Monday, April 02, 2007

Opposition-mindedness: A lesson for the Lib-Dems from Labour's history

There are plenty of individual reasons to lament Labour's Bennite madness in the early 1980s, but there is one aspect of it that particularly stands out.

The candidates for this honour are as follows:

  1. The 'Alternative Economic Strategy' - a protectionist 'socialism in one country'. I forget the exact phrase, but didn't Tony Benn try to commit a Labour government to '...import controls within hours, withdrawal from the EEC within weeks'? As an example of large-scale, concerted negativism, it is almost without peer. A policy that would have been disastrous to attempt and impossible to apply. A policy that no-one who actually wanted to run the country would ever bind themselves to.
  2. Unilateral nuclear disarmament - again, negativism of the highest order. Not part of a broader foreign policy, but a triumph of single issue lobbying from a mix of the Communist Party and pacifists of various stripes. CND members (unlike their cleverer END counterparts) were almost uniformly anti-EEC, so there wasn't any workable alternative to The Bomb on offer. Naive at best, suicidal at worst.
  3. The open-armed approach to the entryists of the Militant Tendency. The trots surely couldn't believe their luck on this one, and you can't blame them for trying. I've seen aspects of Militant's programme defended fairly well elsewhere, of course, but it was a fanciful idea that this programme would be one that would command the support of even Labour's traditional backbone areas, never mind those constituencies that fell to the Tories in 1979. The willingness to accommodate this grouping was a combination of unfocussed negativism on the far left, and a liberal centre-left that was so open minded that it's brains fell out.
  4. The attempt to move towards the mandating of MPs by constituency parties. It's hard to believe it now, but in the early 1980s, the Constituency Labour Party was a battleground. Chris Mullin’s publication 'How to Re-select Your MP' reawakened old wounds in the party.

In my view, the last of these four was the cardinal sin. It compounded the idiocy of the previous three and made them possible. Insofar as it made the Labour Party uninhabitable for many MPs, it was the direct cause of the SDP split and the subsequent unopposed Thatcherite destruction of so much social fabric. The most odious aspects of 'new' Labour control-freakery can also be traced to this movement of the early '80s.

It was a long time in gestation as well. In the early 1950s, Richard Crossman quoted Roy Jenkins complaining that "...every force of demagogy and every emotion is against us. In the constituency parties, which are now opposition minded, the Bevanites have it all their own way. I suppose that one must wait for the tide to turn, as it did in the 1930s, from the Opposition-mindedness of 1931 to constructive politics."

More than a decade in opposition followed. In the early '80s, after the perceived betrayals of the Wilson / Callaghan governments, this opposition-mindedness was again rampant. This time, its expression was Euro-negativism, CND and a supine attitude to Militant. The 'Bevanites' were pussycats by comparison to the negativists of the 1980s. Mullin and Benn wanted to replace MPs, in the words of Bernard Levin (I think?), "with dictaphones." Mullin actually graded every MP on a sliding scale, depending upon their willingness to either support, or trim towards, the AES / CND / anti-EEC demands of their most obsessive and asocial constituency party members (a reason to applaud Chris Dillow's view that opinions should be held lightly and – endorsing Richard Rorty’s view - ironically).

Labour had partly handed it's powers to an inward-looking group of Polytechnic drop-outs who had no conception of how to speak to, and form an alliance with, an electoral majority. To understand the position of Labour's leadership, think of having Jeremy Corbyn x10, as your back-seat driver. The kindest thing you can say about it was that it was an impractical rendition of democratic centralism. It was an attempt to construct a 'dictatorship of the polytechnicat'. It had no programme that it could sell to the public.

Yet many of these twentysomething urban guerillas managed to cling on to their positions within the party as the old bagage was gradually dropped. They trimmed and dropped the social radicalism but retained the reflexive determinism of the unreasoning political bully. Labour's tragedy is that it's historic compromise (unlike that of the German SPD) was not made by democratic socialists. It was made by careerist ex-CLPDers. Milburn, Byers, Hodge, Beckett, Mullin, and so on. Even Blair, and his closest acolytes, started out nodding towards the Bennite madness of inner-London politics in the early 1980s.

