The rumblings from inside the stomach of the Labour Party clearly seem to be leading up to a bout of violent projectile vomiting once the expected defeat occurs next year. The spookiest of these reverberations comes from Lord Mandelson, the Prince of Darkness himself, who seems to be entertaining ideas of leading Labour once the mighty one has been thrown out. The really interesting feature of this is not any vision of a newly encommoned Mandelson facing Cameron at PMQ. It is hard to imagine Peter settling for at least five years of such limited fun. No power, no money, not quite the thing for which he gave up Brussels. No, the smart money in his case must be on the entirely possible scenario, given the bias to Labour in the present electoral setup, that the next election will be quite close-run without a clear Conservative majority. In such a situation, would it be entirely surprising to see Peter leading at least part of the Parliamentary Labour Party into some kind of national government coalition with the Conservatives? As commentators often observe, Labour is in his blood ─ you know, the Ramsay Mac lineage.
At least one must suppose that Mandelson has some kind of political strategy though one, which for obvious reasons, he keeps close. Other contenders, who have begun set out their stall, seem oblivious to any need for anything similar. David Miliband comes closest with his proposal basically to eliminate the need for any conventional political party just a vague body of ‘supporters’ who can chip in money or run phone lines as required without having any inconvenient ideas about forming party policy. (www.tribunemagazine.co.uk/2009/08/07/how-the-next-decade-can-belong-to-labour) This idea does at least have the merit of formalising the present situation in the Labour Party but one has to wonder at the insight of a man whose idea of “a new relationship with three million-plus affiliated trade unionists” consists of getting them “signing up to the political fund of their union, making them a much closer part of a genuine Labour movement.” In other words, giving the Labour Party money. Not sure how the army of labour will take to that.
Passing over Harriet Harman in silence, always best, the other notable rumble has been the unlikely double-act of Jon Cruddas and James Purnell, one having Neal Lawson’s Compass think-tank as his PR machine, the latter working out of a rather weird project in the Demos think-tank (www.openleft.co.uk) which seeks to answer the question: What does it mean to be on the Left today? Both write freely about the ‘left’, without making much effort to define what they mean by this carpetbag word, and appear to be setting themselves up as Labour’s pathfinders for its post-2010 world. One can expect much in the way of a ‘narrative’ involving ‘paths to equality and individual empowerment’ as well as ways to ‘reclaim Labour’s lost constituency’ before the year is out. The problem with both Cruddas and Purnell is that they appear to see the left as an inchoate mass just waiting to be mobilised for Labour if only the right policy buttons can be pressed. They lack any apparent sense of the current structure of the left; political life is frozen for them perpetually in 1997 when, as Blair children, (both have been Blair aides), they saw what seemed to be a united coalition of the left supporting Labour. Both seem to regard the early Blair as their exemplar, promising a new world without being too specific about the details and gathering around them a joyous mass of the left.
Meanwhile, on the lonely extremities of the Labour Party, there seem to be the first stirrings of revolt. John McDonnell, perpetual leadership contender if he could only raise enough MP votes to be nominated, suggests standing as “Labour MPs making it clear at the next election that they stand on a policy platform of real change as ‘change candidates’” (http://l-r-c.org.uk/press/labour-left-threatens-candidates-for-change-slate-if-policies-dont-change). It remains uncertain as to just what this means. If mouthing off about the deficiencies of the leadership, then there’s little new. If he means standing with a published manifesto different to that prepared by the central machine then it would mean deselection and expulsion. This encapsulates the central contradiction of the Labour Representation Committee which McDonnell leads. As the statement goes on: “These would be Labour candidates binding together as a slate, committed within Labour, setting out the policy programme they will be advocating as a group and supporting in Parliament if elected. Only in this way can we demonstrate to the supporters that want to come home to Labour that there is the hope and prospect of change.” In other words, setting up as an electoral faction to persuade supporters (of what exactly?) to “come home to Labour” knowing that such a move would result in instant expulsion from this same party and, presumably, setting up some kind of alternative political group in opposition to it. This is the nettle which the LRC has to grasp at some point.
So one can set out two scenarios for 2010 and the Labour Party. In one, the election results in no clear majority for the Conservatives and the Lord of Darkness marches a small, though perfectly formed, group of MPs into some kind of National Unity government. John McDonnell leads an even smaller group of expelled MPs (though a much bigger proportion of party members) into the wilderness whilst David Miliband or similar organises a party without members but with continuing union finance into the world of virtual internet campaigning based upon a large Facebook group and words of wisdom from Cruddas and Purnell (unless the latter joins the PoD).
In the second, Labour is comprehensively defeated and the LoD slopes off to some well-paid job in an international organisation. Miliband succeeds to leading the much-depleted band of Labour including McDonnell, who decided not to court expulsion just yet but still fails to get the required 12.5% of Labour MPs to nominate him. Cruddas and Purnell both lose their seats and join think-tanks to write books about the future of Labour. In short, nothing much changes.
History favours this scenario but, as Gramsci said, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. In other words, you know things will get worse but you still hope they will get better.