Friday, 22 May 2015

Good night and good luck

And so it came to pass. Scotland lost and retreat to the regional strongholds of northern England and south Wales and even those looking a wobbly with UKIP biting at the Labour vote. Most of the leading chumps lost; goodbye Miliband, Balls, Alexander and, finally, Murphy. And now the second-tier chumps squabble over who can most appeal to the 'aspirational' voter. Even the hardest hearts might soften at the sight of Keir Hardie’s party reduced to this.

Must Labour die? Probably, at least in its current form, if any genuinely progressive movement is to emerge in this country. Should Labour die? Absolutely after such an incompetent campaign. Could Labour die? Well, it’s 50/50. If UKIP take a couple of by-elections and the Welsh show signs of following the Scots then probably. Otherwise, it’s ten years of the Tories.

Thank to those who followed this brief blog which will now close.

Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Farewell to Welfare Statism or Good Riddance

Andrew Pearmain writes:
So what do we make of that then? On a personal level, the 2015 General Election leaves me with two contrasting emotions. Firstly, a certain sense of vindication about the outcome, because for several years I've been the only person I know predicting an outright Tory majority. It was pretty obvious what they, and the disgruntled and “worried” great British public, were up to. On the other hand I feel deep gloom about what a far right English government will do with its shiny new “popular mandate”. I suspect that, compared to this lot, the abrupt adjustments to neoliberal globalisation engineered by Thatcher/Major, New Labour and the Con/Lib coalition will come to seem partial and cautious.

The smug determination with which Cameron and Osborne shut the doors to their neighbouring abodes and on us poor bemused electors, and set about ruling party business as usual, was quietly terrifying. It's full steam ahead to a low-tax, low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity, low-security, low-quality economy of services and consumption, retail and distribution. Social tensions and divisions are turning into semi-permanent fractures along class and race lines; “culture war” between competing identities and interests more relentlessly vicious; regional animosities more blatant and unapologetic. In or out of Europe, it doesn't really matter, we're heading for the worst of America, a nation profoundly and permanently ill at ease with itself. This small island is more turned against itself than pretty much anywhere outside the Middle East.

The political prospects of the “anti-Tory alliance” look suitably bleak. The Lib Dems, having been seduced by the lure of ministerial office to provide the Tories in coalition with a veneer of “conscience”, have been duly cast aside. I expect we'll see a revival of their “social democratic” leftism, relapse into comfortable opposition, and a further slide into historical irrelevance. The SNP cheerfully stepped forward to frighten the poor bloody Sassenachs into doing what they were told. I knew some of these new-found, ex-Tartan Tory “anti-austeritans” in former guises - step forward “comedy impresario” and old Labour leftist Tommy Sheppard! -  and believe me, they are just as careerist and opportunist as the old Labour beardies they've displaced. Without the labour movement disciplines that just about kept the old guard in check, we can expect some spectacular nonsense from these new Bravehearts. The Greens, as I've written elsewhere, continue to squander the historical opportunity of climate change for a secure niche on the margins of the political establishment. 

As for Labour, the real surprise is that they've still got so many MPs. How did these 230-odd bores and chancers and big-mouths get anybody to vote for them? The North London “weirdo” had his very own Sheffield-arena moment with his tablet/tombstone (or was it the “gotta” with Russell Brand? Or the “hell yes”? Or the stumble off the stage in Leeds? Choose your own historical embarrassment). Surely, for all the thrashings of the New Labour dinosaurs - “We were right all along!” - we can agree that Labourism is finally, definitively, thankfully dead, an ex-parrot of a subaltern mentality/emergent ideology. Even Neal Lawson, chair of perennially Labour loyalist think-tank Compass, is talking of “kicking the cat to see if it's dead”. We've had Old Labour, New Labour, Next Labour, and New New Labour if Mandelson pulls off his latest zombie trick. Now we have No Labour in Scotland, the South and East of England, and pretty much anywhere anyone else can be bothered to push them out of the way. The question we now need to ask, and which the next five years will almost certainly answer, is what dies with Labourism?

The central project of the forthcoming Tory government will be to complete what first-wave Thatcherism only partially accomplished: to dismantle the one undisputed historical achievement of Labourism, the welfare state. It has always been a deeply compromised legacy, and the contradictions within it – enabler or oppressor? Safety net or trap? Divider or unifier? - have continually undermined its popularity and efficacy. But this election gives the neo-Thatcherites carte blanche to slash welfare, submit benefits to the same squeeze as wages, and carry on the already advanced programme to outsource the public sector's marketable functions. This will entrench our established social relations of wealth and poverty, exploitation and subalternity, grievance and deference, “striver”/“shirker” (and doesn't that hegemonic couplet mark a significant advance on the 1980s stereotype “scrounger”) apparently forever, or for as long and as deeply as makes no difference. In waving farewell to the welfare state, I have to declare an interest. Born dirt-poor in the de-industrialising north of England, but bright and ambitious, I was a child of the welfare state, the beneficiary of benefits, free health care, a scholarship to grammar school, then fully-funded university. In bidding it good riddance as well as farewell, there may be some Oedipal element in my attitude to the welfare state, but that does at least alert me to its essential paternalism, which is surely what's done for it in the court of public opinion.

Much has been said and written about growing inequality, with lots of trendy demographic and economic studies – Wilkinson, Picketty, Dorling etc. - briefly cited by the formers of liberal opinion  in order to fuel philanthropic outrage. For me, the more significant and comparatively neglected social phenomenon of modern Britain has been the stalling of social mobility, the sense that the country is “stuck” in established patterns of power and wealth, that individuals or sub-groups can no longer move up (or down) the social scale by virtue of their own talents and efforts (or lack of them). Instead, we have a system of dynastic succession in power, property, business ownership and acumen, educational and cultural prestige, and even in Parliament. I for one am sick to my stomach at the sight of posh boys taking over everything from art and fashion, even bloody pop music, to food culture, broadcasting and sporting pastimes and whole “hipster” districts of London, invariably assisted by Daddy's money, contacts and reputation   And because it's all “kept in the family”, nobody sees fit to question any of it. Meritocracy was only ever a useful myth, but it helped keep the spirits up in a grim postwar Britain. They're drooping now.

