areas of our disciplinary process that are actually proportionate and necessary. Everything is fine.

This is false, and dangerous.

But to the extent that anything ever went wrong (such as the election of Corbyn), everything is everyone else’s fault.

As well as being false and dangerous, this is also boring and shortsighted.

Still… thoughts need applying

Frankly speaking, arguments for intolerance should ring alarm bells about anyone who seeks power. Like the Corbynites before them, the Labour right’s “lessons learned” may well work for personal advantage, but they are exactly the wrong ones for the Labour Party, and in turn, the country.

The directive is “do what we want with our power and positions” and the cost, so long as they keep the media on side, is nil. As members, we need this to change.

So what do we do? In my view, alliances need to be formed against anyone who wants to run the Labour Party as a lawless back yard of their own. But first, there is a question to ask: does this describe you?

A not so quick thought on deals in politics

Anything to avoid using that picture with Bono…

This is a bit of an abstract thought process about being practical, but hear me out.

You get some interesting perspectives in the Socialist movement. I suspect that some of these go back a hundred years or more. Should social democrats join a bourgeois government, for example?

The automatic response of most people who accept the terminology tends to be ‘no’. While this is also my emotional inclination (and there is no way I would ever let myself get mugged off like Ramsay MacDonald), I am nevertheless opposed to automatic responses. Bad way of thinking. Or to rephrase, of not thinking.

I don’t agree with doing deals with Tories unless it stops Fascists or organised bigots of some kind. I don’t agree with doing deals with Nazis full stop. But apart from that, I pretty much feel that people in the labour movement should give others open consideration.

Deal, you say?

The biggest, toughest deal in politics has to be the Good Friday Agreement.

Consider how far ‘physical force’ Republicans in particular have some since the Easter Rising. A century of bitter conflict, most of which has been very local and community based to the North. But who seriously denies that in their weakened state and with the potential for a long-term strategic upswing, they should have avoided dialogue with unionist and the British Government, or that after this they should not have signed up to Good Friday? Should the IRA really still be bombing pubs?

In politics anyone at some point has to consider offers they are made by opponents.

I think this should be done in a way that weighs up the actual material case for and against, rather than simply relying on old slogans and the desire to fly a flag.

Often, having the maturity and emotional discipline to do this ends up being key to advancing their cause, or protecting those they seek to represent.

This stuff applies just as well to more banal decisions.

Do we trade slate places for an internal election? It’s amazing how differently people can feel over doing this just as a one off! Should Labour consider a coalition with, say, the Lib Dems, if we are eventually forced to? I think this would probably create an even more annoying split.

In my view, what your slogan or image is has some importance, but it’s normally a very bad idea to leave posturing and gesture as your sole or most important justifications for pretty much anything you do. Anyone can revert to type. Gaining by avoiding it is much more tricky, but much more rewarding.

What the circumstances are and how you can deal with them is usually a far more important question to consider on its own merit than by making it all about whether you have had a decent play to your gallery.

The simplicity of this truth means that your decision always has an arguable justification: whatever image you want to cultivate, in politics, good deals are worth taking, bad deals are not. Sometimes a deal can be good or bad for everyone involved.

This should all be fairly self evident.

In the most common deals (such as red-green coalitions in Nordic politics) there is a clear overlap of interest that mutual working can solve. Great.

Some deals (like the Good Friday agreement) can be good for multiple parties even if they are resolutely opposed, for example Good Friday. This is much rarer, but still possible when the outside circumstances are right.

In this example, both parties needed to end violence. Republicans, whose armed struggle had failed and were at a moment of historic weakness, gasping for breath. Unionists also had a big interest. They had come out better politically before Good Friday was agreed, but had also suffered greatly in the real world, particularly the working class elements of their national-political community.

This party to the agreement needed a period of consolidation for their community and freedom from the terror tactics which sucked their own young men into paramilitary organisations, and killed hundreds of civilians.

Nationalists and Republicans, on the other hand, wanted guaranteed human rights, and end to state oppression, and the long term possibility to realise their shared goal of a united Ireland democratically. They too suffered heavily from paramilitarism, sometimes in collusion with or carried out by the state (side point, but I would argue that the policies of the British state were ultimately responsible for beginning the process, and for exacerbating it on multiple occasions).

For many years within the armed groups on both sides, it was difficult to even steer through a tactical ceasefire, even if it was of clear benefit.

By the time of the deal the conflict itself had created conditions where a deal worked best for both sides.

That has subsequently been allowed to be tested and proven in practice, because both parties were open-minded and mature enough (most of the time) to actually work on the project in good faith. I think both parties were very brave. Being able to do this is an enormously important personal and political skill. It has also been pretty important for people who don’t want to live in a society where waking minutes are ruled by the gun.

Good Friday works. The only losers in that situation are dogmatists and posture politicians – people who don’t have a problem with using their own allies and constituents, regardless of the exigencies of their situation. Unfortunately, this is nothing special.

So, do you deal or not?

Surely it just depends.

MacDonald was a fool. Mitterand was noble but eventually unable. Gerry Adams, on the other hand, was both brave and successful. Same for Ian Paisley. None of these are even the temporary deals that often spring up, but at best semi-permanent ones.

I’m betting the gents in the Irish example felt pretty horrible doing it, on all sides. It was still right.

If you turned up to look like a person with great integrity, letting the appearance aspect (I’M SUCH A FIGHTER’) undermine a real opportunity for your politics is probably something that should be reconsidered. That’s the only way you know if you are doing a bad deal or not.

Political principle is not just about how you look, but about what you do, and even more, what the actual outcome is.

Sometimes, this means saying ‘yes’.