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Labours of Letters: the Alex Hilton & Hopi Sen correspondence… writes Stephen Tall

by Steve Beasant on February 18, 2012

The following article was written by Stephen Tall and published today on the Liberal Democrat Voice Website.

At the risk of intruding on private grief, I feel I should draw the attention of Voice readers to an excoriating broadside against Ed Miliband’s leadership published on LabourList last night.

Entitled ‘Losing faith’, it is an open letter from Alex Hilton, twice a Labour parliamentary candidate and founder of the Labour Home website, to ‘Dear Ed’. It weighs in at 1,457 words — here are just a few of them:

I no longer have any faith that the Labour Party will make a better society – or even wants to do so. This is a feeling that I have been trying to ignore for some time, but I think it is time to raise it with you. Firstly, the party’s attitude to democracy is pitiful. Internally, it’s a joke and the people and factions competing for power seem to despise party members. …

Your election as Leader also upset me because the party was so desperate to elect someone who would recant the sins of New Labour that they refused to consider whether you actually meant it or whether you would be any good at the job of leading. It shocked me that anyone believed your proclaimed principles when at no time in your career had you espoused them before standing for the leadership. It shocked me that party members, unions and MPs would back you regardless of the fact that you were so clearly not up to the job, have no vision for Britain and can’t communicate very well. That said, I hoped I would be proved wrong once you had won.

Your leadership has shown me how lacking in vision you and Ed Balls are in particular but your team is in general. … You won’t countenance policies to help the many if the few who will pay are Daily Mail reading swing voters in marginal seats.

This is the core of your problem. Because you believe in power over principle, you can’t tell the difference between vision and triangulation. You think you can keep the left just enough on side through pointless attacks on individual bankers’ bonuses or honours and that you can win the centre ground by attacking the unions and embracing austerity. This ridiculous lack of vision means that I have to wait to see what your latest quote is to know whether – this week – the party’s left wing or right. …

I have come to fear that you might actually win the next general election. Your absolute lack of a vision for Britain or any leadership qualities, and in particular your willingness to dissemble about your beliefs to win the Labour leadership makes me fear what you would do if you had any actual power. I don’t believe you know what you would do with power and I fear what you would do to keep it. It’s a formula that would lead to a government with a similar inertia to that of Gordon Brown. Except that you don’t have Gordon Brown’s talents. …

We’re an illiberal elitist capitalist party with no taste for democracy and a misplaced belief that the masses are better off in our care than that of other parties.

Ouch.

Alex’s disillusion doesn’t wholly surprise me. The last time we spoke was at the 2010 Lib Dem conference, the week before Ed’s election as Labour leader: I was quite happy with the prospect. Alex wasn’t.

His diagnosis of Labour’s malaise is, in one sense, right. The party lacks any real internal democracy; it lacks any commitment to real democratic reform; it is failing to communicate a realistic positive alternative to the Coalition. Yet to dump all this on Ed is a little harsh: he has positioned himself squarely in the comfort zone of his party. Even if there were greater internal democracy, even if members could shape policy (as happens in the Lib Dems), it’s hard to image Labour’s muddled message changing much.

The Labour party currently is paralysed by confusion. Many of the Coalition’s most controversial policies — on the NHS, schools, welfare — are extensions of the Labour governments’ policies. As a result, Labour is having to argue against itself, opposing for opposition’s sake.

And on the deficit — where the actual differences between what Labour would have done if re-elected in 2010 and what the Coalition is now actually doing are slim — Labour is hamstrung by being blamed by the electorate for the original mess: to oppose cuts appears as denial, to support them appears as betrayal.

Any leader would be struggling to square this circle, to de-toxify their inheritance.

A fellow Labour blogger, the excellent Hopi Sen, has set out a reply to Alex’s cri de coeur here, ‘Sticking’. It’s not an impassioned defence of Ed Miliband’s leadership — few Labour members appear to be able credibly to make that case — but it is a clarion call for party members to fight, fight and fight again from within:

There’s a better one. There’s the choice to fight, not for what you want Ed Miliband to be, but for what you want Labour to be.

I’ve made my choice, to do what I can, to help the leadership where I can agree, to critique as constructively as I can manage if I honestly cannot.

I may be wrong about this, I may be being cowardly. Perhaps I should trumpet my dissent and mute my approbation, but that is the choice I made, to fight a quieter battle.

“To fight a quieter battle” — I like that phrase. It’s one with which I suspect all of us who are members of political parties, and stuck with them through thick and thin, can identify. Because, ultimately, achievement in politics comes from making common cause, not alienating people.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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