Labour and the F word
If there is one thing that Labour members can agree upon, even in this time of division, it is the evils of factions. Cunliffe's well-connected critics accuse him of building a faction in the party; Cunliffe's supporters in the blogosphere and elsewhere consider this charge a calumny. Both sides in the current dispute hark back to the 1980s, when the fourth Labour government's right-wing economic programme caused turmoil inside the party, when they warn about the dangers of factionalism. They agree that, without what Shearer ally and party whip Chris Hipkins called 'total unity', Labour cannot win the 2014 election.
But do factions really deserve all this opprobrium? Traditionally, the left has understood a faction to be a group formed inside a political party to advocate openly for a set of policies. Factions hold private and public meetings, publish propaganda, and recruit new members, as they try to convince the wider party of the rightness of their views. To belong to a faction is not be disloyal to a party - it is simply to work in the open with other members of that party in pursuit of a common goal.
Labour's sister parties abroad have been friendlier to factions. The British Labour Party, for instance, has long contained a variety of factions which hold their own public meetings and publish their own propaganda. The left-wing Socialist Campaign Group has existed since 1982 and commands the loyalty of fourteen MPs, including John McDonnell, who challenged Gordon Brown for the party leadership and post of Prime Minister in 2007, and Diane Abbott, who fought with the Milibands for the party leadership last year. At the other end of the party's ideological spectrum stands Progress, a faction established by MPs and activists nostalgiac for the neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative foreign policy of the Tony Blair era. The influential grouping called Compass, which advocates a moderate form of social democracy, has taken up positions between the Campaign and Progress factions.
In the 1980s the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock famously purged a left-wing faction of the party called Militant. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kinnock lost the next two elections. Tony Blair was no fan of party democracy, but he was obliged to tolerate the Campaign Group because most of its MPs enjoyed strong support in their constituencies.
Labour's painful experiences in the 1980s do not, as many of its present-day members imagine, count as proof of the dangers of factionalism. As Bruce Jesson showed in his book Fragments of Labour, the party was hijacked, in the months leading up to its 1984 election victory, by a clique of converts to radical right-wing politics. This clique, which was led by Roger Douglas, was clever and ruthless enough to set the policy programme of the government David Lange set up after the election.
Jesson argued that the job of Douglas was made easier because of the lack of a large, intellectually powerful left-wing faction inside Labour in the early '80s. Lange and other leading MPs were seduced by Douglas partly because they could see no alternative to his ideas. When Douglas went to work after the election, selling state assets and deregulating financial markets, the party's grassroots was confused, and slow to respond.
Today another right-wing clique has captured the commanding heights of the Labour Party. As Chris Trotter has noted, David Shearer's most enthusiastic supporters are not rank and file Labour members but right-wing media commentators like Fran O'Sullivan and David Farrar. Shearer advisors like Josie and John Pagani have made their admiration for Blair and Thatcher clear, and Shearer's money man David Parker tried to fight last year's election by positioning himself to the right of the National Party. Shearer's own speeches and interviews have included ominous exercises in beneficiary and teacher-bashing.
speeches which have argued that Labour should return to social democratic policies. Cunliffe has become the unofficial leader of Labour's internal opposition.
At last weekend's conference Labour's rank and file won democratic reforms which threaten the power of the clique around Shearer. After being defeated on the conference floor, Shearer threw some left-wing rhetoric and a major housing programme into his speech to delegates, winning their applause. Now that the conference is over, though, the Shearer clique is trying to push back at the grassroots, by reprimanding and demoting David Cunliffe for disloyalty.
Both the Shearer clique and the mainstream media have been keen to present the dissent at Labour's conference as a product of Cunliffe's machinations. Cunliffe has been condemned as an egoist who is creating conflict in his party simply to satisfy his own ambitions. The disciplining of Cunliffe will, we are told, help restore calm to Labour. But the real source of Labour's troubles is the split between the Shearer clique and the opinions of the party's rank and file, who are in no mood to see a repeat of the right-wing policies of the '80s.
While it is understandable that critics of Shearer support Cunliffe, they should not allow the conflict of ideas inside the party to be turned into a conflict of personalities. Critics of the Labour Party's current leadership are already communicating with each other at places like the group blog The Standard. They should organise themselves into a faction which champions the left-wing alternative to the policies of the Shearer clique. If Labour's grassroots opposition showed its size and made its case, then the Shearer clique's attempts to personalise and trivialise the divisions in the party would fall flat.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]