Labour: Turn Left at Crossroads

As I look at in my latest book, the Labour Party was formed, of course, by the people, for the people; a party representing the workers whose hard labour kept the cogs of the country turning. After the Second World War, Winston Churchill – despite being considered a hero for his leadership through the conflict – was not chosen as the man to lead peacetime Britain through the resulting economic challenges the country was left with. Instead, they chose Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, the man who gave us a National Health Service, a strong welfare state, and is largely considered the greatest premier Britain has ever had.

Labour went through the 20th century regarded as the party of the people, and battled it out back and forth with the Conservatives. I was born in 1976, just as Harold Wilson – arguably Britain’s last truly social democrat Prime Minister – was on his way out. After that, Labour softened its democratic socialism more and more, while a right-wing media deregulated by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher returned the favour, putting their editors to work in essentially providing her with propaganda (the press weren’t papers of “news,” they literally told people to vote Tory!) After Maggie’s election win, the particularly grateful media mogul Rupert Murdoch had his Sun tabloid declare it was them “wot won it.” A deregulated financial sector set the stage for what was to be inherited by a resurgent Labour Party also now courting favour with Murdoch’s media – a very useful propaganda tool indeed.

The removal from Labour’s constitution of Clause 4 – the dedication to government control of key industries – by their newly-elected leader Tony Blair was a symbolic act of a man who despised old Labour and created “New Labour,” a re-branding that, beginning with their victory in 1997, would make the party an electoral machine with Murdoch’s backing, but with no real substance of worth, or long-term sustainability prospects. They continued the deregulation of media, and of the financial sector, and refused to reverse anti-union laws implemented by the Tories.

Still, Blair got less votes as a winner in the 2001 and 2005 elections than then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock did as a loser in 1992 (despite The Sun warning of doom if Labour came to power, which they very nearly did). With Blair eventually submitting his power to Gordon Brown just as the economic crap was about to hit the fan, more working class people than ever stayed at home while Murdoch persuaded the country of the blind that the one-eyed man was king. Then, though, the Tories wooed Murdoch back, and the corporate Brown-nosing Prime Minister plunged into unpopularity; a political pariah. With the working class completely disenchanted by New Labour and deserting them in droves – membership at a desperate low – Murdoch’s support was the icing on the cake for a Tory party set to party like it was 1979.

It didn’t happen. The televised debates included Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, catapulting him to fame. It was suddenly no longer Labour/Tory, Same Old Story. Massive amounts of first-time voters registered, with social networking sites buzzing with the political possibilities and the opinions of young people now engaged in the issues. Many were getting their information from each other on Twitter and various forms of alternative media. Suddenly, Murdoch seemed almost impotent.

The election was not as predictable as first thought. Times had changed. If no party gained an overall majority and a hung parliament was to happen, the Liberal Democrats seemed likely to be a deciding factor – Nick Clegg a “kingmaker” carrying the card of demands for a more democratic voting system with him into the bargaining of any possible talks of a coalition to create a two-party majority. This electoral reform, such as proportional representation (a novel idea where the party with most votes won) posed a potential disaster for David Cameron’s Conservative Party dependent on the first-past-the-post system that previously got them elected time and again. For a party that opposed women’s suffrage, it was no surprise that democracy wasn’t their favourite thing.

So, despite Nick Clegg claiming David Cameron associated with “anti-semites, homophobes, and nutters,” he then became one of them himself – doing a “deal with the devil” in joining with Cameron’s Tories who failed to gain a majority, in order to form a Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government and turn Britain to a Con-Dem nation. Proportional representation wasn’t part of the deal, though, and a Liberal Democrat party heavily compromised suggested they just wanted power – even if they were, in fact, comparatively powerless. Though the Lib Dems were mere percentages behind them in the election, Tories have five times more of their gang in positions of power. But Nick Clegg didn’t seem too bothered; he and his buddies still got to hang out on the frontbenches of parliament and in Downing Street. Some have suggested that overnight he went from being “kingmaker” to Cameron’s “tea-maker.” The best anyone could hope for was that the Lib Dems could rein in the Tories from running roughshod over the people, like they did in the 1980s with their attacks on workers’ rights through disposing of unionized industries and ill-fated introduction of the Poll Tax that shifted tax burden from the rich onto the poor (and subsequently caused riots in London’s historic Trafalgar Square).

Labour was defeated, yes, but they still had more seats than in 1992, when they did so well under Neil Kinnock’s leadership. The Con-Dem coalition only exists because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Under proportional representation, the Tories would struggle to even get into power (another major reason they hate it). The Lib Dems weren’t suddenly so keen on it, either, when they realized they could enjoy a shot at power without PR - like New Labour, a short-term mentality. The coalition then fought for a fixed term to keep themselves in power for five years, with or without the traditional vote of confidence. The coalition has done everything it can to guarantee it retains that power – though they are still vulnerable to destruction from within, potentially collapsing the coalition entirely.

In the days following the formation of the Coalition, tens of thousands of people were signing up to join a Labour Party that was previously suffering from a loss of membership under Blair and Brown. Where were they coming from? The hint may be given by Charles Kennedy, whose non-political weakness (alcohol) was the only thing that removed him as Lib Dem leader. Kennedy, you see, refused to endorse the coalition deal, as did David Steel and others. Even Murdoch’s Times admitted that the Lib Dems could “pay a high price” for this deal.

