Peace & reconciliation in the Labour party
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” (Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)
Moving from a brief analysis of the current war of words between what I will term, for convenience, the Corbynite left and the anti-Corbyn moderates, I set out ideas for a peace & reconciliation process, in which both sides examine the complex roots of their hostility through a process of acknowledgment and apology, not necessarily to each other, but to a wider public currently losing faith in what Labour can bring.
Then I turn to who might be the best grouping. or proto-grouping, within Labour, to facilitate such a process.
None of that is going to be easy, but I can’t see any other way past the current split within the party, which currently helps no-one but the Tories.
1.The current impasse
2018 is not 1995. There is no point relentlessly looking back (remember forward, not back). UK politics is structurally different…….The claims of Labour’s moderates towards political efficacy aren’t that convincing. They may be right and a charismatic leader of the centre could jolt UK politics back onto its 1990s course. I suspect the same trick won’t work twice — even if replicable…..
It may not be an age for moderates. [T]hat doesn’t mean that nationalism or centralist socialism are the answer. But moderation is no longer enough — or even the safest course.
In this, he echoes Chris Dillow.
Sadly, it seems that no-one in the moderate camp is up for listening. Stephen Bush has reminded them that there must be a reason they’ve within Labour, but the current response to that is to stick fingers in ears and complain about how Corbyn should have done better in the local elections, and would have if he had dealt with the antisemites.
Meanwhile, some on the left claim to defend Corbynism by denying that antisemitism exists within the party, and that the whole thing is a smear thought up by the centrists. When confronted with the evidence of people blaming Jews, it’s fingers in the ears time.
In short, Labour’s stuck. The polls hover around 40%, equal with a discredited Tory party, and the idea of a new broad church seems very far-fetched. For the wider public, Corbyn increasingly looks like a sect leader, not a party leader.
And all this when there is a good deal of Milibandian policy written into the Corbyn manifesto, and potential for common ground on areas ranging from public service delivery through to a new Keynesian settlement on the management of the economy.
So far, so familiar. The big questions, generally as avoided by the commentariat as they are by the self-deafened, mutually loathing participants, boil down:
a)what do we actually do about it?
b) who “we” might be?
2. The needs to say sorry
If common policy ground is not going to bring the two warring sides together, then we need to think more radically. In this, we could do worse than consider a more or less formalized peace and reconciliation process, with the intention of edging towards a common ground from which there is no easy retreat into the old positions of mutual enmity.
And at the heart of a peace and reconciliation process is often the act of memory, and of apology. It is no coincidence, for example, that Tony Blair offered a formal apology to the Irish people for the government’s role in the 1840 potato famine just weeks after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. He got, at least on an occasion when for a state rather than a personal apology that the formal peace had to be deepened and entrenched, and symbolic acts help that.
Similarly, Willy Brandt had no realpolitik need to kneel at the Warsaw Gehtoo memorial in 1970, but he did it anyway, because he understood that this act of memory was as much about embedding a new Germany as it was about apologizing to victims of the old Germany.
But in the case of the peacemaking process between the ‘Corbynistas’ and the moderates, there are two, recently relevant and substantive apologies to be worked towards — apologies which if worked through properly and meaningfully may not just create the conditions for a renewed ‘broad church’ which appeals to the electorate, but which will make for a better party of government.
3. Two apologies
a) What the Corbynite left needs to say sorry for
Let’s start with the left’s apology — or perhaps ‘’acknowledgement’ might be enough to get us going — because it is straightforward enough, and because it has been widely (though only occasionally well) covered.
At the very least, the rise of Corbynism has been accompanied by a rise in a feeling amongst Jewish people in the UK that the Labour party has become antisemitic, with members on a fairly large scale conflating criticism of Israel with notions of worldwide Zionist conspiracy, and worse.
You can’t validly just look at the 70% anti-Labour turnout in Golders Green for the local election and say it’s all a smear campaign. As Adam Langleben, a Jewish Labour councillor defeated in Barnet, has noted, “Jews throughout history have grown accustomed to hearing the warning signs that take longer for others to hear.” 
While some on the Corbynite left still pretend it’s not happening and is just a smear, there seems little doubt from the first had experience of people like Adam that antisemitic tropes have become embedded in the party.
Nor does it matter if the Tories are the same. W’e’re supposed to be better than them. The Labour Left needs to recognize that it is at least in part responsible for the deep hurt and anxiety that Jewish people now feel, and go about putting that hurt right.
b) What the moderates need to say sorry for
The apology the moderates need to work up also relates closely to recent events, but is — for reasons I will explore below — less obvious. It’s to do with Windrush.
