Where to now, Labour left?


7:35 am - May 5th 2008

by Alan Thomas    


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Until very recently I would broadly have fallen into the category of the ‘Labour Left’.

I was never totally comfortable with attempts by sections of the left to pull away from the Labour Party, which I had been brought up since childhood to see as “my” party, and which latterly I had come to see as a vehicle via which the Labour Movement could exercise its influence in the party political field: Lenin’s classic formulation of the “bourgeois workers’ party” could not describe it better.

In spite of a brief spell as a member of the Socialist Alliance, I quickly rejoined Labour and argued tooth and nail with comrades that things hadn’t changed so very much. It is now self-evident that I was wrong.

The sheer scale and weight of the evidence of the past few years demonstrates that the Labour Party is not now, nor feasibly ever could be again, a vehicle for working class participation in politics. Not only do I refer to the nauseating and shameful policies of the past decade, from University tuition fees to the war on Iraq.

I do not merely seek to address the unbelievable corruption in “our” government, from the dodgy dossier to cash for honours at Westminster, to “our” Ken’s lavishing of telephone-number salaries on the coterie of Socialist Action members in his administration. That is all important, but I do not merely refer to those things. I also refer to the fact that there is clearly no way to improve things within the Labour Party.

Even back in the days of Callaghan, Wilson, Jack Jones and Frank Chapple, or even going back previously to Gaitskell’s time, Labour leaderships and governments would routinely ignore the decisions taken by “democratic” party conferences. The membership would become outraged, but nothing much would happen. The brief, failed flare-up during the Benn era was an exception to this rule. What I think the shrinking remnants of the Labour Left have to accept, is that such a rising will never and could never happen again.

With the “Bournemouth Deal”, the unions surrendered even the right to pretend to influence decisions made over party policy. Further, their leaderships (with notable exceptions) still seem happy enough to be used as cash cows within the party structures, whilst even left-controlled Executives conduct such struggles as they can manage outside of that arena. And anyone who believes that the CLPs are anything other than the driving force of the party’s right, is deluding him/herself beyond belief.

Further, the complete bankruptcy of the party in the eyes of the public is demonstrated by Thursday’s electoral melt-down. This was capped off by a man who struggles to tie his shoelaces beating “our” Ken Livingstone to the London mayoralty. This in spite of a Labour campaign in London which at times was so hysterical as to give the impression that we were witnessing an election between the SPD and the Nazis in 1933, not a fight between a tired and tarnished mayor and an upper class fop in 2008.

A lot has been made of the fact that Livingstone’s vote in London was better than Labour’s nationally. Not only is that a false comparison (had he been running for Sheriff of Surrey, one imagines he would have had a total kicking rather than losing narrowly), but it also fosters delusions on the left. Some people almost seem to be under the impression that Livingstone got as good a vote as he did because of his left-wing political stances. Now, whilst it is undoubtedly true that Livingstone’s stance on the Iraq war did him no harm, it is simply untrue that Britain’s richest city is a giant reservoir of left-wing voters.

The fact that the left tends to be a closed circle not only politically but in terms of people’s whole lives (it is dominated by relatively secure, unionised and middle-class public sector workers), we don’t see quite the same picture of what a broad spectrum of the public thinks, as those people actually do. The reality is that it’s highly unlikely Livingstone would have gained those extra votes (with which he still lost the election) on the back of being marginally to Brown’s left.

Why then do people stay in the Labour Party?

The usual answer from LP members (including my friends Stroppy, Dave and MarshaJane) is something along the lines of “what else is there to do”? Well, that is not an adequate answer, comrades. You need to come up with a reason to be in what is very much New Labour’s party, a party with a shattered “left” that is impotent and, in many cases, not that left wing, and a party which has no moral authority at all to lay claim upon the loyalties of ordinary working people in this country. I and others who remain outside (my own LP membership expired last year and I have not renewed it) need not explain ourselves – the evidence is there for all to see.

Indeed, the best I have seen thus far in terms of strategies offered by online Labour leftists is “J4L 08”?, AKA a repeat of John McDonnell’s 2007 attempt to launch a challenge to Gordon Brown. Even the aforementioned MarshaJane Thompson, who worked on McDonnell’s first campaign, appears in her post on the subject to concede that not only would McDonnell not win but also that his candidacy would rely on the endorsement of right-wingers even to get on the ballot paper. A flop in the making therefore, even if McDonnell should “succeed” in losing to Brown on a cross party vote rather than “failing” even to get to that stage.

There is, it seems to me, no alternative to the slow and patient work of building a working class political movement outside of the Labour Party. Such a stance may even entail endorsing a vote for certain Labour candidates at times, or candidates from other parties such as the Socialist Party or the Greens.

