Is Labour capable of being a One Nation party?

Unite union baron Len McCluskey’s latest declaration of war on ‘Blairites’ in the Labour Party doesn’t exactly promote a vision of Labour as a ‘One Nation’ institution committed to healing divisions in society.

That is precisely the point.

The politics of the major unions affiliated to Labour remain consciously and resolutely antagonistic and divisive, committed to the Marxist-Leninist model of institutional capture (albeit with compromise).  

As McCluskey himself refers to it in the New Statesman interview though, the practice of centralised capture and control is not restricted to the big unions: Tony Blair and New Labour practised it ruthlessly to exercise control over the party.

Peter Watt, the Blairite former general secretary, explained it openly recently: “There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party.  Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed.”

Watt has changed his mind on fixing. But as McCluskey has it, the unions are just getting their own back with their latest successes in fixing candidate selections for European elections to include their own people and exclude others.

“Because we're having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Tony Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so.”

For those of us who like the One Nation idea that Ed Miliband articulated at Labour Party conference last year, these divisions and the practices they promote offer a depressing viewpoint. The unions and the New Labour tendency remain locked in internecine warfare: this is the reality of Labour’s internal power politics, and this is where the real battles are taking place. It is not so much One Nation Labour as Same Old Labour Divisions.

As Atul Hatwal at Labour Uncut put it, “on one point there is now a rare unity between the centrists and the left: the one nation rhetoric is meaningless”.

Though I disagree on the idea itself, Hatwal has a point in addressing the reality, for One Nation remains very much a sideshow within Labour. The big unions who dominate party funding quite rightly see it as a threat to their antagonistic, materialistic brand of politics; the New Labour wing meanwhile remains transfixed (understandably) on the need to assert economic competence and resist Labour’s natural instincts to spend money.

In the midst of this, Shadow Ministers and other major party figures articulating One Nation visions and ideas are almost entirely absent (pumping out press releases strewn randomly with ‘One Nation’ yet promoting the same old policies and positions does not count). The Party is not going along with One Nation and for the most part does not get it.

(Lord) Maurice Glasman, Jon Cruddas and now Arnie Graf have been fighting gamely but can’t do it all on their own. Glasman and Graf in particular are not really politicians. If and when One Nation goes the way of the Big Society, the idea and its promoters will be blamed for little fault of their own.

In reality, they have simply come up against what so many other left-wing reformers have come up against before: the sclerotic nature of the Labour Party, dominated as it by the sort of transactional interest group politics that they argue against.

You may ask, ‘Where is Ed Miliband himself in all of this?’

The response of Miliband’s spokesperson to McCluskey’s latest clunking intervention was admirably strong:

“Len McCluskey does not speak for the Labour Party. This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible.”
“It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won’t work, it is wrong, it is disloyal to the party he claims to represent.”

This does not change much though. Miliband remains stuck in the middle of it all, attempting to reconcile the warring parties.

In such a context, any hopes of the Labour Party itself starting to look like a One Nation institution look distant. Without embodying it through practices and communications, the idea will become less and less relevant and will prove puzzling at best to voters – especially with the likes of McCluskey sounding off every so often.

The chance to change the party in a major way through a major intervention by the leader (like Tony Blair on Clause IV in 1994-5) is probably gone now. So we are left with the old ways, whereby factions compete to secure as much of the Party as they can in order to promote their own people and sectional interests.

The stitch-up and the fix live on; and with them, One Nation Labour will likely die.


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