We can rail against the basic unfairness of it, but by far the most destructive aspect of social stagnation is the way it traps people in poverty and misery and dependency; in other words, the not so tender clutches of the welfare state. There are now several generations of families and communities all across Britain who have never had secure employment. They are sustained in various incapacities and disabilities, including the inability to take care of themselves. And don't they make a handy scapegoat/bogey, especially when featured in the burgeoning sub-genre of reality TV known as “poverty porn”? Even the proliferation of foodbanks can be explained away by their lumpen fecklessness, because “these people” spend their benefits on alcohol and tobacco and have to rely on do-gooders for food.  It is fear of that state of destitution, of being somehow hurt by people already in it or of falling into it yourself, which lies behind the mood of “anxiety” which apparently was the key factor in deciding how people voted in this general election.
So what can we “on the left” we do about it? Firstly, we have to accept that the welfare state is dead, along with the century-old tradition of Labourism, itself a strange amalgam of “respectable” workerism and liberal philanthropy. Secondly, we can start to build a new kind of “social welfarism” from the bottom up, that echoes pre-Labourist traditions of mutuality and self-reliance, but adds new 21st century networks and styles. That's what  I plan to do, by returning to the “front line” of social work which 25 years of social services management has taken me further and further away from. I'm sick of the make-believe of “policy development” and “performance management”, of ever rosier reports of the state of things as you go up the hierarchy so that the crock of shit on the ground becomes a bed of roses seen from the top floor of County Hall. If we want to recreate the bonds of social solidarity and mutual interdependence which our “politics” says we do, we can't sit around waiting for the “welfare state” to deliver it, as Labourism promised us it would. Like the pioneers of pre-Labour socialism, we have to do it ourselves. I fully expect to become tired and disillusioned on a professional diet of human misery and squalor, but I might just help one or two people climb out of it.   

The New Plague

Willie Thompson writes:

In the week of the general election the New Scientist journal, which is published on Saturdays, had an accidentally appropriate headline on its front cover (referring to the danger of mutant bugs} it reads,


Which would likewise do very well for the political situation we find ourselves in now. The cover also advertises another of the articles inside, ‘No person, no vote: How health inequalities distort democracy’. That article links differential health outcomes with social class, showing how lower-income electoral strength is consequently weakened. 

It was an exceptionally important election with a remarkable as well as an exceptionally calamitous outcome – and also an exceptionally dirty one. The Tories invoked near-racist prejudice against Scottish voters and attempted, with some success, to fasten on the SNP the scary role that the communists used to occupy in British right-wing imagination. The Labour Party rhetoric did little to challenge this caricature or emphasise that the SNP had evolved into a mildly left-wing social democratic force which had a record of devolved government very much in accordance with British social values as they used to be in the days before Thatcher. They simply tried their hardest to dissociate themselves.

To be sure the Labour campaign had plenty of weaknesses and shortcomings. Not that a boldly left-wing one would have enhanced the chances of victory; it might even have weakened it given the nature of the southern English political climate. What it might have done but failed to do was to present a coherent and convincing programme of progressive change that would have addressed the various issues hurting the public throughout the country. For example, alongside the protection of the NHS from market rapacity and introducing controls on private renting, it could have proposed returning the railways first of all to public control via regulation and then to public ownership – not by immediate outright renationalisation, which would have incurred enormous expense, but by resuming the various franchises as they expired.

Instead what the Miliband team did was to staple on a few socially progressive items to what remained an overall acceptance of a society governed by neoliberal values, exemplified in Ed Balls’ economic strategy, which needed a magnifying glass to distinguish from George Osborne’s. Moreover, while not advocating it, EU withdrawal should not have been excluded as an option in all circumstances if its bureaucracy insisted in blocking socially progressive measures. Moreover Labour  should, in particular, have promised to have nothing to do with TTIP; instead that was viewed with some approval.

In addition the Labour Party should have denounced the sort of political rhetoric favoured by our elites, emphasising that, ‘Hard Decisions’ and Tough Choices’ are not hard and tough for the people who make them in their well-cushioned comfort, but for the citizens who have to endure them. Labour was accused of being anti-business, to which it responded only with weak denials. What it should have proclaimed loudly and emphatically was along the lines of ‘What we’re in favour of are businesses which give their workforce a fair deal, which are attentive to the needs of their customers, which pay their taxes willingly and are alert to their environmental responsibilities. These we’ll applaud, listen to and support; what we’re against are ones who do the opposite, all too prevalent in the present-day neoliberal climate’. That’s not a socialist programme, but is one which the evidence of the recent past suggests would have found a public response even in ‘middle England’.

The Labour campaign was too left-wing, we’re informed. Like in Scotland? And what happened to the Lib Dems, who were surely ‘aspirational’ enough? Back in 2010 after the coalition was formed one of their MPs complained that he hadn’t been elected to make poor people even poorer. That is exactly what his party did and for their treachery they got their just deserts, which regrettably was not to the public advantage.

Now in the aftermath, while Tories and their stuffed-wallet backers gloat and plan their next assault upon the common good, another weasel word is intruding into the vocabulary as the heirs of the Blair-Mandelson gang (plus Blair and Mandelson themselves) crawl out of their political slime to try to recapture what remains of the party for their catastrophic project of being indistinguishable from the Tories – or even worse if that were possible. That word is ‘aspirational’, a code term in this context for the active encouragement of greed and irresponsibility. It’s otherwise known as ‘I’m all right Jack.’

Were Labour to go down this toxic route, as it may well do, the likely inheritor in the absence of other considerations, might even be UKIP, who, in spite of their election disappointments polled strongly, especially in Labour heartlands like North East England. We face the possible nightmare scenario in five years time of UKIP doing in these places what the SNP has done to Scottish Labour and Lib Dems. One of these other considerations however is the Green Party, which will be striving to prevent any such outcome. Its electoral successes on May 7-8 were modest, but they provide a strong base on which to build and expand.

In the event of the Blairites triumphing, a possible response would be for those on the Labour left together with other honest members and MPs to split away and form a loose coalition with other progressive political forces such as the SNP and the Greens. Tony Benn in one of his last public meetings, in South Shields, argued that the Labour and Green parties should work together, and in Scotland the Greens there act in co-operation with the SNP and relations are friendly.
We will have to see, but without any doubt whatever we are on the point of experiencing interesting times – in the Chinese sense.

