Labour in turmoil as it tries to prophesy its future from its past

Karl Marx Grave

The warning by Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, that his union may disaffiliate from the Labour if a favourable candidate is not chosen in the autumn leadership ballot, has put into sharp relief how sudden and real the party’s existential crisis has become.

Harriet Harman, the interim leader, is no longer overseeing a postmortem on a catastrophic election defeat, but a battle to save the party from civil war, and possible collective suicide. The battle is in part political, in part organisational and in part about the mainstay of politics – the people.

The politics in a way is the most simple. In Scotland a section of the Labour party remain convinced that Blairism spawned the rise of nationalism, and in England a similar group believe the alienation of the working-class vote stems from the former PM’s embrace of globalisation, leading to lower wages and weaker job security. Ed Miliband was either too indecisive in his rejection of Blairism, or simply an inadequate exponent of that view.

Another section of Labour believes the opposite. The Miliband experiment tested to the destruction the idea that there was an electoral majority ranged against the 1%. It delivered Labour’s worst defeat since Michael Foot was party leader. Both ideological groups point to irrefutable polling evidence about when Labour lost its vote, to justify their position.

Separately there is an issue of organisation, and the nature of the union link. In Scotland, the leader is still elected by an electoral college in which the unions have a guaranteed third of the vote, and few questions are asked about how union leaders seek to influence their members into voting for the left candidate. Jim Murphy, the outgoing Blairite leader has vowed as his last act to reform the party’s democracy to introduce one member one vote, saying Scottish Labour is one of the least democratic bodies in the body politic. He faces an uphill task against entrenched interests.

In England, Labour’s system for electing the party was reformed in February 2014, but remains to be tested in the coming leadership election since few thought it would be needed quite so quickly. A system of one member one vote has been established, with no bloc vote holding any weight. The electorate is 220,000 party members; anyone registered as party supporter that has paid a £3 fee and any political levy payers that are recruited by their union to state they are a party supporter.

The union supporter can be contacted by head office to join the party by email phone or letter, but they must check these communications to check they are genuine. The ballot paper will no longer be dispatched by unions, but Electoral Reform Services, so the system is open to less abuse. Many party members felt cheated by the unions in the 2010 leadership election and will not tolerate a repeat this time.

The union/party leadership relationship is as fragile as it has been for decades. Parts of Unite would like to break away, arguing the party is a lost and expensive cause.

Finally, there is an issue of a new leader. When Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley, moved to the podium to give the keynote address at the Progress conference on Saturday afternoon, the audience gave such a long, standing ovation it almost turned into a collective plea to make him change his mind and reverse his decision not to stand for the Labour leadership. At this early stage, none of the announced candidates yet command complete confidence. Jarvis exuded change, authenticity, and quiet authority and has a backstory as a soldier, that dwarfs the world of “political special adviser”, the pedigree of many of theother candidates.

His 20-minute speech was finely judged. Like many, he asked the perennial question: can Labour ever win again? He asserted: “This is a clause 1 moment – whether the party could maintain its mission to retain a Labour party in parliament. Don’t be fooled by the chaos unfolding at Ukip headquarters. The winds of populism and discontent blowing across the continent are far more stronger than hot air being produced by Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell. Ukip are not going away. We have got to take them on.”

He then criticised the election campaign: “Too often we stayed in our comfort zone and tried to play an unattractive game of them or us with the public. We were right to speak of one nation but we sought to win power by speaking only to a percentage of the electorate.” The campaign had promised to take on unaccountable interest and fight for the poor, he said, but “in the process the squeezed middle were themselves squeezed out of the story for why Britain needed a Labour government”.

His refusal to stand, reiterated on Saturday, makes him, along with Alan Johnson, a Mario Cuomo for the Labour party. The unavailability only makes more alluring in comparison with those on offer.

Yet Andy Burnham has assembled an impressively large and politically broad team of supporters, and has done his best to position himself as the unity candidate. As the party collectively risks losing its head, he may be the safest safe pair of hands to take the party through the crisis. But his opponents portray him as embedded in a conservative Labour culture. His allies for instance on Saturday refused to question the conduct of McCluskey, saying the union chief only hasa single vote in the new Labour democracy.

Whichever of Burnham ‘s many allies told the Sunday Times (£) the intention was to acquire so many nominations from the parliamentary party that other candidates would not get on the ballot paper, may have missed the spirit of the moment. Gordon Brown’s coronation in 2007 led to the worst premiership of the postwar era. Outside the career orientated world of the elected Labour MP, there is a greater thirst to hear the views of the candidates that did not win their seat.

Burnham has much strength, including a passionate belief in the integration of health and social care, and on Saturday spoke of a 111 system so patients could use phone and television to have a consultation with a health expert. But he has a record, and Tories love nothing more than a record. He was treasury secretary overseeing the comprehensive spending review in 2007. Did that put a break on over spending before the crash? Arguably yes, but enough? As health secretary he dealt with the fallout from the Mid-Staffs crisis.

His approach to the public sector has been criticised as conservative, and not just on health. On education he told Progress he would stop free schools and believes in “a truly comprehensive education system” adding: “We have got to stop atomisation of school system where they think and swim. We must get back to a different way of thinking about education – there don’t have to be losers for there to be winners in education”.

Unless Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, starts to fire on more cylinders than she did at the Progress meeting, Liz Kendall, the shadow health minister, looks likely to be his chief rival. She blends passion for social justice with a sense that she understands the need for the party to change. But she lacks experience at the very top, and on two of three issues, notably immigration, her position was fragile. She will also undoubtedly, in the mind of McCluskey, not be the correct winner. It is going to be a tough summer for Labour.

Powered by article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for The Guardian on Sunday 17th May 2015 19.55 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010