Labour and the Continuing Fight for Democratic Socialism

2016-06-03-1464939812-4212140-democraticsocialist-thumb
The Labour Party is a party of Democratic Socialism. It says so on the membership card.

But let’s make something plain. The Labour Party has never been a party of socialist revolution, and, because it is a political party standing for election within a parliamentary system of democracy, it is reformist rather than revolutionary. But in the United Kingdom, with its tradition of and emphasis on parliamentary politics and universal suffrage, Democratic Socialism is considered to be the best and the most effective way to ensure equality and justice for the majority of people.

In other words, a revolution might well be favoured by socialists, including some in the Labour Party, particularly those who follow the Marxist tradition (rather than, for example, the paternalistic socialism of Robert Owen), but it is a dream for the future, rather than the present. And the present badly needs attention right now. So the Labour Party as a Democratic Socialist party is not and never will be ‘extreme left’. It is no threat to Parliamentary Democracy.

Nevertheless, as Labour Party members try to define and assert their fight for democratic socialism, you may have thought that our whole way of life is under threat having read the mass of right wing newspapers.

So how and why is this misreading and misrepresentation of the Labour Party by the media, especially Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, happening? Let’s look at recent history:

………………………………………

Many socialists have joined the Labour Party over the last couple of years in the hope of being able to play a part, however small, in not only helping the party regain its Democratic Socialist position, but in helping Labour candidates at local and national level to win elections and eventually to bring in a Democratic Socialist Government and local authorities run on the Democratic Socialist principle.

But those hopes for the Labour Party and for a future Labour Government will be very difficult to fulfil. And we can see that clearly in the treatment that staunch Democratic Socialist Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters suffer every day, not only in the media, but by some in their own party.

Watching the media attack Corbyn (‘gently’ by ‘suggestion’ at first and then with ever more harsh, out and out attacks) even before he won his first leadership election in September 2015, it was painfully obvious right from the start that there were those in the establishment who would do anything they could to prevent Corbyn gaining power. But I guess that was to be expected, given that the media during the Blair years had pulled back on their attacks but had then increased their attacks even on his successor, Gordon Brown, and even more so on Ed Miliband. So, they were bound to greatly increase their attacks when faced with someone who insisted on keeping his word to follow the path of Democratic Socialism and all that entails for the establishment.

Because, at the base of all those attacks on even slightly ‘left sounding’ Labour politicians like Miliband was an unsaid (in public anyway) agreement that anything which affected the position of the establishment and the Neo-liberal trend for the economy must be stamped on, crushed to tiny pieces, and then thrown back into the garbage of History. Anything slightly more ‘left’ than ‘New Labour’ and its politics of ‘gentle’ Neo-liberalism could never be allowed to prosper.

So, as the Blair Government came to an end, it appeared that even a slight and very tentative ‘turn towards the left’ in the Labour Party would never again be welcomed. And, for those media players who portrayed themselves as ‘left of centre’ (The Guardian, The Mirror…), it was one thing to support the Liberal Democrats, knowing that they were unlikely ever to be a majority party (and that while they may have sounded ‘left’, they still supported Neo-liberalism), but it was quite another thing to support a more left wing Labour who dared to question ‘austerity’ and who could quite possibly gain power.

In fact, so ingrained upon the political psyche was the ‘need for austerity’, that any party or party member calling for anti-austerity measures was seen almost as a traitor. Ed Miliband was left in 2015 with policies which were only just a little ‘softer’ than those of the Tories, and on national TV was forced to argue against parties with anti-austerity policies on their manifestos when it was plain for all to see that a left of centre Labour Party should have been arguing on behalf of ordinary people alongside the anti-austerity parties (and finding other points to differentiate on instead).

But why was Miliband left with such a weak manifesto to fight back against the Tories? Many long-standing Labour supporters argue that some of the economic policies put forward to the 2015 manifesto by then shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, were very similar to those put forward more recently by John McDonnell (and now considered radical). So were they that weak? Or could it be the way these policies were presented that was so weak?

It was the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum who laid out the manifesto. Ed Miliband merely had to learn and repeat it. And, because of Labour’s fear of being accused of ‘not being able to manage the economy’, those, basically Keynesian economic policies were put forward with the proviso that ‘Britain must balance its books’. In other words, despite those (gently) left-of-centre economic policies, the end note, on the economy and on everything else, was ‘don’t rock the boat. Labour must be seen as a safe pair of hands’. And in doing this, Labour fell straight into the trap of repeating Tory-designed rhetoric.