Friday, 1 May 2015

These are the chumps who lost Scotland

Some years ago in a time BTC (Before The Crash), a group of us wrote a booklet entitled Feelbad Britain. (Available at It received mild interest and then passed into the oblivion reserved for small political tracts. One sentence from its first paragraph sums up its content: Twenty-first century Britain, our country, is afflicted with a deep-seated and widespread social malaise. Since that distant past, this malaise has deepened. One obvious factor is the revelation that our high-street banks, once pillars of respectability, are nests of crooks who have managed to steal billions of pounds without any retribution. Another is the ongoing disclosing of just how deep rooted has been a culture of sexual depravity and paedophilia amongst once-revered entertainers and politicians. Perhaps the defining revelation is that an allegedly demented paedophile was able a few weeks ago to sign his name to a letter requesting leave-of-absence from the institution of which he remains a member: the House of Lords. Presumably his advisors thought it might be embarrassing for him to continue to sign to collect his £300/day ‘expenses’. Truly, England has become a sad and dispiriting country.
Meanwhile, amidst this malaise, a suitably sad and dispirited election campaign is underway. On the Conservative side, this lack of any spirit is understandable. If one accepts that there are only two kinds of election campaign: steady as she goes and throw the rascals out then clearly they have to be bound by the former and unexciting slogan. Steady as she goes, chaps, careful not rock the boat, we’ve got the wind in our sails, easy does it… (I think that’s enough nautical stuff). Even so, Cameron has seemed so lack-lustre as to require a special boost of amphetamines to inject just a bit of dash into his manner.
The issue really is just why the ‘throw the rascals out’ Labour campaign has been so pitiful. Just why these devotees of the West Wing with their expensive American advisers and their months of preparation have managed not just to be totally devoid of any spirit but also to be so inept. These, after all, are the chumps who lost Scotland, the heartland of the labour movement, Red Clyde and all that. Say it very loud: these are the chumps who LOST SCOTLAND.
It is not as though there were not plenty of warning signs. The electoral system for the Scottish Parliament could have been designed expressly to stop any one party dominating but in 2011, the SNP did win an overall majority. Then they came within touching distance of succeeding in the referendum. Then, instead of realising that by siding so openly with the Tories as pro-Union they had poisoned their reputation, that when, last year, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, resigned saying that Scottish Labour was treated like a branch office of London”, she was replaced not by an MSP but a political bruiser from Westminster. At the time, Henry McLeish, another former Labour first minister, said that Scottish Labour supporters no longer know “what the party stands for” and that it had given “enormous ground to the SNP unnecessarily”. But still the chumps carried on oblivious.
It could still all be a dream and we could wake up on 8 May and find that it was the same-old two-party system. But the Scottish polls all suggest otherwise. The result of the inevitable bargaining over a minority government will clearly fill the columns. But another, underlying issue will also arise; can the Labour Party survive the debacle of losing Scotland. In terms of simple arithmetic, the answer is yes, it can survive without Scotland. In 1997, it won with a UK majority of 179 so even losing 41 seats in Scotland would have left it with a massive majority. It would even have won in 2005 though with a majority of barely 20. In a sense, the arithmetic is even better if one takes into account the fact that Scotland is over-represented with several small seats. It could even, looking to the future, survive the loss of Wales if one follows the idea that if Scotland goes then perhaps Wales will also see the advantage of having a progressive regional party look after its interests. In 2010, Labour won 29 of 40 Parliamentary seats there though with a historically low share of the vote, 36.3%. In principle, taking 1997 as a marker, it could still gain a majority of close to 100 even if it were to be wiped out in both Scotland and Wales. Even the result in 2005, a Labour majority of 66 would be almost a dead-heat without Celtic votes.
To appreciate what this would mean requires some graphics.

Electoral Map, 1997
This is the best that Labour has received in modern times. And here is the map from the other famous victory in 1945 when Labour had a majority of 150.

UK in 1945 general election
Finally, let’s look at the 2010 result.

UK in 2010 election
These three show how dramatically concentrated Labour has become regionally within England even in the miraculous victory of 1997 compared with 1945 when it actually won fewer seats.  Since 1945, entire regions, notably East Anglia and the east Midlands drifting down to London have become effective no-go areas for Labour. In 2005, there was almost dead-heat in England as shown below, achieved by Labour holding on to seats in the west Midlands and this could be repeated in a future election. It is almost certainly the best it can hope for from this election.
In other words, Labour can survive and even win a Parliamentary majority without the Celtic votes. However, it would become essentially a regional party ruling over the entire U.K. as well as Northern Ireland from a swathe of northern England and central London.  This would be more difficult once the slow-motion Electoral Commission had regularised seats boundaries but still not impossible. The question is, even if this electoral manoeuvre could be successfully carried through, is such a regional domination politically, let alone democratically, possible. The problem is exacerbated by the likely issue that Labour would win a majority of the seats but not of the total vote. England is not a country prone to civil war but a scenario of Labour ruling from such a confined English base would seem to set a possible scenario for another one.

Electoral Map of England in 2005 general election
Unless there is a sea-change in the next five days, the result of this election seems likely to raise a whole raft of questions, essentially concerning legitimacy. These could arise almost immediately if, as present rhetoric suggests, Labour would try to govern without making any kind of agreement with the regional party which has just wiped it out in one part of the U.K. The same issue, though as a kind of mirror-image, will come about if the Conservatives push ahead with their commitment to limit parliamentary votes on issues on which Scotland has devolved powers to English M.P.s Although Labour has largely tried to avoid the issue, it was in fact first voiced by a Labour M.P., Tam Dalyell, back in 1977 and became known thereafter as The West Lothian Question after Dalyell’s Scottish constituency.
This problem has been avoided by the three main parties largely because they pretend that they are genuinely national bodies choosing to follow U.K. national sentiment in the belief that Northern Ireland is a kind of foreign country with its own mysterious and potentially frightening political governance. The Tories have moved closest to accepting that they are basically an English party having been wiped out themselves in Scotland in 1997. It is hard to remember that up to 1987, the Tories had 21 seats in Scotland and were only overtaken by Labour there in 1955 when it still operated as the Unionist Party before merging with the Conservative Party of England and Wales.
The Liberal Democrats have an odd, historically based regional pattern with a geographical base in the South West followed by patches in the North West, Scotland and Wales which essentially follow the bases of the old Liberal Party. Given that most these last are likely to go in this election, their regional base will become quite clear.
The regional basis of Labour once it has lost Scotland and, potentially Wales, and having no real links with any Northern Ireland party will pose it with a huge problem given that it has become a party essentially run from a London-based machine. Only Manchester outside of London still possesses anything like a regional power-base. One of the most difficult issues for Labour, if it does form a minority government, is what to do about DevoManc given that it was negotiated directly by local Labour bosses without, apparently, any involvement of the London leadership. If similar powers to that accorded to Greater Manchester are passed to other cities, mostly northern, then it will be seen throughout the rest of England as a way of privileging Labour’s northern base. If it lets Manchester proceed on its own then it will enrage leaders in cities such as Leeds, Newcastle and Liverpool.
The fact is that Labour has become a regional party but without the local, regional dynamism which propels other regional-based grouping in countries such as Spain and Italy. And, of course, its ‘region’ has no name or political identity other than ‘up there’ or the ‘grim north’. Older Labour members sometimes nostalgically recall the days, usually the 70s and early 80s, when local northern Labour constituencies had some real life and sense of social purpose. Now they are just efficiently organised electoral machines with no role for members other than a little electoral activity.
Must Labour die? Well, in its current form, probably unless the chumps who lost Scotland manage some exceptionally clever reorganising. There will undoubtedly by some vicious infighting inside the leadership especially as beasts such as Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy will be wandering about wondering how to get back on to the gravy-train which has given life for so long. The chances of a new and brighter party leadership emerging from the wreck are small particularly if, because of the vagaries of the British electoral system, they have the chance of forming a minority government provided, of course, they manage to eat humble pie and deal with the SNP. Good luck on that one.

One final thought. The Green Party has always had a separate organisation in Scotland. In England and Wales, they could emerge being able to claim that they are the only genuinely national party not rooted in one region, north, south, east or west. Not quite sure how that one will pan out either.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

What to do with the EU?