Discussion of Labour’s role in the Windrush scandal has been confined first to the utter irrelevance of when the decision to destroy landing cards was taken, and then to whether Yvette Cooper should be praised for her ‘forensic examination’ or blamed for having voted for the 2014 immigration Act, the provisions of which have been used to destroy the lives of people who are, to all intents and purposes, British citizens.
But Labour’s role, and responsibility, goes much deeper, and wider, than the electoral tactics of 2014; it goes back to its time in government, and its operational code of that time.
Some ten years ago, when Labour was still in power, I said in an essay about Labour’s Welfare Reform White Paper:
All taken together, there is a huge risk that the whole plus side of the reform — and at policy-making level increased personalized support is seen as a plus — will be ignored in favour of the downside; this will be about pushing people into (for them) counterproductive ‘work related activity’ in order to meet the newly introduced range of targets (and Paul Gregg’s paper is quite clear about the need for performance targets and ‘detailed guidance’ (p 78).
There is no mention of targets for the new reforms which relate, for example, to client satisfaction and life improvement; the targets will, as now, all be about driving down the claimant count, irrespective of the actual human cost to benefit-seekers and their families.
Sadly, I was right. The programme was taken over by the Tories when they came into power, and we all know what happened next — a cruel, sanction-based, killing regime came into being, in which ‘personalised support’ became vicious bullying, with targets for this plastered in job centres up and down the country.
This is not about Windrush specifically, of course, but the social and political forces that led to the Windrush cruelty [note on verso] in its particular form it took are not unique to Windrush, or more broadly to people who have come to settle in this country.
Those forces are built into the fabric of the New Public Management (or managerialism for short) introduced under Thatcher but wholly embraced by New Labour under its ‘what works’ mantra, whereby targets are provided from on-high, from without the profession responsible for delivery, and there comes into being a subtle game of ‘no questions asked’ about how performance against target is delivered.
That is not to say that the Windrush scandal, or the benefits nightmare, would have developed quite as it has under the Tories, had Labour remained in power. On Windrush specifically, counter forces of anti-racist decency would have emerged to stop the spiral into racist chaos. For all its vacillation it is difficult to imagine a Miliband government going beyond immigration mugs and ordering a full-blown ‘hostile’ environment; that special kind of cruelty is the province of a May government operating not just under the Thatcher era New Public Management doctrine but also more inclined to the kind of neo-colonial politics of nastiness which Nisha Kapoor sets out and which I explicated in Bulpittian terms when Cameron came to power in 2010 and set about enjoying his Boys’ Own Adventure in ‘High Politics’ back in 2011.
Even so, those parts of Labour who sung the virtues of Thatcherite managerialism do now need to recognize that they facilitated the conditions in which both the Windrush cruelties and the hell that is now the benefit system came into being. A flirtation with the ‘relational state’, when that was the Labour fashion, is not enough to excuse an apology.
4. Deepening the apology process
A likely counter to anyone from the Corbynite left or the moderate wing deciding to engage constructively in a peace & reconciliation process — and that remains of course a big initial ask — is that the other side has a lot more to answer for. That’s priors for you.
So we need to deepen the analysis in a way which begins to foster a more genuine give and take. One way to do this is explore the way in which both sides key mistakes — antisemitism and managerialism — were themselves facilitated by the other side’s actions, thus creating a dynamic of mutual responsibility, and from there a mutual commitment to self-improvement.
Why did a section of the left become prey to antisemitic tropes? Well, in part (as I set out here), it did so because political education and awareness within the Labour party has withered in the last twenty years, and those vulnerable to insidious messages from the purveyors of antisemitism have not had the intellectual wherewithal to resist what can, at first sight, be convincing narratives of conspiracy. Not all the people who signed this trope-ridden letter are antisemites — indeed few of them will be — it’s just they didn’t know how to spot the trope.
But the key reason political education and awareness is in such a poor state in the Labour party is that, under the Blair leadership, the party’s diverse political functions were deliberately stripped away, leaving only a duty to campaign; the pleasure of idea sharing at branch and CLP level was replaced by the duty to door knock, partly in the mistaken belief that people couldn’t do both, and partly because the emerging Blair style demanded that everyone be on message.
In short, Blairism helped create the conditions for the growth of ignorant antisemitism.
And what of the left’s part in Windrush and other public service cruelties committed in the name of effective government?
The hard truth for many on the left of the Labour party (and I include myself directly in that group) is that we largely failed to notice what was going on i respect of his continuation of the New Public Management techniques his government inherited. I think there are three reasons for that.
First, Blair kept winning elections, and the feeling of power, alongside the real and undoubted successes of the early/mid Blair years did much to mask the fact that public and civil service professional pride and autonomy was being hollowed out in favour of a toxic combination of management targets and productivity incentives.
