Open Labour: a return to the old new politics?

Reclaiming the soft left this conference season

September 27, 2016
Former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ©NEWZULU/Michael Debets/NEWZULU/PA Images
Former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ©NEWZULU/Michael Debets/NEWZULU/PA Images

What kind of left do we want to build? That was the repeated refrain at Sunday’s meeting of Open Labour, a new group committed to recovering the soft left tradition within the Labour Party. The answers came back: one that is open, and tolerant, in which we recognise that we are all on the same side. One in which we stop fighting the battles of the past and start thinking about how we can shape the future. And one in which we listen to those we disagree with, and ask searching questions about how we have arrived at the current situation. As the divisions of the summer give way to calls for unity from both the leadership and (many of) their opponents, this is reflective of the general mood music. But does it offer anything more?

The significance of the new organisation lies in its explicit reclaiming of the soft left tradition, with its democratic, participatory and pluralist culture. The decline of this strand of politics has not only left a gulf between the right and left of the party, but has also left us without the kind of tolerance that could bridge it.

At Sunday's meeting, Peter Hain regretted the way in which the organisational roots of the soft left had been allowed to wither during the New Labour years, when its former leaders (himself included) had been distracted by ministerial office. Writing in the spring edition of Renewal, another soft left veteran Paul Thompson (who was a founding Editor of the journal) made a similar point, warning that this tradition was now far stronger among intellectuals and commentators than activists.

The effects of this decline were clear during the Miliband years: hard thinking took place in seminars and workshops but didn’t translate into anything that activists, let alone voters, could get excited about. Miliband now seems to be placing his hope in Open Labour, emphasising that its meeting was one of the few he will address at this year’s conference. And, crucially, it is a grassroots organisation, founded by councillors, and committed to practical politics.

The discussion at Sunday's meeting focused primarily on changing patterns of work, particularly in the gig economy, or—as Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Chi Onwurah, prefers to call it—the “new intermediaries economy.” As both Onwurah and Louise Haigh MP emphasised, Labour’s founding mission of defending workers against exploitation is more relevant than ever in an age of record employment, rising insecurity and declining collective representation. Just as the early labour movement fought to redistribute the rewards of the first industrial revolution, so must Labour defend the interests of exploited workers in the digital age. And, as Onwurah made clear, this does not only mean the taxi driver, subject to Uber’s labour policies; it also includes the consumer unwittingly selling their data and their affective labour to Facebook or Google. We may not want to smash these twenty-first century looms, but we do need to open them up and reveal the power relations within.

There is fertile ground here for creating a politics that is economically egalitarian, socially liberal and politically pluralist, in the best traditions of the soft left. And that can only be a good thing.