Willie Thompson writes:
Despite the fact that British withdrawal constitutes the centrepiece of the UKIP election campaign, the other parties involved have been surprisingly reticent about discussing the question at any length or in great detail. No doubt this is due to a state of uncertainly and embarrassment, plus a suspicion that a referendum would be likely to result in a vote for exit, which none of the others would wish to commit themselves to, since they retain the conviction, with various degrees of enthusiasm, that membership is a ‘good thing’. Odd to think that in the referendum of 1975 the Labour Party was in the main on favour of withdrawal, now, next to the Lib Dems it is the one most committed to opposing not merely exit but even a referendum.

Indeed there are plenty of reasons for wanting to be quit of this institution. It is consummately corrupt and unmitigatedly undemocratic, a gravy train for its bureaucracy and high officials; the meadow to which dubious politicians who have overstepped the mark, such as Peter Mandelson, are put out to grass. It may be remembered that voting publics in particular states such as Ireland, when referenda returned votes against innovations thought by the elites to be very important, the citizens were made to vote again until they produced a majority for the favoured outcome. It has worked in every case except Norway, but even there the national economy is nevertheless closely tied to that of the EU.   

Although the butter mountains and wine lakes are now in the past, the bureaucrats of the Commission continue to make rules which result in serious inconvenience to ordinary citizens or even wreck entire industries such as the British fishing industry. Marketisation is at the heart of its agenda and it was specifically designed in the 1950s to entrench capitalism and present a high obstacle to a socialist programme in any of its member states even if their electorate should have the impertinence to democratically decide upon such a thing, as more than half a century down the line the Greek example has demonstrated with unmistakable clarity. The ultimate aim, clearly stated from the beginning, is political unification; an absurdity in any modern state institution with the degree of language difference inside even inside its previous borders, while its parliament, except as a platform for political publicity, is a farce with no meaningful powers.

Although it is not a sovereign state, its elites have nevertheless has developed aspiration to conduct foreign policies. When these have had any effect, they have proved catastrophic. The EU in the main has acted as the economic arm of the US empire in Europe, an economic and would-be political coalition of vassal states, and if not all its members are not enrolled in NATO, the overwhelming majority are and the two institutions are closely aligned. The nature of this alignment has become especially clear in recent years in the military and political sphere so far as the Ukrainian crisis is concerned, while in the Mediterranean, thousands of refugees are being condemned to death by drowning on account of the decisions of the politicians who run the institution and constitute the final decision-makers.

To some extent tensions and stains within the EU derive from the fact that when it was created its originators assumed that the Soviet bloc would last at least far into the twenty-first century; it was intended for the western Europe of the previous one, and its unforeseen growth deep into Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with notions of admitting even Turkey and regions yet further afield, has turned its structure of governance into a rickety mess.

What attitude to take?
Naturally the EU has attracted hostility in different degrees of intensity, some of it unrelenting, and given it character and practice this should not surprise anybody. Would its breakup, if that were to occur, therefore deserve celebration and applause? If a referendum were to go ahead in 2017 should the British public vote to depart? The answer, surprisingly it might appear, in view of what has been said above, is ‘No’.

Although there are not many of them, even in its present form the institution does have some positive features. Its social regulations at least pose some restraint on the worst features of predatory capitalism, which is the principal reason that there is a lobby, albeit a minority one, among some sectors of British capital, in favour of withdrawal. The traumatic economic effects of uprooting from such a lengthy and deep integration into the structure as Britain has developed, is of course evident.

The principal objections to leaving however relate to none of these aspects, but to consideration of the political forces which would gain from such an outcome. These are the right-wing reactionary populist movements which infest nearly country in the Union and thrive on its deficiencies, often supported by toxic tabloids such as, in the UK, the Daily Express. Breakup would put rockets under their political prospects and energise them to no end. They are all racist in their presuppositions although their leaders may try to deny it and expel members who are too vociferous in these matters. Some, primarily in eastern Europe, nevertheless are even open in their fascist nostalgia.

There are some on the left as well who would, understandably, like to see the end of the European Union (I have a degree of reactive sympathy with them) but the situational reality has to be the decisive consideration and the institution’s collapse, or  British withdrawal, has got to be countered and argued against strongly. Nevertheless, unless the EU is reformed root and branch and designed to be primarily for the benefit of its citizens and not its moneybags, hatred and resistance can only increase, with political reaction harvesting the gains.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

UKIP and Labour: Anyone for “Social Fascism”?

Andy Pearmain writes:
The concept of “social fascism” has got a very bad name. It was coined by the Communist International in its “third period” of the late 1920s to attack social democracy. The communists were competing with the reformist and labourist political parties for the allegiances of the working class across the industrialised world. This was the time of the Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression, of mass unemployment and hyper-inflation. In the heightened tension of capitalist crisis, which pitched “class against class” in a global struggle for supremacy, the social democrats were cast by the communists as “the left wing of the bourgeoisie”, delaying the historically inevitable onset of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Further, they could not be relied upon to resist the blandishments of the ruling class, and would always betray the interests of the proletariat for the sake of their own governmental, parliamentary, municipal and trade union careers. Practical examples were not hard to find, from the SPD's role in suppressing the German revolution of 1918/19 to the 1929/31 National Government in Britain led by “turncoat” ex-Labourites Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip Snowden. 

But there were several problems with this line of thinking. In its strategic perspective of “class against class” it was hopelessly “economistic”, in that it reduced all analysis to simple polarities between capitalism and socialism, bourgeoisie and proletariat, reform and revolution. It privileged the economy as the sole determinant of history, and relegated culture and ideology and even politics to the status of irrelevant sideshows. It pitched actual and potential allies on the left into sectarian squabbles and feuds, turning them in on themselves and against each other and away from the broader struggle for socialism. Above all, it downplayed the emergent threat of actual Fascism and Nazism, already in control of the state in Italy and well on the way to it in Germany, and the much greater threat they posed to the “grand old cause” of international socialism and eventually world peace.

In the ensuing local controversies over “social fascism”, trade unions, cooperatives, cultural and propaganda organisations were riven with factional dispute. Real physical violence was widespread, in the form of street fighting and targeted attacks. The Communist Parties themselves, previously ascendant and basking in the “borrowed prestige” of the young Soviet Union, were confused, divided and distracted. Anyone suspected of deviation from the party line was summarily expelled, an early warning of the purges which would destroy an entire generation of “old Bolshevik” intellectuals and activists in the darkest years of 1937/8.

In reality, “social fascism” had far more to do with the vicious infighting inside the Communist Party of the Soviet Union than with the grand project of world communism. It provided the “theoretical basis” for Stalin's “left turn”, the vanquishing of former collaborators on the right (most notably Bukharin) who had worked with him to defeat Trotsky and the mid-1920s “Left Opposition”.  The substantive issues – the pace and scale of industrialisation, policies towards the peasantry and the middle classes – were less important than the imposition of the central authority of the “great leader”, who could tack to the right or the left as it suited him.  From then until his death in 1953, “Uncle Joe” would be the undisputed figurehead of Russian and worldwide communism.   

