Only the most cynical or the most naïve people parrot the lie that Sam Tarry was ‘sacked for appearing on a picket line.’ If that was even a little bit true then Lisa Nandy would have been out on her ear, along with several other frontbenchers over this summer of discontent.
We all know Tarry was sacked for breaching the time-honoured tradition of collective responsibility and the team discipline that prevents the party descending into a collection of individual egos vying for claps and clicks. Still, the lie is a decent baseball bat with which to beat Keir Starmer, for those whose only contribution to politics nowadays is to tear down Labour’s leadership.
We also know Mr Tarry’s sacking by Starmer from the front bench is not unrelated to his potential sacking by party members as the Labour candidate for Ilford South at the next election. When ten out of ten local branches vote against you, perhaps they’re trying to tell you something? Martyrdom may save his skin, or perhaps Justice will have her day. Who knows?
What the Tarry affair does tell us is more fundamental. It speaks to not only a doctrinal split in the party over the role of unions and industrial action, although that is there for all to see. Rather, it highlights a psychological division between members of the Labour Party: a difference in attitude, instinct, assumption, and action.
For one group the party is a platform for protest: placards and pickets, rallies and chanting, fierce resolutions in nasty meetings, and ferocious denunciations of traitors and sell-outs.
Once, the Bennite wing of the Labour Party saw their control of the party’s policy-making apparatus and electoral machine as a means to an end. They had experienced Labour in government in the 60s and 70s and wanted it to be better next time. A generation earlier, the Bevanites were wildly romantic but hard-headed about the uses of power. They used it to build homes and hospitals. Bevan himself had no time for ‘purists’ who threaten the whole of private property but in practice threaten nothing.
Today’s incarnation of the ‘left’ seems to have given up all pretence of wanting to govern. They celebrate defeat and shift blame for failure onto shadowy cabals of saboteurs. The way they ran the party showed no regard for even the basics of electoral tradecraft. Making policy on the hoof. Ignoring opinion polls. No notion of target seats. Little regard for the quality or appeal of candidates. Just rallies and tweets, until the whole edifice came crashing down.
For the rump who now remain, the Labour party is a solely vehicle for protest. Why compromise with the electorate when you can stand outside a Tory leadership hustings waving a home-made sign? It signals virtue without any of the responsibility of decision-making, prioritising, compromising, or the hard yards of overturning an 80-seat Tory majority.
Some have even turned pro – making a decent living from Patreon subscriptions, flogging merch, appearing on TV and radio, and fundraising for imaginary legal cases. We have seen the rise of the protestocracy – the professional class of left-wing controversialists whose income and status are entirely unrelated to who is in government.
The constant call to arms undermines their credibility such as demands for a ‘general strike’, when there are almost 33 million people in the UK workforce but only six-and-a-half million in trade unions.
But it can also be incredibly damaging. The anonymous people behind Don’t Pay are encouraging people to simply stop paying their utility bills. Their model is the Militant Tendency’s ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ poll tax campaign, which encouraged thousands of people to go to court, whilst offering them little aftercare once they were convicted for their crimes. The Don’t Pay campaign says refusal to pay the poll tax helped to ‘bring down the government’ which will come to a surprise to John Major who was elected in 1992 with the largest vote for any party in electoral history. When the organisers of Don’t Pay appear at the Corbynite alternative conference in Liverpool this September, perhaps they can explain how they plan to support people facing criminal charges after foolishly following their advice?
By contrast, slowly but surely, the group dedicated to winning an election is growing in influence. People willing to take personal responsibility and make tough choices. In the candidates being selected in key seats, in those putting themselves forward for the NEC, in the delegates coming to conference in Liverpool, in council Labour groups, we can see people who want to win. It represents a shift in what HM Drucker called the ‘ethos’ of the Labour Party – the shaping spirit, culture, and orientation of the party, as opposed to the ‘doctrine’.
We see practical, pragmatic Labour people coming forward, no less passionate about their politics and no less dedicated to social change, but willing to put down the banner and run the board. This growing group recognises the existential danger of Labour losing a fourth general election. They understand the threat posed by Liz Truss, the ideological love child of Thatcher and Trump. Most of all, they heed the timeless advice of Keir Hardie: ‘socialism does not come by shouting’.
The truth is that the legacy of the dark period 2015-19 is an electoral mountain almost impossible to conquer. The Bedfords, Boltons and Burys will tumble in the lightest of breezes, but what about seats such as Bishop Auckland (Tory majority 7,962), Dover (12,278) or Bassetlaw (a whopping 14,013)? To regain these former Labour seats, and a hundred like them, will take a grown-up long-term political project of the kind now coalescing around Keir Starmer.
Last month’s Paul on Politics discussed the ongoing infighting splitting the Far-left project. Read it here