After Labour’s defeat in the 2015 General Election and Ed Miliband’s resignation, the election for a new party leader at first brought forward three candidates: Andy Burnham, seen as ‘more to the left’ than the other two, perhaps for his strong opposition to the government’s Welfare Reforms Bill; Yvette Cooper, campaigning on a message of hope and the only candidate to say categorically that Labour were not responsible for the fall in the economy as argued by the Tories; and Liz Kendall, always considered ‘the outsider’ and ‘a Blairite contender’, whose main focus was in ‘making the party electable again’.

All were perfectly sound candidates with the strong CV to go with their application, but it did appear that when it came to policies there was little to choose between them. In other words they were not going to ‘rock the boat’. They were instead, all ‘safe hands’ to present to the voters.

But from a voter’s point of view, neither were any of them likely to inspire a passion to go out and vote for them!

Then along came Jeremy Corbyn, just scraping onto the ballot with enough supporting MP votes at the very last minute. He spoke about taking the railways back into public ownership; about his support for NHS reinstatement, about spending money on jobs, health and welfare, rather than on the defunct Trident; and he dared to speak about ‘austerity’ as something to be opposed, rather than complied with.

It was a breath of fresh air for all those who had felt that Democratic Socialism had been lost for good.

Knowing the sheer animosity produced in much of the media and aimed at Ed Miliband for his rather tentative ‘slightly leftward’ stance, no one expected Corbyn to have an easy ride. But few expected the total vitriol that would be aimed at him, with his every move and statement analysed, criticised and vilified by all means available.

But even more astounding was the total animosity aimed at Corbyn from some in his own party.

This was a party who had, on the whole, stood by Blair even when many feared that ‘things were going too far right’. Some Labour MPs may have stood up in Parliament and opposed Blair’s stance on Iraq, but they did not belittle him and they did not go to the gutter press to vilify him. Members left the Labour Party under Blair, but of those who stayed, they agreed to stand by their leader. They may have disagreed with him on some views, but generally they did not call for his resignation.

So, why did many Labour MPs and certain Labour Party members think it was okay to write to the newspapers complaining about Corbyn? Why did groups like Progress think it their duty to plot against him at every opportunity? Why were new members after Corbyn’s election (deemed to be Corbyn supporters even when they were not) excluded from CLP meetings, mocked by some older members, and generally feared by others?

Of course, despite the events of the 1980s being over three decades ago, for some older Labour Party members, the influx of so many new members (especially those who joined Momentum [mainly because their own CLPs excluded them from participation]) brought fear into their hearts. They remembered Militant and the animosity throughout Labour at that time. They saw new Corbyn-supporting members as ‘a new Militant’ and no way did they want to go down that road again.

But, even allowing for a fear that history would repeat itself felt by some older members, that does not explain the sheer animosity expressed by some Labour CLPs towards Corbyn supporters (especially when most Corbyn supporters made real efforts to fit in with older members and allay their fears). After Cobyn’s election as leader in 2015, many CLPs simply stopped telling new members about meetings, while others belittled new members with counter-arguments about ‘rules’ given when any new member tried to speak (even though the Labour Party Rule Book had been largely disregarded by the majority of ordinary members up until this point).

But it was much worse in Parliament for Corbyn and the small group of MPs who supported him. When Labour should have been fighting the Tories and supporting their leader at PMQs and in all other Parliamentary debates, Corbyn was opposed by many in his own shadow cabinet; everything he said or did was criticised in the press by a small number of his own MPs, and then he was mocked on social media by members of his own party. Strangely, these members were hardly ever called up by the Labour Compliance Unit to explain their actions, and yet Corbyn supporters began to be suspended at a rapidly-increasing rate for comments they had made on social media.

In fact, mass suspension of Corbyn supporting Labour Party members began with and continued through the ‘coup’ of Summer 2016, when Corbyn was repeatedly asked to resign by his own MPs; a drip-feed of resignations from his shadow cabinet accompanied this; and then a ‘motion of no confidence’ by 172 MPs followed. Thus resulting in the Labour Leadership election September 2016.