In the meantime, the ultimately embarrassing concept of “social fascism” was quietly dropped. The Popular Fronts of the mid-1930s saw considerable revival in the political fortunes of the left, including relatively stable and successful governments. Once actual Fascism and Nazism had been subdued by military conquest, forms of “left unity” provided the political basis for post-war reconstruction and the welfare state, adopted with varying degrees of radicalism by all the victorious powers, including the Soviet Union, Western Europe and even the USA. Even the prolonged stand-off of the Cold War tended to favour the domestic politics of left-wing social democracy and right wing communism in an undeclared but highly effective alliance right across Western and Eastern Europe.

Now, with the “post-war social democratic consensus” pretty much vanquished by Thatcher and Reagan and their disciples (including much of what remains of social democracy), and the almost total hegemony of neoliberalism and its project of capitalist globalisation, is it time to rehabilitate the concept of “social fascism” to explain the almost universal rightward shift of the centre of political gravity? In particular, does it aid our understanding of the new right-wing or nationalist “populism” which is taking social democracy's place across Europe and elsewhere as the primary vehicle to resist, protest or ameliorate the ravages of global capitalism?

We are struggling to understand it in any other terms, not least because it poses an all-round electoral threat to traditional parties of both left and right. Let's look at our own national example, the peculiarly British (or more exactly English) United Kingdom Independence Party, which looks set to attract around 15% of the vote in the forthcoming general election, and may gain sufficiently more in some constituencies to win 5 or 6 seats. What exactly are UKIP's politics, beyond its signature themes of opposition to Europe and immigration (not forgetting its denial of climate change)? In traditional political party terms, where can we place it?

Well, like all classically Fascist political movements, it doesn't fit easily into any single point of the political spectrum, and can be identified as much by its temper and style as programme or principle. What can be seen of its central leadership beyond Nigel Farage is almost entirely ex-Tory, based in London and the Home Counties, and disillusioned with their former party's apparent disavowal of full-blooded Thatcherism. They are viscerally disgusted by the more modern, socially liberal, “politically correct” Conservatism espoused by David Cameron and his metropolitan friends in the Notting Hill set (or have they all now decamped to the Cotswolds?).

But to their evident surprise, these traditional, dry as dust Thatcherites are drawing support from disillusioned segments of tribal Labourism, especially in the midlands and the north. The more far-sighted UKIP-ers are working towards a “2020” strategy, whereby second place to Labour in the 2015 general election in around 100 constituencies will pave the way for a concerted effort to win those seats five years later, and displace the Labour Party as the “true” voice of working class England. The loss of even a quarter of those northern English seats, on top of the massive losses expected in Scotland this year, would be utterly disastrous for Labour. Where else, apart from (weirdly) inner London, with its enclaves of white middle class hipsters and their multinational service-class underlings, would Labour then be able to call its own?

We are in murky waters here. The British proletariat, even at its late 19th century zenith when manual labour occupied fully two-thirds of the whole population, was never clearly politically identified. Rather, it was collectively organised in the workplace through trade unions, with their “economistic” focus on squeezing better wages and conditions out of the capitalist bosses, and practical neglect of broader social and political concerns. In its “spare time” the working class was most passionate about essentially non-political pursuits like gambling, spectator sport, music and other forms of light entertainment, and emotionally focussed on the immediate concerns of family and street community.

Labour could never count on their unconditional support, even at elections. For much of its history since universal suffrage, large chunks of the working class voted Tory and sustained a culture of popular Conservatism with strong strands of unionism and imperialism. Its less respectable cousin British Fascism – real, declared fascism in the form of Mosley's blackshirts and the National Front and most recently the British National Party – has been largely a working class movement led by toffs; an alliance of the “top and bottom drawers” which has always set itself most stridently against the middle class enlightenment and liberal philanthropy of “progressive politics”.  

For all the self-serving triumphalism of the metropolitan liberal left – determined that “in the twenty first century there can be no place” for racism, sexism, homophobia and every other nastiness – these ideological impulses are all still there, successfully tempted out of the regional English undergrowth and coalesced by UKIP into a new historical bloc. UKIP has provided a contemporary and very plausible political vehicle for what I have elsewhere called “the fascist possibility”, always lurking like a bad smell on the margins of British political culture. With its appeal to disillusioned old Labour, it has taken on a “social” dimension which previous, predominantly business-orientated and ex-Conservative fascist movements never quite managed. Hence, the label “social fascism”.

Finally, if we are to fully grasp what all this means, we need a better understanding of what actual Fascism is and was, beyond the foul insanities and perversions of Hitlerism and the comic buffoonery of Mussolini. These were real social and political movements, which managed over decades to mobilise genuine historical grievances and popular aspirations. They won majority support, at least in their own countries (though they were also widely admired elsewhere, including the UK). While setting a firm profile towards the future, they also aimed to recreate an imagined, much better past. Their core support was the lower middle class and upper working class, elements of the petty bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy. They were impatient with the niceties of the law, and contemptuous of the messy compromises of democracy.

Their political style can be described as “authoritarian populism”; their political project as “regressive modernisation”. These were terms commonly applied in the 1980s to Thatcherism, which was also described by some as a form of fascism (not very helpfully, because Thatcher unusually took over an established political party rather than creating her own; and by then the concept of fascism had been devalued by decades of caricature and name-calling). Above all these movements were angry, to the point of violence when necessary, but otherwise prepared to vent their anger through established legal and political channels if it got them their way. On all these measures, UKIP is fascist, and just possibly the most successful British incarnation yet of “the fascist possibility”.    

Andrew Pearmain's latest book 'Gramsci in Love', a novel set in Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy, is out now.   

Monday, 6 April 2015

Willie Thompson writes:

Back in the days soon after the 1997 election, when our eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Blair, I wrote that the Labour Party had the opportunity of dismissing the Tories from power for evermore, provided that the new government acted energetically on behalf of ordinary citizens rather than the financial sharks and vultures that had flourished under the regime of Thatcher and Major – but at the same time I doubted if we would see any major initiatives other than devolution and the minimum wage. What was not expected, even in our worst nightmares, was that New Labour would out-Tory the Tories and make Edward Heath look like a leftie and Harold Macmillan like a raving Bolshevik.

Fast forward to early 2010, and we find the New Left Review editorial declaring that in view of the government’s record and character we shouldn't spill any tears over Labour losing the forthcoming election, and several years previous to that Andy Pearmain was arguing that ‘Labour Must Die!’ I thought at the time that such views was a bit excessive though I could appreciate and understand them – the record was appalling and the Labour leaders a bunch of lying scoundrels, total strangers to the truth, with a war criminal in charge until 2007 and then succeeded by the only minister who had been in a position to stop him but who had failed to do so and was continuing all the essentials of Blair’s policies.