Labour, suddenly, had become the mainstream refuge for progressives who opposed conservatism. There was some thought to Cameron cleverly utilizing damage control by working with Clegg to occupy the centre ground and leave redundant a Labour Party seen by many as authoritarians hiding behind a red flag, just as Boris Yeltsin had in Russia while politically disposing of social democrat Gorbachev, cutting business deals for his friends and family, and invading other countries (with the West’s support, of course). But despite the coalition disposing of New Labour’s surveillance state by scrapping ID cards and detention of children, this merely reflects their own libertarian capitalism that has spread across the West in recent years. The coalition is clearly leaving a void on the left, for all their talk of “new politics” (more like newspeak using the same vacuous rhetoric used by the Obama campaign in the States).

There are some real opportunities then for a Labour Party that has many working people clamoring for their party back. I had long predicted that New Labour wasn’t sustainable; that people were too smart, and that their core voters – the workers of “Labour” – would continue to desert them, and leave them defeated. I also predicted that the party would have to then go back to the drawing board, but that their leader would likely be David Miliband. But who really would lead them now Blair, Brown, and their right-wing capitalist election machine had finally reached its inevitable breaking point?

David Miliband did indeed stand, but for many he still had the stain of Blairism on him. Then, impressively appearing before the image of a logo declaring “Next Left,” his brother Ed Miliband announced his own bid to become leader, calling for his party to return to its “old radical edge.” David then responded to Ed’s moves by confirming that New Labour is over. The comments went back and forth about how Labour had to be reborn; reinvent itself and reconnect with the people. Even without unashamed social democrat Jon Cruddas in the picture, this had become a situation of attempting to “out-left” each other! This was only enhanced by the leadership challenge of Diane Abbott, Britain’s first black MP with an absolutely sparkling parliamentary voting record. Yvette Cooper, who was impressive in the pre-election BBC Question Time debate, wants more women in British politics where the Coalition cabinet today features 23 millionaires, 26 of whom are men, with 4 women, 29 white people, one Asian, and none black or LGBT. Ironically, for whatever reasons, Yvette Cooper stepped aside and allowed the further presence of Balls in the leadership race: her husband Ed Balls, that is. The contest had become mostly a three-way between David Miliband, Ed Miliband, and Ed Balls. Diane Abbott’s popular presence was a welcome change, but more importantly served to keep the pertinent progressive issues on the agenda than pose any threat to a contest dominated – as usual – by white Oxbridge fortysomethings.

But if my previous predictions on Labour are realised and buoyed by the Lib Dems’ lack of principle, what can we say about an Ed Miliband who went along with the party line in supporting the New Labour project? He even voted against an investigation into the Iraq invasion. Now, though, he speaks out against it, while his brother David is reluctant to. Is this because it’s populist, or because he is free from the cabinet’s constraints? It may be both – politics is about power, and what you do with it; he’s close to power now. What matters is that Ed, unlike David, is adamant about stating such severe criticisms of New Labour. He’s also expressed his desire for Labour to be less authoritarian and more grassroots. He’s accessible. He reaches out to people. Yes: he is “electable.” Like me, he even wears a hoodie over his shirt – though I doubt Cameron will be hugging him any time soon.

Despite my prediction some time ago about David Miliband representing change in Labour but offering none as leader, his younger brother, remarkably, has at the time of writing won more nominations from MP's than any other candidate – and the first to receive a relatively credible, high-profile endorsement, from none other than Neil Kinnock himself.

While Nick Clegg can act down-to-earth with David Cameron and behave as if they’re in a civil partnership, they’re actually cut from the same cloth. Nick Clegg represents my city of Sheffield in the House of Commons, but he’s not from there originally. Ed Miliband represents the town of Doncaster, where I was born, but he isn’t from there, either. Constituencies ripe for the pickings – safe seats – are chosen for rising stars, politics being a career for many; just look at our current head of the Treasury, George Osborne, who’s never had a real job in his life (and is no expert on the economy either…just what we need in a recession, eh?). But that’s how the game is played, and you have to be in it to win it – and change it.

I hope I was wrong about David Miliband’s rise to power. His brother has played his cards right in this game and now, when it matters most, is speaking our language. More importantly, he’s listening. He’d better be – because Labour needs to turn left at the crossroads ahead. It’s an exciting opportunity, to connect with the people on the council estates New Labour neglected, in the factories New Labour emasculated, and in the immigration detention centres New Labour so loved – all of the people at the bottom, where democracy needs to begin. As I’ve been saying over and again, it’s the only way they can save themselves and regenerate. If they don’t, then the coalition – if it sticks together – won’t just be here for the next five years, but the next ten, or fifteen. We don’t need that any more than we needed Thatcherism – and Blairism – for as long as we did.

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Comments

designerbaby's picture

I agree with you, but i'm a bit surprised you've left Andy Burnham out of your article?

There's an argument, which many Labour members still hold dear, that a Labour party will never get back into government without in some way appeasing or reaching-out to the 'middle-ground'. For this reason, unfortunately, the Miliband's are a leadership shoe-in.

And i disagree with you about the LibDems compromising their left-of-centre position by forming the coalition government. They are still, as we speak, the only forward-thinking political party with any significant number of seats; and abolishing ID cards, holding a referendum on an AV voting system (hopefully paving the way towards full-PR) and looking for market alternatives outside the city are all significant moves. They'll play an important role in this government.

The question is; what kind of role will Labour play in opposaition?

very interesting, sensible article (apart from... 'While Nick Clegg can act down-to-earth with David Cameron and behave as if they’re in a civil partnership'). Agree on comments about New Labour but if people commentating on politics are to criticise they need an alternative and the only alternative to a LD coalition would be a simple tory minority government which would call and election in a couple of months and in my opinion get greater representation at the expense of progressives. liblab would have been my dream but we have to work with whats possible and choose from alternatives. i know i prefer ldcon to con and I find it difficult to understand how any progressive could disagree. something is surely better than nothing.

MediaActivist's picture

Great feedback so far, thank you! Good to get discussion and opinions going.