I’m prepared to cherry pick in that sense. What I’m no longer prepared to do is pretend that the right-wing husk which is today’s Labour Party in any sense represents me or my interests. Time to wake up and smell the coffee, comrades.

Update: in response
Bob Piper is not impressed;
Charlie Beckett isn’t either

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About the author
Alan Thomas is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a blogger, a political activist and a lay member of Unite-TGWU. His main interests outside of UK left politics are in Turkey, Kurdistan and the USA. And is also always delighted to write about wine and fine food when he's in less of an intellectual mood. Also at: Shiraz Socialist
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Debates ,Green party ,Labour party ,Lib-left future ,Libdems ,Realpolitik ,Westminster

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Reader comments


I would begin by ditching use of the ludicrous term “comrades”.

If by “left” you mean liberal then you will find plenty of allies in the other parties to fight with you on an issue by issue basis.
If you mean anti-
market then forget it – that battle is over.

Yes – stop being tribalist! There are plenty of allies around, in all parties and none, who hanker after better policies than either major party is offering on a number of issues.

See my post “Soft Centre”:

http://antarena.blogspot.com/2007/12/soft-centre.html

“That battle is over” – yeah yeah, someone forgot to tell the great majority of people in South America that. And if you want a proper definition of ludicrous “right-wing git who needlessly and fruitlessly spends his days trolling on sites to which he has no conceivable connection” serves quite well.

I think you may have written Labour off too early Alan. Surely now is precisely the time to be campaigning for a left turn in the leadership. It may well not work, but unlike any time in the past decade, there is at least a *chance*.

4. Diversity

The German Left party seems to be doing quite well; much to the pain of the SDP, the German (but somewhat less right wing) equivalent of New Labour. On the other hand I have been reading British left wing comment ” you may have written Labour off too early ” for at least 40 years. Is the British left wing irrevocably against radical change?

Labour leaderships and governments would routinely ignore the decisions taken by “democratic” party conferences.

To be honest, I doubt that many members of the public want the British Government to obey edicts just because they have been issued by Labour party conferences. A party that pays too much attention to its activists will never be elected to control the Commons. And it should not be.

To add to the above remark: Your goal should be to persuade the wider electorate to agree with you – not to force the party leadership to obey you.

The history of the Labour Party tells an informative story: it was never simply a party of the ‘left’ (if there was ever one left), nor was it ever a party which could originate or unify around any principle or idea.

Labour is and always was a broad coalition of people who had temporarily assented to lay aside their differences in order to rally support for their principal and his princely pals.

The electoral machine that is Labour is not a reflection of any single political movement, but merely a vehicle for all the special interests it can weave into it’s spider’s web – this is the overriding weakness which will not withstand any electoral earthquake.

Having felt the tremors leftist introspection is now the mode, but as Labour has never managed an orderly transition between generations it can hardly be expected to start now.

The question facing Labour as it moves into the future is whether it can master the new and evolving media environment to plaster over the flaws in its foundations once more, or whether the level of democratic interactivity in society is great enough to be capable of keeping the cracks exposed and if this is enough to create lasting splits.

I don’t predict devastation, as many do and will remain emotionally attached to their investments in the ‘Labour’ branding and it will therefore continue to form the largest group in looser bloc formations on the ‘left’, at least for the meantime (the travails of the SPD in Germany offer a good comparison).

Beyond that Labour struggles with party funding arrangements will increase and make it harder to cope with the divergence of party and policy interests – without the institutional and administrative support provided by its professional infrastructures Labour has an equivalent grassroot activist base as the defunct SDP had, which explains recent dependance on largescale individual donorship by Blair and Brown as volunteerism has reduced.

With the Labour left too realistic to follow its ideals and the Labour centre too idealistic to face reality, the pick-axes of the Labour right are being sharpened which will keep non-partisan observers entertained with ritualised bloodletting for at least a decade.

Lib Dems, anybody? We’re quite left, last I checked…

Alan, you know when you say…: The fact that the left tends to be a closed circle not only politically but in terms of people’s whole lives

That applies to libertarians and conservatives as much as lefties. Just see cjcjc above for hilarious commentary.

I thought this was a brilliant and very important article.

ad says:
Your goal should be to persuade the wider electorate to agree with you – not to force the party leadership to obey you.

Agreed. Sometimes lefties do get caught up in their own rhetorical arguments than thinking how it applies to everyone. But that doesn’t mean this applies to everyone. Look at how Ken Livingstone was able to push a progressive agenda and get most Londoners to sign up to it. Who is arguing to take aaway the congestion charge now? Apart from the usual libertarians, who is arguing to take down the NHS or the welfare state or the BBC?