It was a question of how you judged matters when you thought about the alternative, but in the event the 2010 outcome for a few days did not look too bad – the Tories had failed to  gain an overall majority, and Caroline Lucas had won a seat in Brighton. Perhaps the Lib Dems would support a Labour government while vetoing its more nefarious endeavours. Before 1997 I had even suggested that it  might not be a bad idea if Blair teamed up with the Lib Dems, as that could possibly  shift Labour a fraction to the left.

It hadn’t occurred to anyone following the 2010 result that the Lib Dems would commit the treachery of joining in a formal coalition with the Tories who most evidently, when their coalition partners had exhausted their usefulness, would then throw them away like a used condom – as they had done twice in the past to the Lib Dems’ predecessors in the Liberal Party; and yet the calamity came to pass. The Tories got what they wanted and the Lib Dems destroyed themselves in the process. If they’d had any sense the latter would never have entered the coalition in the first place, but might have had some chance of amending their error by immediately breaking it up once they failed to get proportional representation. However the bauble attractions of government office proved too tempting. So far as Labour was concerned, despite losing the election its parliamentary party was in quite a strong oppositional position and soon presented with an endless succession of political open goals, all of which it contrived to miss. 

Now this forthcoming election is supposed to be a multi-party one in a manner that has never previously been seen in British politics, but Cameron is right at least in his statement that there are only two possible prime ministers in the offing, either himself or Miliband. So can Labour recover some of its lost ground and its credibility? On the face of things there should be no problem and Labour several kilometres ahead in the polls. The Tory administration (which it has been, forget about coalitions) between 2010 and 2015 has not only acted as Robin Hood in reverse, but systematically gone about destroying the country’s social infrastructure – and it’s material one in addition.

A dirty trick
Nevertheless the signs are not hopeful. It is revealing that Miliband immediately jumped on a manifestly bogus accusation that Nicola Sturgeon had wished for a Tory victory, without paying  any attention to her vehement denial. The lack of principle here almost equals anything that New Labour might have attempted. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in Scotland the SNP are the majority party, and the reason for them being in that position is the abysmal failure of the Blair/Brown governments during the Labour period in office. As Caesar is supposed to have said when surveying the corpses of his defeated opponents, hoc voluerunt (they asked for it).

It was not the fact that Labour opposed Scottish independence – there were meaningful arguments against separation as well as ones in favour, and if the Labour Party had campaigned independently for a No vote it would have been a position that could be respected even if not accepted. The spectacle, though, of the Labour Party acting in collusion with the hated Tories and treacherous Lib Dems was repellent beyond description and very likely does a lot to account for the enormous leap in SNP membership that has taken place since the referendum.

What could be done?
If the Labour leadership had any sense they would take that as a very significant signal and, instead of banging on about the demerits of the SNP, begin to seriously ask themselves why they have been replaced in the affections of the Scottish electorate. Ed Miliband would do well to remember the injunction of his admirable father Ralph in his masterpiece volume Parliamentary Socialism, that serious politics is not polite conversations between gentlepersons but civil war by other means. Miliband senior demonstrated irrefutably with chapter and verse the truth of the statement by the Tory leader Balfour after his overwhelming electoral defeat in 1906, that whichever party was in office the Tories would continue to rule the country, and that in the words of the Red Flag anthem,  ‘to cringe beneath the rich man’s frown’ has been indeed the default posture of the Labour Party throughout the century-plus of  its existence.

In present circumstances it’s not as though an imagined Labour government with, at best, a very narrow majority or in informal collaboration with the progressive nationalist parties and Greens could immediately set about implementing a Bennite agenda. As things stand, the socially conservative English culture would not accept it and the US would never tolerate it. Nevertheless, Miliband and his cabinet could consider the Scottish experience. In 1955 the Tories won an absolute majority of votes in Scotland. Look at them now: popular outlooks can be changed, for all the toxic tabloids can do. The Labour leaders could then work to reinvigorate their party on the ground as a campaigning organisation, take lessons from the SNP administration in Scotland and begin trying to copy it. Electorates seeing an honest and socially progressive government committed to the common good, can be persuaded to line up behind it.

Is there any possibility that this could happen? About as likely as Sunderland, where I live, winning the English Premiership in the next football season. The most probable outcome is that Labour will have to be replaced, most likely by the Green Party, though evidently that will be a very challenging undertaking.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What is Labour?

Michael Prior writes:

It is obvious that Britain is not Greece or Spain. Those hot-headed Latins can switch parties and entire political systems without a moment’s thought. But we have a calm and sensible system which accepts that what was good enough for our parents is good enough for us. And that means first-past-the-post gets the prize and coming second gets nothing. As Labour may soon find out in Scotland. Just what a Labour wipe-out in Scotland would mean in the rest of the country remains to be seen. But surely one consequence has to be a close examination of the system which has produced the most rigid political structure in Europe, one that has essentially remained unchanged for nearly a hundred years. This involves not just the electoral system which does look increasingly dysfunctional but also the political framework built around this system. The starting point for such an examination has to be the Labour Party and the complex history which has brought it to the current impasse.

A rigid first-past-the post (FPTP) system tends to produce an equally rigid two-party system which, loosely, correspond to progressive and conservative positions. The range of different views within these broad categories are represented by factional groupings within the two parties which jostle for influence in determining the policy of the party in various ways. However, the inexorable electoral logic of FPTP tends to perpetuate the two-party structure despite internal differences. Just how well this system has served Britain (it has never worked in Ireland) can be disputed but one thing is clear, the coming election is one in which it has broken down. There are two, rather distinct reasons for this. First, has been the rise of a specifically regional party whose position on the left/right spectrum tilts to the left but is less important than its regional allegiance. This is not quite a new phenomenon in U.K. terms but the political structure of Northern Ireland, the regional exception, has long since been detached from Britain though it may yet in tight votes come back into prominence. Second has been the rise in importance of issues which simply cannot be contained by factional disputation. EU membership and immigration have seen the rise of UKIP, primarily as an opponent of the Conservatives whilst concern over environmental issues has fuelled the rise of the Greens. (Discussion of the extent to which the Greens can be taken seriously as a political party rather than a pressure group must be deferred.)

These twin issues impact most heavily on Labour as the Conservatives have long vanished from Scotland. Wipe-out in Scotland and major Green inroads into some parts of its English vote could leave it faced with no electoral future at Westminster without a major restructuring of the British political system. None of this is certain. It could yet hang in with 30-something percentage of vote, a deal with the Scot Nats and a continuing grip on its northern citadels. But given the clear possibility of a potentially fatal blow, some assessment has to be made of this rather odd body, odd because its structure differs so sharply from the normal, continental form of a classic social-democratic mass party with a hierarchical structure built up from a national membership.
In February 1900, representatives of most of the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society), met with trade union leaders at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, London. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass Hardie’s motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour."  To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC). This committee included two members from the Independent Labour Party, two from the Social Democratic Federation, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists, effectively equal representation for the political and labour wings. The wording “any party” is significant; these men were not themselves forming a new party nor is there any indication that they aspired to this.
The name Labour Party was in fact first adopted in 1906 by the group of 29 MPs who had won election under the auspices of the LRC essentially to describe themselves and those who had worked to elect them.  Its ‘object’ in 1910 was to ‘secure the election of Candidates to Parliament and organise and maintain a Parliamentary Labour party with its own whips and policy’ It was a ‘federation of national organizations’, a loose and ill- defined alliance rather than a coherent party with specific aims.

