Labour historians and journalists often talk about a ‘cycle’ that Labour goes through after an election defeat. It goes something like: purity, splits, turmoil, modernisation, victory.
Modernisation, by the way, doesn’t mean Blairism; that was just one of its forms. ‘moderniser’ in the modern sense is a euphemism, and a disingenuous one. Modernisation in the 1960s meant discovering the White Heat of Technology. Then in the late 80s and early 90s, it meant the Kinnockites.
So when we think about where we are in the cycle, purity, to be quickly followed by splits and turmoil (though, that has arrived early), the obvious citation is to compare to Kinnock. Where, and who, is the 2015 Kinnock?
But maybe we’re looking at the wrong era. There was a modernisation effort in the early 2000s too, when New Labour had lost its shine. It came in the form of Robin Cook. Before his untimely death, the behemoth of soft-left intellectualism sought a new rethinking of Labour’s social democratic roots.
When Robin Cook won his seat of Livingston in 1983, he joined the soft-left Tribune Group. Tribune went on to split and then collapse as a force in the 1980s over Benn’s deputy leadership bid, and then lost its distinction by its closeness to Blair and Brown. Out of the ashes rose Compass, which itself collapsed in internal party politics in more recent years under Miliband -at a point it should have been in its heyday- when it decided to open itself up to members from other parties. This is one reason I suggest that the soft left has been a weak organisational force and subsequently could not collaborate to win the 2015 leadership contest.
Maybe what the soft-left needs, then, is a purpose as it had under Cook and Tribune. This doesn’t mean a new faction (maybe?), but a sense of confidence and a leader, or at least an advocate.
Kinnock was -is- seen as an interim between the final stages of modernisation, stages in retrospect that Kinnock himself grimaces about. ‘We have our party back’, he said in response to Ed Miliband winning the leadership in 2010. Unfortunately, each soft left leader from 1992-2015 has represented that interim, and I don’t doubt that the Right of the Party, positioning themselves as the de-facto end after the means, look to the likes of Hillary Benn or an acceptable face of soft leftism as a stage before they claim their victory.
But the soft left shouldn’t look at itself as an interim. It is the very mainstream of The Labour Party.
Tribune was resuscitated in 2005 by Clive Efford MP, though has little sway in internal politics -much like Compass. Well, unlike Compass, it hasn’t given up its authority. This should be the time to muscle in, produce reports and consultations in its name, and to look for its new Cook. It has many solid MPs, Cruddas, Nandy, early 2010s Chuka Umunna. It needs to use its powerhouses.
‘Intellectual revival’ means very little and seems elitist, detached from the practical and pragmatic steps we should be taking like Kinnock did, such as the door-to-door Labour Listens consultation that occurred after the 1987 election loss. As a friend on Twitter said, we should listen to what people want, and fit it into a Labour narrative. Immigration? We should crack down on wage exploitation. Too many benefits? We should build more houses. Course’, these are simplistic solutions that need far more facets to truly understand public grievances. But democratic socialist solutions can be found and can be populist.
So, a Tribune-style ‘intellectual revival’ should be more than that. Tribune right now extends invitations merely to backbench MPs. It’s a group rather than a movement. A magazine with a subscription but no membership. Tribune and a Soft Left revival should be inclusive and as forceful in making itself heard as its peers to its left and its right. Consulting with members and the public to build a receptive and purposeful policy programme to be presented to whoever the leader is.
The intellectual force of Cook with the pragmatic consultation of Kinnock post-1987. A Labour Listens for soft-left members and the public alike.