Left-wing / progressive arguments, when made solidly, can be for the benefit of all society. Similarly, I think the arguments for freerer markets have had benefits too, and I’m not going to deny that.

There’s not going to be any return to a socialist utopia… any more than there is going to be a headlong rush to a hardcore American style ultra-capitalist system.

Anyway, to go back to Alan’s article… I sympathise mate – but what exactly is the Labour Left manifesto? What encapsulates the Labour Left argument and what defines them? Just deposing of the Blair/Brown consensus isn’t good enough. What is it to be replaced by?

Surely that’s the big question.

Sunny,

Who is going to take down the congestion charge, the NHS, the BBC etc?

Of course it is generally unacceptable to argue against them because they are fantastic institutions, but they are each rotting from within and will collapse without proper support and wider approval than is now the case, yet current methods of improving services are getting unaffordable.

The congestion charge has interested many other urban authorities around the world, but is unlikely to be spread its appeal as it is proving only a temporary measure against congestion, which is why this election campaign saw attempts to morph the issue into an environmental measure.

The NHS is struggling on a very basic level because it deals with our sicknesses and injuries, but not our health; do all those managers actually provide a valuable service?

Can the univeral BBC license fee survive in a commercialised sector as audiences splinter and the broadcaster is frced to focus on narrower interest groups and concentrates on cheap amusements in place of solid information and entertaining methods of education?

Its just not enough to say that they worked yesterday and they are still good today. They need to continually prove their relevance to remain their legitimacy.

11. douglas clark

I’d have thought that a left agenda would have included quite a bit of Scandanavian thinking, like a military sized to serve their own State and not someone elses’, a reasonable commitment to consensus in decision making, excellent care for children and the elderly, etc, etc.

Still, what do they know?

12. Planeshift

“Your goal should be to persuade the wider electorate to agree with you – not to force the party leadership to obey you.”

Persuasion is over-rated. What we need are a few celebrity politicians who generally charm the public by appearing on chat shows and behaving like idiots. A candidate that voters can say ‘I haven’t a clue what he’ll do, but I’d sure go drinking with the man’.

Good policies (of the left or the right) don’t win you elections. Bad policies only lose you them if enough people notice.

When is this site going to drop the “liberal” pretence and rename itself “left conspiracy”?

“Alan, you know when you say…: The fact that the left tends to be a closed circle not only politically but in terms of people’s whole lives

That applies to libertarians and conservatives as much as lefties. ”

Mostly, yes.
Though hopefully all “sides” can unite on some issues, eg ID cards, 42 days…

Ben G – does it hurt every time your (impressive) site gets a commission from Amazon?!

cjcjc -Jesus -there is no “pretence”. Read the “about us” – this is a left-liberal site, and doesn’t exactly hide the fact. It is using “liberal” in the US perjorative sense, as in US right-wing parlance the “liberal conspiracy” is the source of all left-wing evil. Its a joke. Do you see? If by “my site” you mean site that isn’t really my site, just one I regularly contribute to. Amazon liks neither help nor hurt, I don’t see any of the money!

Planeshift – You may be joking, but the nearest the left has come to the jovial jokey character you would vote for on that basis alone in recent years is Ken himself. It obviously isn’t enough in the end!

Sanbinonorian – Well, not really. I voted Lib Dem once when they were under Kennedy, as a protest and with a heavy heart it must be said. Under Campbell and then Clegg and his Orange Book clique any pretense of leftishness has gone. Never again.

cjcjc –

I’m not sure it is a leftist conspiracy, as recently I almost accused Sunny of allowing himself to lapse into the easy complacency of a conservative while he continues to accept received definitions for the labels he uses.

But then left and right are two sides of the same authoritarian coin.

17. Alan Thomas

LOL – as a leftist (of a libertarian bent) I can certify that LC is not a leftist conspiracy… at least not exclusively 😉

Its just not enough to say that they worked yesterday and they are still good today. They need to continually prove their relevance to remain their legitimacy.

Thomas – I agree of course, but that doesn’t change my point about the legitimacy of these organisations.

planeshift
What we need are a few celebrity politicians who generally charm the public by appearing on chat shows and behaving like idiots. A candidate that voters can say ‘I haven’t a clue what he’ll do, but I’d sure go drinking with the man’.

ha ha! Aint that the truth.

anticant, Tom – sorry, for some reason the spam control held your comments. I’m assuming because you’ve posted links in your posts.

What we need are a few celebrity politicians who generally charm the public by appearing on chat shows and behaving like idiots. A candidate that voters can say ‘I haven’t a clue what he’ll do, but I’d sure go drinking with the man’.

ha ha! Aint that the truth.

Didn’t Labour just ditch someone who fitted that description rather well?


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