Nationally, the Labour Party only acquired individual membership in 1918, after extension of the national franchise to all adult males and some women, when something like the existing constitution was adopted. It was only after 1918 that the party began to contest nearly all seats and to systematically oppose the Liberals, the party which had been the main representative of the working class before 1914 and with whom the LRC had concluded electoral pacts to gain election. Its success was then meteoric. By 1924, it was able to form a government, albeit as a minority, and by the end of the decade, it had totally eclipsed the Liberals. This complex organisational rather than political process and its sudden rise to power has provided the Labour Party with unusual, though longstanding, features which still define its nature and politics.

First, as a federal organisation in which most democratic power is exerted by affiliated bodies whose own individual members have different relationships with their national body, it has only a limited role for individual members of the Party itself. A consequence of this has been a persistent inability of positions which commanded significant, often majority, support within the individual membership to determine party policy as expressed within party manifestos. It is noteworthy that the one affiliated body with specific political ambition controlled by individual membership, the ILP, split from the national LP in 1932 to begin a long decline.

Second, it has remained true to its original LRC roots in being primarily an electoral body dedicated to providing the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), a separately constituted body with its own rules and policy, with members and to electing local councillors. It has had a minimal role as a campaigning body or one with any ambition to the development of any left political culture outside Parliament. As a result, a wider political body of left campaigns and agencies has always existed outside the LP with overlapping membership and various levels of support but with no official relationship.

It is a provocative but essentially truthful comment that it has always been this loose gathering, a kind of political penumbra, which has provided the LP with the full characteristics of a political party rather than being just an electoral machine. The procedural basis of this has been the way in which affiliated bodies have memberships which contain both LP members (often a minority) and members of other political groups as well as those with no direct political affiliation. The classic example of this is the way in which Communists were always able to play an indirect part in forming Labour policy by their active participation in policy formation inside the unions to which they, as individuals, belonged.

Third, the trade unions have always had a crucial role inside the LP, though one which is now reduced, though not vestigial, usually one that is supportive of the leadership of the PLP and which provides much of the party’s money. Trade unions provide the parliamentary leadership with its compliant majority on the National Executive Committee, which nominally runs the LP, and also helps elect the national and Scottish leaders (thus Ed not David Miliband and Jim Murphy). They also provide substantial though diminishing amounts of dosh.

This historical role defined much of the party’s internal ethos. Supporting the Labour Party meant accepting not socialism or indeed any specific ideology but an intricate network of loyalties. This was essentially a trade-union code of behaviour; so were the political aims of the Labour Party, at least for much of its existence, essentially trade union ones. Within these limited terms the Labour Party has had reasonable success. If it is objected that it has not served the ‘true’ interests of the working-classes the answer is that it was never designed to do so. One of the abiding features of unions is solidarity, an unquestioning support of other members against external forces. This, translated into political terms, is essentially a kind of tribalism in which support for the party rather than support for some external political principle becomes the dominant feature of political calculation. The result is that a large number of LP activists continue to work to elect LP candidates even though they reject a good deal of Party policy and always have done. It is probable that this rigid but essentially fragile shell of support, which can break once a single crack appears in its carapace, is one important reason for the extraordinarily rapid collapse of the Scottish LP.

Fourth, the LP was never a socialist party though initially, it contained elements of support for a socialist political programme in its constitution and even now some of its elected MPs, though certainly not a majority, would define themselves as socialist and probably a majority of its membership still would. Historically, Labour has coped with the wide diversity of political belief in its ranks by a sometimes chaotic and often fractious internal coalition stretching from right to left. The left-wing of the Party, though normally the junior partner, had often been able to exert influence over both policy and leadership though this influence has declined drastically since the mid-1990s. Its last form, the archaically-named Labour Representation Committee, has only a few hundred members, a bare half-dozen affiliated M.P.s and has no influence of any kind. 

This odd, hybrid body might have been expected to undergo various kinds of political development into something like the continental pattern of a hierarchical membership-based party if it were not for its remarkable and, at the time, unexpected transformation into a party of potential government, a transformation which, even after the debacle of the defection of the then Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in 1931, continued without any serious challenge. Labour won only 7.0% and 6.4% of the votes cast at the two general elections of 1910. In 1923, on an extended franchise, its share was 30.7%, just ahead of the Liberals, who were damaged by the bitter feud between Lloyd George and Asquith, and it was able to form a minority government. It was only in 2010, that its share dipped down to this level, leaving aside the 1983 election when it faced with its first and, so far, only challenge resulting from in internal split. As a result this strange political formation has continued to dominate left politics in Britain down to the present day without significant alteration to its original form despite the contingent features of its first structure.

This then is the vessel which will set sail in May into the choppy waters of minority government. Although it still has a full set of sails and is manned by a crew of old salts who largely if reluctantly obey the orders of the captain, this disguises the fact that its sails are threadbare and its hull is worn paper thin.

Media political commentators still see the post-May situation in conventional terms of two, dominant competing parties even if the loss of Scotland wipes out much chance of an overall Labour majority. Labour will, it is blithely assumed, form some kind of alliance with the SNP which will enable it to form a convincing government. A moment’s thought suggests, however, that this is a very unlikely situation even in the short-term. There are a number of key issues which are red-lines both for the SNP and Labour. The most obvious of these is Trident renewal whilst others on austerity, Europe and immigration easily come to mind. The fact is that on most of these, Labour will find it much easier to obtain its majority with Tory votes than by compromising with the SNP. There will never be a formal Labour/Tory coalition but it remains quite possible that on key issues, Labour will continue in government for the statutory five years by relying on reaching compromises with the Conservatives. The logic of a first-past-the-post electoral system has always been that there will be two main parties, each covering the span of right-wing conservatism/left-wing progressiveness and containing internally most of the various emphases that such a broad definition encompasses. When these start to overlap and rely on mutual deals then the system begins to break.

The impact that such a situation will have on the English LP is difficult to predict but there are already some straws in the wind suggesting that in its northern heartlands, alternative structures are being considered. The Yorkshire First Party is standing in several constituencies mainly with ex-Labour members who see the national Labour Party as too centralised and London-based to represent the people of Yorkshire. A similar party has been set up in the north-east. Neither will win any seats but their appearance in previously solid Labour areas is significant.

