The NEC, Haringey and big choices for Labour’s moderates
Today Haringey council leader Claire Kober announced she will step down at the local elections in May, bringing to a close the saga of the controversial £2bn Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) plans for public-private joint redevelopment in the borough.
This follows controversy first about the mass-deselection last year of Labour councillors in the borough who had backed the HDV, and more recently around the related intervention by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) this month, in which the NEC asked Kober and Haringey Council to pause the scheme. Among Labour’s beleaguered moderates, the former was seen as yet another sign of creeping local Momentum takeover in the party. The latter was interpreted as an unprecedented and inappropriate attack on the autonomy of elected local government representatives by a democratic centralist hard-left NEC majority following Momentum’s sweep of the NEC by-elections this month.
Speaking as a proud centre-left social democrat, both have indeed concerned me. But so too have aspects of our response, and the broader patterns our tradition in the party risks falling into at a time when we most need to reflect and change our fortunes.
While the NEC intervention does indeed seem rare, likely so too were the circumstances that led the NEC to step in in this particular case. As Stephen Bush has written, the mass replacement of sitting Labour councillors supporting a major flagship policy with a majority slate of council candidates elected in large part to oppose it, months ahead of the May elections in a borough almost certain to return a Labour council, did raise an impending democratic conundrum. In response to a letter from the slate of new councillors, the NEC called for a pause and attempts at mediation in a unanimous vote that included centre-left NEC members and local government representative Alice Perry.
This is not to say that all is fine. It would certainly be a bad precedent for the NEC to intervene like this regularly or in cases where it would more directly represent the party apparatus cutting across the democratic mandate local councillors have from their own constituents. Some of the left response feels flippant about the implications of the NEC vote from this angle, not least in an overall climate where Labour is cleaving towards greater accountability for paid-up members at the expense of accountability to voters at large (with the sizable exception of Brexit). And Momentum’s move to putsch the venerable Ann Black as chair of the NEC disputes sub-committee and replace her with former Lutfur Rahman supporter Christine Shawcroft looks even worse in light of Shawcroft’s reported comments that councillors still backing HDV could be seen to be “breaking the party whip”. But much of the response from the centre-left has not addressed the nuances of the case or shown understanding of why the NEC decision felt instinctively right to so many of our fellow party members.
As for HDV itself — I’m neither a Haringey resident or a housing expert. When I briefly read around it I found some compelling arguments on both sides. I have no time for those who’ve attacked the motives of Labour councillors without acknowledging the unenviable choices and compromises they must make, battling a housing crisis and systemic inequality with their hands ever-more tied by the reality of Tory austerity. For all the opposition to the HDV, few clear alternatives for how to improve and expand affordable housing have been put forward. A national Labour government is not inevitable or might not come until 2022, and it too will face political and economic constraints on how fast it can lift local burdens — councillors have residents in need right now and don’t all feel they can wait.
But equally, the sense among eloquent HDV-sympathetic voices such as Shelter and Dave Hill that it may be the ‘only game in town’ for new development makes me uneasy too. With the best of intentions, this was a similar line of reasoning to the one that led to deeply flawed PFI schemes being deployed by New Labour on a large scale. And a submission from a professor at the UCL School of Planning noted that in light of the potential risks of the HDV, consideration should be given to costs of action as well as inaction and a more piecemeal approach to development could be favoured. Essentially, amidst its sincere zeal for radical change, the HDV can be critiqued as insufficiently considered in its means, a concern the Fabian centre-left often rightly raises about Corbynite plans too.
But I digress, as for those of us outside of Haringey the battle over HDV mostly isn’t about HDV at all. From afar for Corbynites, it loosely represents a triumph of people power over “Blairite” public-private partnerships and outsourcing, concerns given rocket-boosters by the recent collapse of Carillion. For the party right, the headline was Momentum manoeuvring. The truth seems to be a bit of both. Hard-left attempts to downplay Momentum involvement in the deselections seem a bit daft, but Momentum were only jumping on a bandwagon and as Stephen Bush emphasised, this is why deselections on the same scale haven’t been seen elsewhere. Similarly although they cleaned up in the NEC elections (on a low turnout), LabourList noted Momentum’s reach largely hasn’t extended to securing parliamentary selections for its favoured candidates.
This is why moderates simply screaming about Momentum takeover in Haringey and ignoring the underlying issues is harmful to our side. First, it continues to risk the appearance of tone-deafness to the concerns of the majority of party members comfortable with the current direction of the party under Corbyn. Most members dislike factional infighting in general and, like it or lump it, often in particular the perceived actions of moderates since 2015. And second, it even erodes the bedrock of support the centre-left still has within the the party. Overplaying Momentum’s strength risks further demoralising current members who often now feel lost, and it sends a message to Corbyn-era resigners and sympathetic Labour voters that there’s no point in (re)joining to try to influence the direction of the party. The degree to which some moderates feel unmoored and powerless is signified by the feckless chatter at the margins about a new SDP Mk.2 or British En Marche, our very own bit of imagined performance art to mirror all the TUSCs and Left Unity’s of the hard-left’s wilderness years.
No part of any of this represents a pathway to rebuilding our strength in the Labour, our rightful home and the only vehicle for progressive change in Britain. If we forget the perspectives of those we must persuade as well as how we ourselves feel, if we neglect nuance and prioritisation and the hard graft of coalition-building, then we lose the very things that make us uniquely good at winning elections and governing for the many thereafter. As Emma Burnell wrote after the NEC elections, we have to use the relative freedom that not running the party affords us to engage deeply with ideas and ways to convey them, and resist the urge to let everything become about the leadership. Gurinder Singh Josan’s NEC campaign was a really nice model for this, using social media to set out a pledge calendar of ideas like lowering subs in working-class CLPs to diversify our membership base — I’m glad to hear he’s standing again.
For another example of how we engage, going back to the HDV it’s interesting how Labour First voices have not substantially differed from the Progress ones. In one way this makes sense — Labour First was essentially founded in 1980s as the vanguard against Militant, and one of their guiding principles is strong local government. But the Old Right favours more straightforwardly public solutions — they often disagreed with Progress over public service reforms, John Mann MP has been a critic of PFI schemes and they dislike local councillors being undercut by “unaccountable community groups and quangos” — and at their best they can bring a communitarian rather than top-down perspective to politics. This gives the Old Right more common ground with the average party member than meets the eye, but this is rarely emphasised. And looking outwards, with 2017 a clear sign that voters are fed up with austerity but don’t yet trust Labour to govern, a more Old Right-influenced Labour could carve out a niche by fusing bolder Keynesian economic interventionism with a sense of reassurance for moderate and working-class voters who we need to win over.
Labour moderates have so much to offer in politics, and the party cannot fully fire on all cylinders without us. But only we can change our fortunes. We have to start breaking out of the spiral, away from impotent anger and back towards being Labour’s true progressives and optimists.