Second, and related, even those on the left who were critical of New Labour’s compromise with capitalism tended to focus on how it cuddled up to big business rather than on how business practices were corroding public service values and practices, preparing the ground for a welfare state becoming increasingly hostile to the people it was there to provide with social security.
And thirdly, perhaps most important of all, the New Urban Left which became dominant in some areas in the 1980s and 1990s, but in many cases led by members of the hippie ‘me men, me’ generation, often looked down on old guard trade unionists for their conservative views and promoted a new ‘movement’ politics of identity which had no room for an older tradition of professional pride and autonomy of the type which had been valued by RH Tawney and GDH Cole, and even thought of as a basis for a new settlement in favour of labour.
In summary — and not all of this brief historical review has to be accepted for the generality to hold true — we have a complex mix of structure and agency, where well-intended agency from one side of Labour created, through unintended consequence, political structures and cultures within which the second side acted in a way which attracted opprobrium from the first.
And within that structure-agency mix, or perhaps mess, lie the grounds for productive dialogue and reconciliation, as long as the space can be created for that dialogue, and as long as leading figures from the opposing sides step forward into that scary space.
5. Facilitating a peace and reconciliation process
No-one from the Labour moderate side engaged seriously with Anthony’s message about the need to move on from the old Blairite certainties, despite his ‘centrist’ profile and credibility, and it looks like no-one will this time either.
And my own more more leftwing Labour readership, limited as it is, has thus far not deigned to take seriously my calls for a third wave Corbynism, rooted less in 1980s New Left and more in 1930’s English pluralism, intellectually spiced by a call for a Habermasian ‘meta-right’ to participation. (To a significant extent lack of take up is related to my own failure to take myself seriously).
Perhaps what is needed, then, is a prior coming together of centrist thought, with the explicit aim of bringing the two warring sides together through some sort of peace-making process (though I do not realistically expect it to be called this).
Anthony’s ‘civic republicanism has a sociological feel to it — the development of political solutions for a time when, as he says:
The economic and social foundations of the UK are fundamentally unsound, [and] [t]he demographic, environmental, geo-political, technological and cultural context is radically shifting.
At the heart of this approach lies the proposal for a Universal Basic Income, which I am now persuaded is important for the kind of ‘ontological security’ of which Anthony Giddens understands to be vital for a flourishing modernity, and which outweighs the risk of it becoming a capitalist sop to labour in the same way as the National Minimum Wage (arguably) became.
As such, Anthony offers the Ulrich Beck to my Jurgen Habermas — an unabashed aspiration to a universal right to participation both tempered and added to by a sense of loss around the near demise of autonomous professionalism.
But I am increasingly aware that there is a political and social programme at the intersection of our traditions, especially if it is influenced by the Marxian analysis of the type that Chris Dillow brings to the table (especially around the limits to supply-side socialism), and the radical re-democratization that Paul Evans envisages.
The point here, though, is not about detailing proposals for the radical centrism that is beginning to emerge in the light of rapid social change and heightened insecurity. The point is that there is a group emerging which stands clearly between the Corbynite left (while understanding the reasons for Corbynism) and the moderates (while understanding why they want to defend their old territory).
As such, this new radical centre is better placed than anyone to facilitate a new settlement, based on the kind of apology and recognition process I have described, and rooted in a real desire to renew the idea of Labour’s broad church through the embedding of respectful procedures for inclusive participation.
Will anyone from the two warring factions I have described choose to engage in the kind of process I have set out here?
The prospects don’t look great. If people ignore Anthony, given his think-tank credibility, why would I expect anyone to engage with a backbench councillor from Lancashire with less than 2,000 twitter followers.
But you have to try. If I could be granted one, vaguely realistic wish, it would be that one of the wealthy people who are said to be ploughing money into a centrist party on the Macron model, has a read, and a think, and then gives Anthony a ring about supporting the development of some kind of facilitative institution aimed at developing a radical centrism that they can really back within a 100 year old party with getting on for a million members. I’d like it to be called the Hab Lab, but I’ll go with the flow.
But alongside that, we really do need a willingness from the main protoganists in the current Labour wars to step out of their trenches and say sorry.
 I happen to be re-reading Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate at the moment. A central theme to the great novel of Staliinist Russia is how Viktor, research physicist and half-autobiographical character, senses the coming of full-blown antisemitism through stray phrases about being Russian, and small discriminations over rations.
 At more or less the same time as I was writing on the Welfare White Paper, Chris Dillow was making the same argument about the perniciousness of managerialism under New Labour:
The managerialist aims only at the good of effectiveness. As MacIntyre put it: “the manager treats ends as given, as outside his scope: his concern is with technique, with effectiveness.
The intrusion of this attitude into politics means that the pursuit of virtue gets lost. (p.168)