I won’t bother to go into detail about the efforts made to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper for the leadership election; nor about the decision to increase the affiliated supporter payment to £25; nor the NEC decision to prevent newer members (from the end of January 2016 onwards) from voting (despite the Labour Party website claiming they would be able to vote), and trade union affiliates being refused in the same fashion; nor about the thousands of new applicants for membership being refused, while others found themselves suspended for the strangest of reasons (the person who particularly liked the Foo Fighters comes leaping to mind…), while others were not even told why they had been suspended…

All of that is past history. But it is a history that demonstrates an almost total obsession to prevent Jeremy Corbyn, the man who speaks the language of Democratic Socialism, from power. And that happened within the party of Democratic Socialism itself.

………………………….

Today we await May’s triggering of Article 50 and setting Brexit negotiations fully in motion.

A ‘hard Brexit’ will go against everything that Democratic Socialism stands for. It will leave workers with little defence in the workplace; our human rights could be in tatters with the new ‘British version’; our welcoming of migrants will be at an end, along with our generosity to a wide range of cultures; our children’s education will be further limited, this time by the curtailment of access to share education across borders; and our solidarity with workers in Europe will only be enabled only at a distance because free movement across the EU will have ended.

To add to this, the country will be poorer; everyone but those who can afford to buy themselves out of trouble, will be worse off; our NHS will be in even more danger of privatisation, this time at risk of being sold off to US companies; and all those ‘extra homes and jobs’ we so badly need will not materialise just because EU workers have left…because they will not be available in the first place.

And here comes the rub… to be a democrat means to agree to represent the majority, and the majority ‘won’ Brexit. So, despite a hard Brexit going against everything that socialism aims towards, Labour is stuck with repeating the May-designed mantra, “We must follow the will of the people”.

Over the last few weeks, it is my personal opinion that Jeremy Corbyn has faced and still faces the biggest threat to his leadership yet. And this time it is going to come from the left as well as the right.

Although many on the left voted ‘Leave’ in the EU Referendum, just as large a number on the left of the Labour Party voted ‘Remain’, particularly younger members. Many of those members who voted Remain also canvassed for Remain on Jeremy’s behalf before the Referendum. Make no mistake, it is highly unlikely that such a large number of people would have turned out to canvass for Remain had it not been that they also supported Corbyn. Now, exactly how many of them feel betrayed we will see over the coming weeks.

Corbyn’s reason for calling the three line whip on Article 50 has been made clear to those who want to listen, but not everyone does and others take a different view (including, it has to be said some Corbyn-supporting MPs).

Of course, alongside the ‘wobbles’ felt by some on Labour’s left over the article 50 vote, we again find increasing pressure from Labour’s right wing. As last summer, they are saying that Corbyn’s leadership is not effective, but now they have added support from so-called left wing journalists like Owen Jones.

The future for Corbyn’s leadership is now far from certain. And the sad thing is, the huge movement behind Corbyn was never a ‘cult’ as described by detractors: it was a movement for real, Democratic Socialism. The left of the Labour Party may never have another chance for years to achieve this, because no MP from the left of the Party is ever likely to get on the leadership ballot paper again.

And the ironic thing is, for all the onslaught of the media and right wing Labour MPs, it is a dilemma over democracy that is threatening to bring Corbyn down, plus, it has to be said, those socialists who vote ‘Leave’ because they felt that Britain outside ‘fortress Europe’ could become a socialist society despite knowing of the continuing strength of the Tories and firm resistance from the establishment.

If Labour is to become a fully Democratic Socialist Party, having this as a description on membership cards is nowhere near enough. Those who have this vision for Labour need to work for it and fast, because it is rapidly slipping out of grasp.

Advertisements

The Loss Of Copeland: Was Any Of It Corbyn’s Fault?

copeland-leaflet-re-nhs-med

The Copeland result was devastating for Labour. There is no denying this. But why did it happen? I’ve tried to lay out a few of the possible reasons for this below. They are ‘in no particular order’ (more of a brainstorm really), but when read together they add up to a worrying picture which must be dealt with ASAP. So, I have also added a few suggestions as to how I personally feel this should be done.

The Resigning MP:

MP Jamie Reed represented New Labour, which is out of touch with the ordinary people of Copeland. There is a general antipathy to New Labour, especially in areas like Copeland, and no recognition that Labour has changed from this, so Reed’s replacement would more likely be seen as someone who would continue along the same pattern, unless voters were persuaded otherwise.
Mr Reed’s constant message that Corbyn was not suitable as a Labour leader certainly wouldn’t have given voters confidence either.

