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Tuesday, June 08, 2010 

New Labour is dead. Long live New Labour.

The nominations for the Labour leadership close at 12:30 tomorrow. At the moment, neither Diane Abbot or John McDonnell is even close to gaining enough support from their parliamentary colleagues to stand; whether one or the other decides to acknowledge defeat before then, giving the opportunity for their nominees to swap to the other is uncertain. Even if they do, it's still up in the air whether or not they'll garner the 33 required, as they'll still need another six even if every single nominee changes sides. It's worth remembering that in 2007 Michael Meacher's supporters didn't decamp en masse once he stood down, leaving McDonnell 16 short of the number he needed, with Gordon Brown therefore elected unopposed, in what everyone now acknowledges was little short of a disaster.

To make a rash prediction, my gut feeling is that the same will happen this time, and with Andy Burnham only two nominations from the amount he needs, it seems all but certain that while we will have a contest, it will be a contest based on personalities foremost and policies a very distant second, with the winner almost equally certainly sharing a surname with another candidate. Not, it should be acknowledged, is this much different from what's happened in Labour leadership elections since the fateful 1980 vote which resulted in Michael Foot becoming leader of the opposition. Every contest since then has either been a foregone conclusion, with one candidate winning an overwhelming majority, or has involved a battle of egos rather than beliefs. The key difference is that the Labour party itself then had far more of an influence over policy than it does now, with conferences that mattered rather than being merely either a rubber-stamping session or an opportunity to express a grievance which was then completely ignored by the leadership.

In one sense, the party clearly has no one else to blame than itself for this state of affairs. Despite everything, the parliamentary party is still a relatively wide church: you have the Socialist Campaign Group on the left, the softer left Compass grouping, which if it had wanted to could clearly have stood a candidate whom would have found it much easier to get the nominations required, either a Jon Cruddas or even though he's outside it John Denham; the centrists such as Ed Miliband and maybe Ed Balls if you were pushing it, then the centre-right "Progress" style grouping which encompasses both David Miliband and Andy Burnham. If they had really meant what they'd said, they could have easily decided to tactically vote for someone so that it wasn't just the centre and centre-right of the party yet again monopolising opinion and then making clear that any dissension was back to the 1980s Militant-style bolshiness that simply won't wash in 2010.

The elder Miliband, despite initial murmurings about how much he wanted a wide selection of possible candidates has since shown his clear Blaritie centralising tendencies in his contempt yesterday for John McDonnell at a hustings, while none of the other three have put their words into action. In any case, the debate which has so energised the four likely to be on the ballot has not been about why Labour lost the election and attempting to understand the reasons why the party received 2 million less votes than the Conservatives; the reasons why have already been set in stone. It wasn't seemingly the recession itself, Gordon Brown, the general feeling that it was time for a change, or the stewardship of the economy, let alone Iraq or anything as crass as civil libertarian concerns, but rather immigration first and foremost and which all four have been determined to talk about as much as possible now the election's over, along with anti-social behaviour and the welfare state. Ed Balls went so far at the weekend to criticise his former master and indeed the person that he personally advised on immigration, while also penning a mea culpa that Labour was wrong to impose no controls on the A8 eastern European accession states, which led to the huge flow of migrant workers, arguing in addition that the European Union needs to drop its open borders policy when it comes to unskilled labour.

Even if we accept that immigration was, as Dave Osler says, the number one issue on the doorstep, it still didn't lose Labour the election on its own. If this was the case then the party would have almost certainly lost Rochdale after the Gillian Duffy incident and many other of the seats which it held onto. As has been pointed out so astutely by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford, concern about immigration wasn't borne of hatred of foreigners or about the country being full to bursting, but instead because Labour failed to acknowledge the problems which go hand in hand with it, by ignoring the dismal state which social housing was in, by failing to make the minimum wage a living wage, and by letting agency workers undercut those at the bottom by not regularising them, failing as it did to implement the EU agency workers directive, something even Ed Balls now admits was a mistake.

