Monday, February 05, 2007

Will Cruddas eclipse McDonnell?

It seems to me that the more Jon Cruddas talks up his left credentials, the more negative impact this will have on John McDonnell’s campaign for leader.

Cruddas himself has a background as an ultra-Blairite, with a reputation of being able to maintain a good relationship with the unions. He was parachuted into a safe labour seat in 2001.

However, over the last couple of years he has increasingly distanced himself from the Blair project, and the whole New Labour strategy of “triangulating” around the issues that effect swing voters in marginal constituencies. Cruddas instead is arguing for policies that directly benefit labour core working class support.

The question here is not whether he is sincere, or whether he will deliver, but what is the political context, both of the election itself and afterwards.

We need to understand that Cruddas will probably (and however bizarrely) be the front runner left candidate for deputy leader – and that he will represent his campaign as being both loyal to Brown, and also demanding a change of direction from New Labour.

If the deputy leadership contest looks like taking on the characteristics of a real debate about the legacy of New Labour, and the future direction of the party, then this may reduce support for an actual challenge to Brown. What is more, the argument of whether or not Brown becoming leader unopposed will be seen as a coronation is likely to be overtaken by media attention to the deputy leadership, which will become a leadership contest by proxy, in the same way that the Healey/Benn contest was.

The three constituent parts of the Labour Party need to be discussed separately.

In electoral terms the MPs are very important because they are the gatekeepers who determine whether a candidate has the threshold of support to get on the ballot paper. Apart from literally a handful of hard left MPs, most of them have some aspirations to career advancement, and will want to be seen to be backing the winning leadership candidate, or at least won’t want to be associates with bad boy McDonnell. The chances of 44 of them backing McDonnell for leader is predicated upon there being a perceived need for a contest, and John attracting support wider than the committed left. But if the deputy contest is seen as being a real one, then why risk possible negative media coverage of the leadership contest, which may open up the idea that the party is divided, just when Cameron’s Tories are leading in the polls?

The union leaders want influence, and also want a change of direction. They will reason that backing Brown keeps them close to him, and they could maximise pressure on the new PM by backing a deputy leader closer to the unions’ agenda. As has been shown at the last two party conferences, the union leaders are very disciplined (or spineless, depending on your perspective) at sticking to their own agenda, and not supporting left initiatives over Iraq, etc. Cruddas himself has a good prospect of being not the “left candidate” but the “unions’ candidate”, in the same way that Callaghan was for leader. I think those union leaders wanting to pull Labour towards their own agenda may back Brown and Cruddas.

The individual membership is the least significant part of the party nowadays. McDonnell’s active support base is measurable in hundreds at most. (Which is not to say he might not get a reasonable vote (15% or so?) if he is the only challenger to Brown.) Actively backing McDonnell is to reject the strategic direction that the party has taken ever since Kinnock became leader, and only a very few will do so. Something has been made of the small numbers (re)joining the party to support McDonnell, but let us put that in perspective – Benn’s deputy leadership bid was based upon some 80000 leftists joining the party.

In my opinion, the reasonable vote that the grassroots alliance gets for the NEC elections in the constituencies is a safe protest against Blairism, within the context of overall domination of the party by the right. The left has no organisation at ward and CLP level in vast swathes of the country. Again, even in McDonnell stands, many members will want to demonstrate unity in the face of the Tories, and can signal their desire for change by voting for Cruddas.

For the left, inside and outside the party, the question is what is the best possible outcome of those that are actually on the agenda. The best possible result would be for McDonnell to stand, and do reasonably well. The next best thing is a strong vote for Cruddas, particularly from the unions. If Cruddas wins, or comes close, that will increase the leverage of organised labour over Brown. (It matters not one whit that Cruddas himself would be sure to disappoint as deputy)

(BTW, there is a very different take on this over at the epigone Lenin’s blog. This correctly identifies that Cruddas may be a stalking horse who prevents a real left candidate, but draws the incorrect tactical conclusion: it misses the point that if Cruddas becomes identified as the left candidate, then effectively he is the left candidate. I also disagree with the assessment that the UAF is a broader campaign that Searchlight.)


The Sentinel said...
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Martin Wisse said...

I would very much disagree with "if Cruddas becomes identified as the left candidate, then effectively he is the left candidate."

He may in that case become identified as "the leftwing candidate" but will he be genuinely leftwing? Judging by his past, I'd doubt that he will feel beholden to push leftwing policies if he gets elected as deputy leader.

What you'd get in effect would be as much a redefining of the leftwing of the Labour party as being whatever Cruddas is willing to support, with genuine leftists out in the cold. Cruddas would become the acceptable left, while everybody to the left of him would be dangerous extremists...

AN said...

I think you misunderstand me Martin, I do not beleive that Cruddas is or ever will be a consistent member of the hard left.

However, if his candidature becomes percieved as the test of strength for the left vote in the unions and LP memebrs, and the way in which the unions can express disatisfaction with new labour, then it would be important that he gets the best vote possible.

This assuems that McDonnell may be squeezed off the ballot paper.

In that sense and that sense only he mmigt become the "left candidate".