There is also the point that, although candidates for both Copeland and Stoke were anti-Corbyn and had spoken about this, Tristram Hunt could more easily be seen as a ‘shoe in’ candidate, whereas Jamie Reed embraced Copeland and its main industry (even while not supporting its welfare benefits). So, we have to ask, did Jamie Reed’s ‘warnings’ over Corbyn hold more sway than those made by Hunt?

Was the Labour Message Put Across Effectively?

It does appear that Labour didn’t really get their message across that they were no longer the ‘New Labour’ embraced by MPs who had failed their respective communities (or even how Labour as it stands now differs from ‘New Labour’). And in the case of those voters who did listen and agree that Labour’s emphasis has changed, it will take a long time for voters to trust a party that has grown out of touch with them over the years. Things are not seen to change overnight and even when they do, astute voters know that changes can easily be brushed over in support of political expediency.
It would certainly have helped if Labour party members and supporters had held a clear message on how Labour had changed that they could truthfully tell to sceptical voters. But of course, when Labour Party members’ hopes for a more caring, inclusive and anti-austerity Labour Party are constantly under pressure, it must be difficult to feel certain that the policies you are promoting on the doorstep will actually be the policies that Labour carries forward into a General Election.

The Media:

There is no doubt that media blocking of positive Labour coverage, along with constant ‘digs’ at the leadership, was and is a huge problem.
But this leads again to ‘more effort required’ on the part of those who promote Labour Party policies and who organise Labour campaigns.

Corbyn’s ’10 Pledges’ are vote winners, but they need explaining to the voting public in a clear and concise way and they also need adapting to fit local circumstances. All this should be possible in a well-organised party, but somehow it didn’t appear that way.

Is it more that those ’10 pledges’ of Corbyn’s, which many local Labour groups are eager to get on and promote, are seen as less attractive by some of those who organise campaigns precisely because they are Corbyn’s?
I don’t know, but I think this could play a part in what happened, however small.

Voters Felt Forgotten by Labour:

Voters felt that Labour didn’t care about them, telling canvassers again and again ‘we only see you at election time’. Again, the resigning MP must take some blame for this, but also the local CLP, plus regional and national campaign coordinators needs to recognise that they have been found wanting too.

Labour should have been out there in the community long before the Copeland and Stoke by elections, but it appears that they were not, preferring, as in so many CLPs, to discuss and argue about policies in private.

Was Copeland Really ‘a Labour Stronghold’?

Despite what the media tell us, Copeland had not been held by Labour for 80 years – it became a constituency in 1983 and became much more marginal as a seat for Labour after the 2010 boundary changes which brought more Tory-voting areas into the constituency.
The Labour share of the vote had also been dropping continuously since 1997 and between 2 and 5 thousand votes each time, so, although the 2k loss was very disappointing, it followed the pattern rather than being extraordinary.

The Nuclear Issue:

There can be little doubt that Corbyn seen as anti-nuclear cannot have helped, especially when people already didn’t trust Labour because they felt that they didn’t represent them in the past.

Much more emphasis should have been put on Labour support for Sellafield and emphasising that, whatever Corbyn’s views (and he confirms this) Labour policy is to support nuclear plants.

Plus, there is no guarantee from the Tories that they will protect Sellafield workers in the years to come, and Labour should have been emphasising this, rather than seeming to give in to the ‘fact’ that the Tories were ‘the party of nuclear power’.
Labour should have been spreading doubt on that Tory claim, at least when it applied to local jobs and communities. But it seems that the Labour tactic was more a case of ‘deflect from Nuclear to NHS’ rather than to be prepared to face the situation head on and give good, clear and confident answers to voter fears.

Concentration on The NHS:

Our NHS is vitally important and Labour needs to continue to push their policies on it, but Copeland shows that all other policies need to be pushed too, and particularly those that effect local politics.

Copeland voters wanted assurance on jobs first and foremost. Concerns about the NHS most likely came second.

It probably didn’t matter so much to many Sellafield voters that the UK as a whole needs urgent action on the NHS if their main concern was jobs and protecting their local community. So we cannot really blame Copeland voters for that (as some have done) – but we should be blaming Labour, particularly at local level, for not realising this and working with it.