Coupled with these failures were related ones, such as not explaining in simple terms where, as Mrs Duffy put it, all these eastern Europeans were coming from. There was not some grand conspiracy to open the borders and turn Britain into a multicultural paradise where immigration powered economic growth at the expense of the working class, but rather the far more benign mistake of assuming the the other EU countries would open their borders immediately as well, which with the exceptions of Ireland and Spain they didn't. This failure of explanation went along with the refusal to defend the decision. Lastly, the government failed to respond and defend itself against the repeated onslaughts from the tabloids on both immigration and the asylum system, so often packed with falsehoods and distortions; indeed, on numerous occasions it either colluded with them or agreed, regardless of the facts, further encouraging them while leading the readers to believe the absolute worst even if they didn't recognise the picture painted on their own patch. It decided that it couldn't beat them, so it joined them, with the appointment of the ghastly political thug Phil Woolas as immigration minister, whose only regret was that he didn't push the "points system" hard enough.

Through the emphasis on immigration it's all too clear where the leadership debate, or rather lack of it is going to head. Some of this is reflected in Neal Lawson's comment piece for the Guardian tomorrow, although it has to be remembered that Lawson, even if he's since moved somewhat to the left, was just as much a part of New Labour from the beginning as all four of the candidates were. He's right that Labour has lost its purpose, but it lost that long ago; where he's wrong is that the party has not yet hit bottom. We have to separate the party from the leadership, for the crucial reason that despite everything, Labour won councils and increased its number of local government seats last month, something pitifully under-reported. There is still life in the party, just as there always has been; it's the leadership and its refusal to integrate itself into local communities, which was the difference between winning in places like Birmingham Edgbaston and Tooting and losing in broadly similar seats. He says Labour didn't become the nasty party, but that it did become lumbering and arrogant; I beg to differ. It did become nasty, not because it had to, but because it wanted to and because New Labour knew nothing other than triangulation and reacting to headlines. Even now it doesn't know how to react to the new political landscape, where a new government is actually attempting to be something other than rigidly authoritarian, even if it no longer defends ID cards. As Diane Abbott despaired, how did it ever in the first place move to the right of the Conservatives on civil liberties? For the simple reason that it felt it it had to do, because the Sun said so, and because it's fell into the belief that only the chattering middle classes care about such things, not those C2s more concerned with the loutish teenagers hanging around on street corners than their damned right to do so.

More than anything, the real reason to despair at these four men and the contest which awaits is because as could have predicted, even with the Liberal Democrats in tow, the government is already moving to start the slashing and burning in the public sector as soon as is feasibly possible. David Cameron's speech yesterday was what we're going to have to get used to now, Labour being blamed for everything with no regard for what the Conservatives would have done differently had they been in the same position, the public sector being the enemy rather than the private sector which caused the crisis, the "economically inactive" being lined up to take the pain while the originators of the crisis continue to be amazed at how they're getting away all but scot free, first bailed out and then being readied to restart the cycle, while lip service is paid to "rebalancing" the economy, as if Cameron had even the first idea about strengthening manufacturing, when those jobs have sadly gone for good. To be fair, Liam Byrne and Alistair Darling's responses yesterday and today have been reasonably good, but we need the potential leaders of the party to be raising their voices and signalling their opposition to ideologically inclined cuts. We've heard nothing about the cuts, but plenty about irrelevancies.

The reality is that the party itself and its leadership, as well as some of the parliamentary party, are all but completely different entities. If neither McDonnell or Abbott get the required nominees, then they must finally realise that if the MPs won't allow their voices to be heard, it's not because they have nothing to say or offer, but because the elected representatives are actively ignoring the views of the activists that get them elected. As Diane Abbott has again so accurately put it, for a party that is so diverse to be ultimately represented by one of four individuals from the "narrowest gene pool in history" is a joke that simply isn't funny any more. New Labour crushed dissent and centralised itself to such an absurd degree because it felt it had to in order to get itself elected again. As the 97 and 01 results showed, it would have won if its leader had been the clich├ęd donkey or monkey pinned with a red rosette. Despite this, because it had become so wedded to control freakery and spin it believed had brought it to power, it never let go, and the ultimate conclusion is the four candidates before us today.

Those of us on the left thought we could support the Liberal Democrats as an alternative to a party which had abandoned so many of its principles; now we're effectively disenfranchised, unless Labour changes its ways. It shows every sign of doing the exact opposite. The tragedy is not just one of representation, but also for any real alternative to the current consensus. New Labour is dead. Long live New Labour.

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