Donkeys years ago, I was speechwriter to a party leader. Conferences were a big deal – albeit that I crashed the leader’s car on the way to one of them, but that’s another story – a moment when there would (inevitably) be infighting, factionalism, and if you were lucky some decent clips for your leader on TV.
It was whilst I was still working in Parliament that I began to realise it was all a load of bullshit, a drama for political anoraks that had no meaning at all for most of the public and where the ambition of a party leader was largely to make a positive splash in the media and keep the members under control (or in the case of my first leader, Charles Kennedy, simply to survive it as the knives were sharpened, sadly).
In the technocratic, or simply egotistical, mindset occupied by most politicians, party members are a pain in the arse. Party staff are bad enough – many MPs treat their researchers and parliamentary assistants like absolute dogshit – but members are a law unto themselves. They have Views. They Express them. They might have a History. You get the picture.
Most of all, they’re amateurs. MPs are professionals, they do this for a living, and for most of them – honourable exceptions such as Corbyn and Kennedy aside – the party means the parliamentary party. The wider party is an inconvenience. They will fuck up. They may be oddballs. They won’t do message discipline.
The fact that they pay their subs, knock on doors in the pissing rain, campaign for candidates they are often personally uncertain about for what they see as a greater good (misguidedly this anarchist would say, but I was once in the same boat so I won’t be pious) is neither here nor there.
This is the broad perennial context of a party conference. The more specific one of this year’s Labour effort sees the leader waging open warfare on the membership, seeking to change the rules back to an electoral college in order to ensure no more Jeremy Corbyns. In the midst of this are suspensions, including of conference delegates, and press briefing that Starmer will face down his party. Clause IV moment and all that.
The one consistent dynamic in politics is power. The rules on which Starmer himself was elected – where he straightforwardly hoodwinked the left of the party with his ‘I’ll do socialism but with a knighthood’ schtick – are now inadequate to the task of perpetuating right-wing hegemony so they have to be changed. Whatever else it may be, one member one vote is clearly democratic as a very basic level. Setting your face against that is a hard sell.
Rules are not inviolate. Power is. These rules have to change, but even when rules don’t change they’re often simply broken or ignored. Whatever suits. Anyone who has ever got a motion passed at a trade union or party conference to see precisely nothing happen as a result knows this well.
It is thus with a severe attack of mirth that I have been following one particular Twitter commentator’s outrage at the Starmer offensive against democracy, given the same person wrote a hatchet job in the Morning Star against those who pursued a vote of no confidence in the then UCU General Secretary in 2018. Then that commentator was willing to back the bureaucracy against the members; when I and the other Exeter delegate didn’t withdraw the motion, the officials shut down the Congress and turned the mikes off. This is how it goes. Power is consistent.
Johnson for his part prorogued Parliament, because he could. In a drizzly day in 2019 I stood at a demo against it in Exeter waiting to speak against the prorogation as the trade union speaker. Ben Bradshaw didn’t look wildly pleased to see me, but I’m not sure if recognised the anarchist symbols all over my coat. Anyway yes – I stood shoulder to shoulder with Ben Bradshaw in defence of bourgeois ‘democracy’.
The same Ben Bradshaw who of course today has been out and about today defending the Starmer move against the members. Again, power is consistent.
So welcome to a world without rules. In the conventional politics of the Westminster system, if rules don’t suit power they get changed, ignored, or broken.
One of the most tragic things about the Corbyn moment was that a large part of the left believed it could win by playing by the rules, even as it was clear their opponents did not respect them.
For the Labour right, the end justifies the means, which means anything goes. The only rule is they are right, and the left are pariahs. But right about what? Even to take their claims at face value, it’s hard to take seriously Luke Akehurst’s claim that a key issue for Labour is restoring an image of prudence and economic competence. The challenges of coming out of the pandemic and climate breakdown to take but two require far greater public spending than in the past. That’s aside from the fact that if you believe in states (I don’t) the state apparatus is falling apart. That needs spending to fix.
Then there’s the psephological issues which are fundamental to ‘winning’. Since Labour ‘lost’ Scotland in the wake of Blairism, the odds have been fundamentally stacked against it. Akehurst talks of 35% or 40% to win – but Labour polled 40% in 2017 and lost, and that was with making some inroads in Scotland, since rolled back.
This is the sorcery of poll-watching; unless Labour does well in Scotland (no chance) and the Lib Dems take a decent number of seats off the Tories, Labour simply can’t win. Lest that sound too harsh, bear in mind the historic position. Only three Labour leaders in 121 years have won a Parliamentary majority. Only three. One in the aftermath of a major war, one after thirteen years of Tory government (and then again ten years later after first forcing a hung parliament and then winning the second election later in 1974) and the last after eighteen years of Tory domination. It is this last – Blair – whose party management Starmer seeks to emulate.
But Starmer is not Blair, and 2021 is not 1995 when Blair forced through the symbolic change to Clause IV of the party’s constitution to show Labour had ‘changed’. Since then such moments have become a playbook for technocratic centrists trying to face down their parties. But it’s old hat now, no-one really cares.
There is a reasonable hypothesis that what Labour typically offers in government might be termed ‘recuperative capitalism’. The Conservatives, having maxed out the possibilities of laissez-faire/neoliberalism exhaust themselves and their backers to the point where Labour are temporarily permitted to revitalise a flagging state apparatus (which exists only to sustain capitalism). Capitalism recuperates, before it has another dose of Tory steroids.
But what changed in the Blair era was the acceptance of the Tories ‘business ontology’ as Fisher put it. This has helped enable the hegemony of a Tory political imaginary, which is in power whether Tory majority or coalition government. The weary titan may be as weary as it has ever been, but a chance to recuperate is not coming, as the gas prices soar, the CO2 shortage mounts, the NHS creaks and the food supply is threatened. Tories +4.
Instead, Starmer has chosen to engage exclusively on Tory terms, in effect (again, Fisher) cancelling his own future. Now, for Starmer’s rule changes and purges, there is the parallel of Johnson’s prorogation.
The Westminster political model shrouds itself in rules and pretension, but these are gone. All that is sacred is made profane. There is no future in the Labour Party.
The issue of course is political power, which must be destroyed. To paraphrase the title of Matthew Wilson’s book, we are doing without rules now. It’s high time we did without rulers too.