It has also been pointed out to me that the major employer, Sellafield, has a scheme in place for its workers which may have left NHS campaigners a little on the back foot. Evidently the Sellafield employer offers a worker scheme of shared payments into private health insurance. Therefore, although the NHS campaign by Labour was essential, especially considering the closure of local NHS services, it may not have had such a strong effect on Sellafield workers as in some other parts of the country.
If this is the case, why weren’t the local campaign officers made aware of this so that they could moderate their canvassing messages accordingly?

Brexit:

Both Copeland and Stoke were strong ‘Leave’ constituencies and Labour had hoped to show voters in both constituencies that they did support their views and their right to  Democratic acceptance of the Leave vote. Thousands of campaigners went to Copeland and Stoke to support labour candidates with this message in mind, but was it a case of ‘one campaign fits all’? These were both ‘leave’ constituencies, but they still had local concerns specific to each area.
Labour’s pushing of the fact they supported triggering Article 50 may well have helped in Stoke, but was it used as well in Copeland and was the same campaign as effective?

In Copeland, the Tories gained hugely from ex-UKIP voters. In fact, that swing from UKIP to the Tories was enough to seal the win for them. Whereas in Stoke, it was Labour who had felt most under threat from UKIP and they gained from the incompetence of Paul Nuttall as UKIP candidate.
So, in Copeland, it was the Tories who had previously lost votes to UKIP, but got those votes back because:
a) The Copeland UKIP candidate wasn’t very assertive or prominent.
b) by often being more UKIP than UKIP in their statements and policies, the Tories provide an established voice for those voters.
Stick that on top of the failure to fully address the Sellafield issue while the Tories pushed it hard, and Labour were in a very dire situation.

Supporting Canvassers:

A friend who attended the Stoke canvassing said that Momentum had arranged for supporters from ‘down south’ to go to Stoke, while those from ‘up North’ went to Copeland.
Was there a problem in this strategy? Could it have meant that there was more concentration on Stoke than on Copeland from a movement with its head office based in London?
Reports from the doorstep and from phone banks say that it didn’t matter where the canvasser was from, they received the same welcome (or non-welcome depending on who they spoke to). But I’m just wondering if the same numbers were there for Copeland as for Stoke. Only time and a chance to look at canvassing figures will tell on this.

The Candidate:

There was a fair bit of ‘regret’ on the left when the Copeland candidate was not the one Corbyn recommended and in fact was instead someone who had spoken out against Corbyn in the past. But, the chosen candidate was local, a doctor and NHS worker, so I can see why her name was put forward.

This of course goes back to the point above – was the Labour campaign in Copeland, in concentrating so much on the hospital closure and NHS in general the best course of action, considering the overriding spectre of Sellafield and the future of jobs?

Either way, the candidate should have known her stuff and have been strong enough to fight a rigorous campaign, including watching Labour’s back on ‘less helpful’ subjects for Copeland. But reports (which I am really hoping are incorrect) say that she could have done better. She missed interviews and an initial hustings and when Sellafield was mentioned, after saying that she fully supported it, she hastily moved on to the NHS.What about stressing again and again that it was Labour party policy to support Nuclear industries and local jobs?
Perhaps she did do that and her words were not reported…?

Which brings me on to…. The media were tireless in their pursuit of Labour candidates in both Copeland and Stoke, but while the Stoke candidate overcame this (and it appears also overcame dislike from some Labour voters), the Copeland candidate appeared to back off, with her helpers shielding her from confrontation.

Now, we have seen this with Corbyn being shielded at times, and it doesn’t work. It simply gives the media another stick to beat the candidate with. Labour needs to deal with the way ‘assertive questioning’ from the media is dealt with, and quickly.

Then there is the case of opposing candidates. Unlike in Stoke, where the Tory candidate appears to have been a ‘you’ll learn from this for later use’ candidate, the Tory candidate in Copeland was strong, assertive and well-chosen. And it showed. Copeland CLP and Labour central office chose their candidate later than the Tory one. Surely they should have looked at what they were up against?

It is said that the Corbyn-supported candidate was stronger, but that may just be wishful thinking. I don’t know. But for Labour to win elections it can no longer give the candidate position to someone just because they are liked by the CLP or who local members feel loyalty to for long service. The candidate has to fit the locality and the current situation. Gillian Troughton may well have been an able candidate in another constituency, particularly where the main issue is NHS cuts, but I’m not sure at all that she fitted the bill for Copeland.