They ended up running an electorally focussed party of the 1990s, whilst never abandoning their distain for representative democracy. The single biggest faction in new Labour are these unthinking democratic-centralists. Where they advocated CLP mandates in the early 1980s, by the 1990s, they were advocating Party List System voting, centrally managed selection panels, and the highly centralised focus group-driven politics of new Labour. This time, the mandate came from Millbank Tower, and not from a bunch of hippy sparts.

So, why mention this now? Well, partly because it's a trick that Adam Curtis missed in his recent excoriation of wrongheaded liberalism. But, more importantly, the snouts that I talk to who watch these things are prone to observe just how much the Lib-Dems are starting to resemble the '80s Labour Party in some ways.

And, though I'm no Lib-Dem, I'm worried about this. Why? Because many of us pro-PR, pro-Euro Labour Party members have, until now, been fairly relaxed about the prospect of a hung parliament. It would seem to be one of the most likely electoral outcomes at the moment. Labour's poor poll-ratings may prove a mixed blessing because a Lib-Lab alliance could bring out the best in a Labour government?

But what if the negativists in the Lib-Dem constituencies refuse to allow their MPs to negotiate a coalition? They may not be able to formally control the MPs any more than CLPs could in the 80s. But MPs are often very responsive to their most ardent activists. Lib-Dems are telling friends of mine (sadly, unattributably) that they won't be able to make the case for a post-election alliance with Labour - even if the numbers stack up.

Mandates damaged Labour terribly in the 1980s. In my view, that damage has been largely undiagnosed and consistently under-reported. It's not just a phenomenon of the left either. Mandates destroyed the Ulster Unionist Party over the last ten years, and it may now do the same to the Lib-Dems. Mandated representatives are the enemy of principled and pragmatic politics everywhere. They make negotiation and reason impossible.

And who wins? The Lib-Dems certainly won't, but then it's not really clear that they have anything that their prepared to fight for anymore anyway.

No. The only winner will be the Bullingdon Boy.


Bob Piper said...

I don't think there is a thing there I could disagree with. Also all that rubbish about stopping MPs having a job for life, that nonsense about accountability and allowing MEMBERS for god's sake, to have a say as to whether there MP was doing anything at all for a living. They must have been living in cloud cuckoo land.

Much safer the way it was under Uncle Jim, Harold and Dennis. Less bloody debate and no bleeding democracy, that's what we want, not all these sodding plebs sticking their noses into OUR business.

Did you write that post, Paulie, or did you lift it from Dr Owen?

Paulie said...


Dr Owen my arse. I'm saying that you shouldn't mandate representatives, and that well-organised and unrepresentative minority groups within a party's membership shouldn't be able target MPs in a co-ordinated way. That would be spectacularly undemocratic, and it would - as it nearly did - destroy the Labour Party. It would also result in us fighting an election on a platform that no-one in their right mind would vote for. My recollection of canvassing in 1983 was being told by Labour voters that they were turning out for us in spite of what was in our manifesto.

This is not to say that members shouldn't have a strong influence on MPs. I would argue for representative (as opposed to 'activist') groups of the membership to be more involved in selection than they are. I'd have no problem with - say - full open selection processes being run by a grouping that is independent of the party bureaucracy at the end of every couple of terms.
And having a wider selectorate would mean that MPs that are able to demonstrate their abilities as representatives (an aptitude for open-minded consultation, a coherent set of personal convictions, etc) would be more likely to get selected than a lot of the loyalist drones that we have at the moment. It would incentivse MPs to behave in a much more inclusive and conversational way than they do at the moment. It would add a real value to membership, and may result in an upturn in recruitment.

If it were up to me, I'd replace the large percentage of Labour MPs who aren't prepared to interact with the public in general and party members in particular. I'm saying that the Burkean principle of representation is more important than the sloganeering of specific totemic policies.

Anyway, you should be supporting my viewpoint here. Though I wouldn't agree with you on lots of things, I'd rather have someone like you that you can have an argument with in Parliament than the slippery bureaucrats that make up most of the Parliamentary party.

Thinking of going for selection anywhere Bob?