The Devil makes work for idle hands
The former minister [Tessa Jowell] writes that people “who should know better” have helped the Tories engineer a “so-called summer crisis” for Labour by offering public rather than private criticism.
In an appeal for discipline, Jowell writes: “There are complementary rights and obligations when it comes to the leadership of the Labour party: anyone may stand for the leadership, but once the winner is chosen, he or she is entitled to the loyalty and support of the party at every level.
“Loyalty is what keeps the boat afloat; disloyalty the rock against which it breaks. And disloyalty comes in many shapes, most of which artfully ape the gestures of friendship. There is, however, nothing constructive in publicly delivering ‘helpful advice’ which could be much better delivered quietly in private. For the public it creates an unappealing sense of toxic disunity.”
The Guardian Website 25 August 2013 Tessa Jowell condemns ‘toxic’ attacks against Ed Miliband
Apt words, but why are they necessary?
We are told that the whip system is necessary to “maintain party discipline”. Yet “discipline” seems to relate to how our MPs vote; “loose talk” outside the Commons seems to be uncontrolled.
Tessa Jowell’s eloquently expressed sentiments are very true, but parties seem to have a habit of wanting to self-destruct. In Labour’s case it appears to arise from Labour MPs being out of physical reach of the whips.
Would we be better off if the Commons did not have such long holidays? OK, MPs will argue that recesses are not holidays, but they are periods when MPs are much freer to do what they want. They could catch up on constituency business – but one would hope that they were not behind with it. Some may argue that if they spent more time at Westminster they could do more legislating.
Those same people may argue that they should not be allowed to do any more harm than they already do. Others may argue (for instance in the light of the Miranda furore, or even the Dangerous Dogs Act – if we want to look back further for examples of sloppy legislation) that it might be a good idea if they spent a bit more time scrutinising proposed legislation.
Is the loose talk that Tessa Jowell deprecates of any use to us?
It tells us that the people’s party has an “unappealing sense of toxic disunity”; but that’s not news to us – it’s a defining characteristic of most political parties. I suspect that the only parliamentary party not suffering in this respect is the Green Parliamentary Party (I suspect that George Galloway is quite able to have an argument with himself).
Does it raise issues – in a constructive way? Constructive for us, that is, rather than the Labour (or whatever) party. Our parties are monolithic and do not encourage open discussion. Policy making is now very controlled, even the Lib Dem’s have “got control” of their annual conference. All parties seem terrified of “splits” – certainly the experience of the Labour Party in the “Thatcher years” is that a divided party will not get elected. Any discussion of “hot” issues (such as abandoning Clause 4) tend to be initiated by the leadership, controlled by the leadership and won by the leadership.
Did this situation arise during the Thatcher years? Before then did we have freer policy discussion at, for instance, party conferences; was the public more receptive towards (or tolerant of) internal disagreement? If so, why did this situation change?
- Clever use of the “dark arts” by the Conservative Party to make the “divided” Labour Party appear unelectable?
- A hostile media realising that “disunity” was a weapon that it could use against the Labour Party?
- A change in public mood? Perhaps the foundation of the SDP and the creation of the SDP-Liberal Alliance caused many to think that we were moving into a purer form of politics – and this made us less tolerant of the “old” divisive politics?
I suspect that open discussion is now so suppressed that when comments do escape it is in the form of outbursts “which artfully ape the gestures of friendship”, but which contribute nothing to the debate.
Tessa Jowell continues:
We are not commentators on a Westminster game of who is up and who is down, of who has coined the best sound-bite or delivered the sharpest put-down. We are, rather, participants in a political contest whose outcome will affect the lives of millions of people. It is not the political class but our constituents who will pay the price if we allow David Cameron and the Conservatives another term in office – to squeeze living standards as prices rise faster than wages, to abandon families with elderly relatives and children waiting on trolleys in hospitals, or to take no responsibility towards those of our young people who are without jobs or hope of a home of their own.
This comment highlights that most of the comments have been ad hominem comments – mainly directed at the Labour leader rather than comments about policy. She is, I fear, right (subject to a degree of hyperbole) about the consequences of permitting the Conservatives another go (particularly if they are unencumbered by Liberal Democrats), but is she right about how to avoid such a result at the next general election?
A change of Government can be achieved by:
- Keeping quiet and hope that the Government “loses it”
- Keeping quiet and trusting in a surge of support when the election comes
- Building a coalition of support for your party’s values, principles and policies.
- Engaging the electorate in a “genuine” conversation (don’t ask how, most attempts seem to be discussions of the like-minded) about what the county needs and how your party’s values and principles are relevant and what policies are required to realise those needs.
The first three require varying (but high) degrees of party discipline. The latter is a form of intervention that is not well-understood and probably won’t work with the our current form of party politics, the electorate’s current disenchantment with politics and the media’s current scepticism regarding any political innovation.
This is depressing as it is arguable that we face a point when the world is changing rapidly and the political solutions of previous decades are no longer “fit for purpose”.