Interference from ‘the moderates’:

Blair and Mandelson both intervened at a time when anyone who really wanted Labour to win Copeland (or Stoke) should have realised that their intervention was unhelpful to say the least.

To have an ex Labour PM calling for people to fight to Remain in Europe after Corbyn had assured the public that Labour would abide by the Leave decision, was undermining, and showed to people who didn’t really take that much notice of Labour infighting that Labour politicians could not be trusted to represent the people.

Mandelson’s attack on Corbyn, saying that he fought every day against him as Labour leader, demonstrated to voters that Labour was divided and that there are powerful forces in Labour who appear hell-bent on destroying the party unless it follows their particular vision.

Both of these interventions were bound to have an effect on the Labour vote, but luckily (and thanks to the extremely hard work put in by canvassers and candidate), the interventions failed to stop Labour winning Stoke (although it may well have lessened their votes). But in Copeland, a much more marginal seat, combined with all the other factors, they no doubt had an effect.

And then of course there was storm ‘Doris’:

It is often said jokingly that if God exists then she would be a Tory. Well, on Thursday ‘she’ also became a Tory force of nature, whipping through Copeland and Stoke, making all but the keenest voters doubt whether it was a good idea to risk the trip to the polling station that day.

Again, much credit to the canvassers who managed to get so many voters out to the polling booths and to those Labour voters who braved the storm to get there.
But storm Doris most likely had some effect on the turnout figures in both seats and it seems that a low turnout usually does not favour Labour…

Jeremy Corbyn:

Was the loss of Copeland Corbyn’s fault?
No. Despite the media doing its best to tell us otherwise. It was not.

But let’s be honest here. We cannot deny that while Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party the Party as a whole faces an even tougher fight to get their message out to the voters than they have had for years.
So, if Labour Party members want to keep Corbyn as leader, then they need to allow that things are going to be difficult (and often seem impossible) and find ways to counter this.

Does that mean that Corbyn has to be replaced (simply because it might be easier to get Labour’s point across with a different leader)?
No, certainly not. the last thing that Labour needs right now is another Leadership election. (although we must consider that a man in his late sixties should at least be considering a successor within the next few years).
But those around the leadership must work harder; much harder perhaps than they would have worked under a Labour leader from the right of the party.

What Needs To Be Done:

It is no longer simply a case of protecting Corbyn from the undoubted onslaught from the right, but a case of protecting and projecting his policies.
At the moment, if Corbyn resigned, a leadership election would not see any candidate from the left of the party able to get enough MP votes to stand, so Corbyn’s policies would be resigned with him.
Labour members cannot allow that  to happen.

Sustained attacks from the right-wing of Labour, coupled with a biased media, are making it very difficult to get a positive view of Corbyn across, despite his policies which, if shown to be effective, are vote winners.
And Corbyn and his team must find a way to get his message across in a way which will appeal to ordinary voters.
No longer can they fall back on the ‘it’s the media’s fault’ excuse. Yes, it often is, but Labour now needs to quickly find effective ways to counter that.

Many Corbyn supporters are arguing that Corbyn needs to be stronger – to sack the detractors in the party.
But he is unable to do that, because he cannot rely upon the backing of Labour’s ruling body, the NEC.

However, the time has passed when members could fall back on blaming the NEC; the right of the party; ‘moderate’ CLPs; etc. If the Labour membership accepts that it wants Corbyn and his policies to remain then they have to fight for them.

In fact, all those who wish to keep Corbyn as leader really need to get their act together at every level.
Members need to ensure that they are working hard in their CLPs and applying for EC and even NEC places, plus membership of the policy forum and as delegates at regional; forums and at Labour’s next conference.
And this time those delegates need to be as sharp as the right-wing Progress and Labour First groups, and ensure that nothing is allowed to happen behind their backs.

It was all very well that Momentum had a great event called ‘The world Transformed’ as a fringe meeting at last year’s Labour Party Conference, but while that was going on, the right of the party brought forward and won the vote on changes to the NEC which were favourable to them. And the left were well…left unprepared.
This cannot happen again.

Corbyn supporters must be sharper, smarter and at least as ruthless as Labour groups on the right of the Party.

Any less than this and Corbyn, his policies and the movement which has grown around him will be pushed to the wayside and we will be back to a right-of-centre Labour Party which will not win at the ballot box, despite the ‘moderates’ assertions that it will.

