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Avoidable Problems?

17 March 2012

The news that Ed Miliband’s Westminster office has been broken into seems a suitable ending for a strained week for Labour. Despite hopes that it could push forward its ‘Plan for Jobs’ at a party event in Coventry, the week has been somewhat overshadowed by a Harriet Harman’s cringe worthy attempt to explain the scheme’s mechanics and rumours of a internal split over strategy. Sometimes you do have to feel a bit sorry for Mr Miliband.

Or do you? Referring to a ‘chaotic’ party meeting, the Guardian quotes one party adviser as complaining that ‘The whole place is dysfunctional – serious officials, people with 20 years’ experience, are tearing their hair out. People are being asked to follow a strategy in which there is no conviction’. All of which suggests that such issues might have been avoided.

Historically, though, Labour has often struggled in to explain itself opposition and the party has been riven by some notable internal splits. The relationship between David and Ed Miliband is an obvious example. So, too, is that between Blair and Brown. The latter saga continues to be of some notable interest to others implicated in it. But these are just the latest examples of a long line that includes such luminaries as the ‘gang of four’, Aneurin Bevan, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Laski and the unforgettable Ramsay Macdonald (whose ‘great betrayal’ would excite much anger from those on the Left).

Historians have tended to view such splits in a variety of ways. For some, they are indicative of deep-seated ideological differences. Bevan and Gaitskell’s differences over the party’s relationship with nationalisation is often seen as a case in point. For others, however, such splits appear as evidence of personal animosity and careerist manoeuvring. Many of these conclusions reflects deeper shifts in the way historians have approached political history (the IHR’s ‘Making History’ offers a good summary of these developments if your interested).

Labour’s current position seems a little more complex. With an emphasis on strategy and organisation, this is not a debate over ideas. Nor does it seem – despite the media interest – to be a simple case of a brotherly feud. Instead, the current situation suggests that the issue is one of a slightly uncertain party failing to properly articulate its actions. As a result, the current situation could conceivably be compared to those 1950s debates over nationalisation which – it has recently been suggested by Catherine Ellis – might not have been as ideologically charged as they first appeared but indicative of a failure to connect high level ‘rethinking’ with a cynical public and sceptical activists.

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