largest union, Unite. Cruddas’s success surprised everyone, including himself. The Compass/Unite combination was key. In the first round of voting he actually came first with the highest percentage among trade unionists and good support in the constituency parties – gaining 19 per cent overall in a field of six candidates. Eventually he finished third, beating ministers Hilary Benn, Peter Hain and Hazel Blears.
Life in the party ‘There’s much more life in the party than I thought,’ says Cruddas. ‘When I started I thought the party had been hollowed out. But the result shows that the ‘virtual’ politics practised at the centre, the politics of positioning and messaging, was out of touch with the party.’ Cruddas set the agenda throughout the contest, raising issues of housing, immigration and foreign policy. ‘All the other candidates were saying the same things to start with but the terms of the debate moved as they realised that the centre of gravity in the party was not where they thought.’ ‘Blears coming last was a fantastic outcome,’ he continues. ‘It showed that her message of what the Labour party is about was wrong.’ Neil Gerrard, too, sees the contest as a positive process that ‘opened up many opportunities – policy debates and stronger links with unions.’ But Alan Simpson is much more circumspect. ‘It’s important not to get carried away,’ he says. ‘Cruddas has a voting record outside ministerial responsibility that is not very adventurous.’ Indeed, ask Cruddas what he intends to do with his new standing and he is unclear. ‘How do you get alliances built across the unions, in parliament and in the grassroots?’ he asks. ‘Is there a case for an organisational capacity? That’s a debate we have to have.’ An interesting feature of the Cruddas result highlights a further dynamic within Labour. The left is now stronger in the unions than in the local Labour parties – a turnaround from the days when right-wing union bosses were the bastions of the Labour establishment against the Bennite constituencies. In a supreme historical irony, this shift has come at a time when Labour’s financial crisis has left the party dependent on the unions for money. The concomitant influence was manifested in the Warwick agreement, in which the unions wrought concessions from the government in the run-up to the 2005 election. Billy Hayes points to Labour’s last election manifesto as an example of the extent of union sway. The CWU was able to secure a government commitment not to privatise the Royal Mail, but only after swallowing glowing language about the liberalisation of postal markets. Hayes believes this limit to union influence is largely down to the left’s lack of a well-presented economic alternative. The left agenda has retreated
from the ambitious Alternative Economic Strategy of the late 1970s to a more defensive position of opposing privatisation, PFI, and private equity. But union influence can be expected to grow. Hayes says the Labour right has given up trying to win back the unions, in part because of the mechanisms imposed by Thatcher’s union laws. In the mandatory elections for union leaders, turnout is generally around a quarter. That represents activists, who tend to vote left. This worries the right. As New Labour blogger Luke Akehurst wrote following Cruddas’s result: ‘If we don’t ensure that the successors to the current generation of general secretaries are from the moderate wing of the party, we’ll end up in a decade’s time with Brown’s successor in a contested election being from the left.’ New Labour set out to try to loosen if not break Labour’s links with the unions and create what Peter Mair dubbed a ‘partyless democracy’: consensus government ‘for the people’, which purports to be above special interests. But this project failed, and not just in the unions. The attempt to ‘marginalise’ the party brought with it all the features of control freakery that proved so devastating to the left. But this left the party without a campaigning base – which has turned out be much more important than the Blairites realised, especially for wining local elections.
Death of the project? Cash for honours has, for the time being, scuppered the project. This presents a golden opportunity for the left. Lack of money has reduced the party machine’s control. There has been a huge cut in staff – up to 70 per cent in some areas – meaning there is no longer the capacity to manage every selection. What can be achieved in the absence of this management has been shown in elections to Labour’s national executive committee, where the one member one vote system has reduced the scope for manipulation. The Grassroots Alliance has been successful in getting candidates elected through simple but effective campaigning. If the left can get its act together, the chance is there to replicate this at all levels of the party. And what about Gordon Brown? Can the left sleep easier in its bed, or should it be up and fighting? Jon Cruddas is cautiously hopeful. ‘The jury is out but lots of what he is doing is healthy. There’s a sense of relief.’ Neil Gerrard, too, says that opportunities are opening up and is pleased by the change of tone from the government on issues such as the NHS. But Alan Simpson is scathing: ‘The leadership coronation has led us to the same mistake of honeymoon loyalty that the party made under Blair. It ignores the fact that unacceptable legislation is being pushed through in shed-loads and without opposition, right now.’ How ‘the left’ responds as the honeymoon effect fades will determine whether it really is weak or vulnerable, or whether it has some life left in it yet.