Copeland was a bad result for Labour. Even considering all the points I’ve made above, it was still devastating to hear that result read out.
Labour cannot let that happen again.

We’ve seen some of the reasons why this happened (and I’m sure others could find more). Labour no doubt needs to learn from them, but they also need to learn how to move forward.

And for goodness sake do it quickly!
The country needs a strong Labour Party now.
Without it we are all sunk. Well, 99% of us are anyhow…

Blair and New Labour: the Problem of the Quick Fix

new-labour-blair-and-brown-med
I was a student when Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party.
At the time I was studying political ideology and the history of the Labour party and, despite knowing that the Labour Party had never been a true left wing socialist party, I also knew that the message that Blair was promoting was even far to the right of that.

At the same time though, I had grown up watching the Tories decimate the welfare state and bring in controls that would lead to the decimation of the Trade unions and workers’ rights. And despite all this, it seemed that the Labour Party stood no chance of wresting power from the Tories because the media were so strongly against them.

I remember talking to friends and we agreed that there had to be a way for the Labour party to bring the media onto their side. But the only way we could think of them doing it was to lie: to pretend that they had given up socialist ideas (however scant) and had given up trying to protect the unions and that they were the party for rising businesses and entrepreneurs.

But we never thought that a group within the Labour party would do exactly that … and mean it!

So, when Blair was elected leader I was unhappy. It appeared to me that the left had been sold out by the Labour Party. But at the same time, I kinda ‘got’ why Blair had done this.

I voted for Blair’s ‘New Labour’ and was pleased that they won in 1997. After all, surely even a business-minded, right wing Labour Party was still better than the Tories? And Labour’s manifesto had some great promises on the NHS, social care, education, housing and employment. We badly needed those promises to work.

So, although I never trusted Blair, I felt he should be given a chance.

Blair’s New Labour were faced with one hell of a job. Thatcher’s cruelty and disregard for working people and society in general had only been toned down a little under Major. There was much to do. But the promised reforms had to be made in a climate where any hint of socialism would send the press screaming back into the Tory camp. New Labour also had to ‘prove’ that old chestnut: that they could be trusted with the Economy. And of course being ‘trusted’ in the media sense was to be friendly to business.

So, I do understand New Labour’s dilemmas. My problem is that Blair, Brown and company appeared to welcome them and were happy to go along with all demands made from the right, while giving scant regard to any demands from the left.

New Labour and the NHS:

Under New Labour, the NHS improved rapidly. Waiting times were cut dramatically, new hospitals were built along with shiny new equipment and a determination to make the NHS a trustworthy and welcoming place for us all to go to.

But the word ‘trustworthy’ tells a tale of its own. Because New Labour used the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) system to get these shiny new hospitals built under the ‘hospital trusts’ system. The Tories may have brought PFI in, but Blair and Brown leapt on the system as a saviour. In order to do all the things they had promised in a country where the whole welfare system had been allowed (encouraged) to run down, rapid action was required. So Blair and Brown looked at the quickest solution – use the system already in place…

Our NHS is suffering from that decision today, as hospital trusts are falling into bankruptcy and for every pound given to the NHS from public funds, a large portion of that goes straight into the pockets of private financiers.

Could New Labour have done things differently for the NHS?

Well yes they could, but it would have taken much longer. They would have had to fight to bring the NHS back into complete public control even before they used public funds to begin the promised reforms.
But New Labour was not about keeping the people waiting. They had a mandate that they felt bound to deliver ASAP.
And in any case, the PFI initiatives kept the private sector sweet, so they were allowed to get on with things without too much interference.

New Labour and Education:

The Education system is another example of where New Labour brought in needed reforms, but did so in such a way that they allowed for private businesses to eventually take the system over altogether.

Under New Labour many new schools were built and others were improved. Labour reforms back in the 1960s had already encouraged working class children to attend university, but under New Labour these opportunities were opened much more. With the ‘New Universities’ already brought in under the Tories and extended under New Labour, it became a real possibility that the majority of working class families would soon have at least one child getting a university level education.

And to ensure that working class families had the chance from the very beginning, New Labour set up ‘Sure Start’ centres for parents to bring their children to. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, in that depending on who was running a local sure start centre, the system could be rather patronising for working class parents, but Sure Start helped many thousands of families.

The problem again was that, as in all New Labour initiatives, the business sector was heavily involved.

It was New Labour that set up ‘Academy Schools’, where a mix of private businesses and ‘better performing’ schools in a locality sponsored the education of children in the academy school. This usually entailed bringing in a new board of governors, putting a new ‘executive head teacher’ in place and ignoring parent teacher boards (and parents as a whole) altogether.

The Tories have grabbed the Academy system and extended it so that within the next few years, all schools that were once run by the local authority will have to become academies. Add to this the Tories’ ‘free schools’ and the privatisation of the pre-FE education system is complete.
And New Labour handed the Tories the tools to do so.

As for the Sure Start centres…most have been closed by local authorities under centrally-imposed spending cuts…

So, while New Labour encouraged many students to attain an education they would not have been able to achieve before, their methods for doing so left the systems wide open for further privatisation.

Again, with Education New Labour worked quickly to achieve their promises by courting business rather than extending public funding, but in doing so, just like with the NHS, they opened the door to further exploitation of a system which was a cornerstone of Labour Party politics.

New Labour and the Trade Unions:

An example that doesn’t refer to the welcoming of private money into a New Labour Reform is the lack of trade union support from New Labour. But of course, in not supporting Trade Unions, New Labour was demonstrating that they were not a threat to private enterprise.
Thatcher’s ‘reforms’ of Trade Unions had been a complete assault upon the working classes. Labour, being the party of the Trade unions would usually have been expected to work to repeal those restrictive reforms, but I don’t think that many people were surprised when the whole issue became sidelined.

Thatcher had been elected at a time when the press were rabidly anti-union. Even small, short-lasting strikes had been reported as causing total chaos. The constant media bombardment of rubbish piled up on street corners, juxtaposed against pictures of striking workers, made many people anti-union and they forgot about all the good things that Unions had done for them in terms of worker’s rights and working conditions.
So, I would guess that New Labour, being a party that wanted to ensure that media messages about them were as positive as possible, would not have wanted to repeal those Tory Trade Union reforms and would have much preferred to be seen as pulling away from Trade Union influence in the party altogether (ironically, despite the huge funds the Trade unions pay into Labour).

Was there an alternative?

Would I have done the same had I been PM? Would I have courted private enterprise for quickness and media acceptance? Would I have distanced myself from the trade Unions to keep the press happy and the Labour Party in power?

I can see the dilemmas faced by New Labour, but I suppose I would have to say that these dilemmas would not have applied to me, as I would not have offered a manifesto so pro-business and so subservient to the media in the first place.

By 1997, the country had been dragged through the mud so many times by the Tories that the majority would have voted for a more left wing Labour Party, even despite a mainly hostile press. John Smith, a solid Labour leader, from the right of the party but not in the pocket of private enterprise, had been welcomed by many voters and many also in the media. Sadly, Smith’s untimely death can only lead us to speculate on what would have happened had he been Labour leader during the 1997 General Election.

I am guessing that Labour would most likely not have achieved such a huge majority, but it would still have achieved power.

The path for Labour under John Smith, or another leader like him, would no doubt have been more rocky with less support from the media than they gave New Labour, and this may well have limited voter support and thus the reforms that Labour could carry out. Any reforms seen as a threat by the business sector would have been met with media outcry and perhaps would not have been achieved.

So, in that sense, one could argue that Blair and Brown’s reforms using ‘New Labour’ tactics would have received a much easier ride in the media than an ‘old Labour’ system of reforms, and therefore more was achieved which was of benefit to working people. And when one remembers the Blair years, before the headlong rush to neo-liberalism, the worrying alignment with GW Bush in ‘anti-terror’ policies which led to restrictions on ordinary people and a feeling of mass surveillance, and, of course, the Iraq war, one can think ‘well, they did get a lot of good things done…’.

But at what cost?

The good times that families experienced under the early Blair years have left a legacy for families suffering now. Our education system is being rapidly privatised, our NHS (now with Tory exploitation of New Labour reforms) is failing and being privatised and depleted of funds, and our Trade Unions are still hobbled from taking mass action to try to put things right (not to mention the corporate side of Trade Unions these days…)

So, was it worth selling out the hopes of future generations for a ‘quick fix’ which undoubtedly worked at that time?

Personally, I don’t think so.

But, as I don’t know what the alternative would have achieved (been allowed to achieve?), I can only speculate on what might have been…