A quite different but perhaps even more interesting development is that of DevoManc, that is the deal agreed between a consortium of 10 Greater Manchester councils and the Conservative government, to devolve control of large chunks of local expenditure, including most startlingly that on health, to the councils although the actual level of the budgets will remain under central control. Greater Manchester is the most important and powerful Labour machine in England. Manchester is the one major city never seriously threatened by the Liberal Democrats and without a single Tory councillor. The deal, brokered by the twin leaders of this machine, Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein, is remarkable for its breadth and also, given the politics of Manchester, the apparent fact that it was done directly with Cameron and did not involve the central party, who do not seem to like it very much. Certainly, the health service unions are spitting blood over it.

It is doubtful that Leese and Bernstein envisage the breakup of the English Labour Party. The fact is, however, that they are busy setting up a situation in which Greater Manchester will come to resemble Scotland in its power and which, given the bringing together of 10 councils, 8 of which are Labour, will make the regional Labour Party a significant power-broker whatever the complexion of Westminster.

Clearly, if Labour suffer a wipe-out in Scotland they will be vulnerable to challenge in England not to mention Wales. Plaid Cymru is now up to around 20% support there but Labour still remains way out in front. In England, only the Green Party shows any signs of acting as an alternative on the left but would need a massive injection of support to be anything other than an irritant to Labour, mostly acting as a conduit for disaffected Lib Dems. Labour now has an iron-bound constitution preventing any challenge from disaffected members. It would require the emergence of a trade-union leader of real stature rather than jokes like ‘Red’ Leonard McCluskey to provide a genuine challenge rather like that of the Jones/Scanlon leadership of the 1970s. Disaffiliation by unions would not provide any problem except financial. It is one of the oddities of the LP constitution that the number and, indeed, membership of affiliated bodies, trade unions and societies, could drop to single figures and still have the same dominant position in elections of leader and NEC.

It also has no need of any pool of potential candidates now that Westminster politics has now become the province of a self-serving group who have chosen politics as a career and, like Tony Blair, may have chosen Labour as their vehicle largely by chance. It is significant that out the 31 members of the current shadow cabinet, less than half have ever had a proper job outside politics having climbed up the ladder via advisers to M.P.s or in various lobbying groups. And that is counting solicitors as a proper job. The days of stalwarts like Prescott or Blunkett, who learnt their trade in trade unions or local authorities whilst holding down other jobs, are past.

And yet. The main result of the May election will be conformation of the growing contempt which much, perhaps most, of the electorate has for Westminster politicians. Under 20% of it, possibly even less, will have voted for the party which will claim the right to form a national government.  If Labour is that party it will do so on the basis of being essentially a regional organisation rather than a national one. It will proceed to act in a way which the majority of its membership will have reservations about. It would be difficult to describe a more unstable political scenario. It would be pleasant to envisage a future in which this was recognised by the leadership of the main parties and there was a consensus to push through the reforms necessary to reduce this instability. But this is not how either Labour of the Tories behave. There will be frenetic back-stairs manoeuvring in May, much making of deals and counting heads. But there exists neither leadership nor will to do anything than ramp up the already dismissive contempt with which most people view Westminster. Could Labour collapse in England as it has seemingly done in Scotland? Could the Green Party strike some kind of political alliance with the Scot Nats, Plaid Cymru and odd fragments of the English left such as Yorkshire First and the Trade Union and Socialist Alliance (aka Militant of yesteryear) to form some kind of emergent democratic left party to take its place?  Even writing such a sentence seems to provide its implicit answer. But something is going to change. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Peter Lawrence writes:

Some 35 years ago, I wrote a book chapter entitled ‘Is the Party Over?’[i] which was an attempt to critique the idea and relevance of the Leninist vanguard party. As the title implies, it argued for the demise of the vanguard party (the model for the then highly influential Communist Party to which I belonged, as well as for its various Trotskyist competitors on the Marxist-Leninist left), in favour of one which would coordinate socialist and other progressive activists involved across a range of struggles.  In so doing, it would provide a home for many who had hitherto felt excluded because of a lack of interest in the issues that concerned them. (One example I gave was the Ecology Party, the earlier name of the Green Party.)  A party which would be inclusive, coordinating and democratic in organisation might also, so I argued, lead to similar developments within the Labour Party which would begin to shed its suspicions of movements it did not dominate and turn it much more into a campaigning organisation to mobilise public support for sustained progressive change.  

Fast forward to 2015, and the Communist Party has morphed into a minor Stalinist sect, while the other ‘vanguard’ groupings such as the SWP, remain small and marginally influential.  The Green Party has grown in membership and influence, gained 1 MP and three MEPs and now threatens Labour.  It is both a campaigning and electoral party now having to come to terms with the diversity of its appeal, which gives it campaign strength, and a set of divergent policies which reflects its diverse appeal. In Scotland, the SNP threatens to wipe out Scottish Labour MPs while the Labour Party, on the other hand, remains an electoral organisation whose performance in government has differed marginally from that of the Tories, still its main competitor, and continues to shy away from becoming a campaigning party which seeks to mobilise popular support for progressive policies. 

Prior to 1966, voting Labour felt like a positive act in the cause of building a democratic socialist society. However timid the Labour governments were, the leadership spoke about planned economies, distribution of income and wealth and the importance of protecting workers against unscrupulous employers. Even when Labour came back to government in 1974, there was a sense such a government was a necessary if not sufficient condition for building democratic socialism. Even more so in 1997, after 18 years of Tory rule, there was no question about where a socialist would put the X on the ballot paper – vote Labour not least to get the Tories out, but also because this was the nearest we could get to a socialist government. In the intervening period socialists have found it increasingly difficult to put that X by the Labour candidate. Holding your nose and voting Labour for fear of something worse was the most positive thing that could be said in favour of such an action.  In 2015, the smell associated with the Labour Party is becoming so strong that holding your nose will not be enough. Labour has become another political career path to high office and then to co-option by the corporate sector with commensurate financial rewards. Yet still we will agonise until the last minute about whether to desert Labour and vote Green (the only realistic alternative) and risk another five years of a government dedicated to advancing the interests of the plutocracy and impoverishing a large proportion of the 99%, or whether to vote Labour to avoid the worst excesses of the Tories.

But will Labour in government, avoid the worst excesses of the Tories? Maybe. Labour, having bought the fiction that austerity is the only way out of the crisis, has already promised to cut public expenditure and eliminate the budget deficit, but not as fast as the Tories. So what would this mean in practice? Maybe the removal of the ‘bedroom tax’, maybe a slower rate of cuts, maybe a marginal reduction in unemployment, maybe some capital expenditure on infrastructure, though even the Tories plan the latter, possibly a higher rate of tax for the rich, possibly a version of the mansion tax that actually hits those who engage in property trading for speculation. Well, better than nothing, and for some people and families, critical, but still not addressing the key problem of British capitalism – its domination by large financial corporates, who effectively determine what governments can do.

The current fuss about whether Labour is pro or anti-business is a case in point. The current crisis was, at its root, caused by the Tory financial liberalisation of the 1980s. Financial corporates gambled away huge amounts of depositors’ money and took control over the non-financial sector. So what did the Labour government do but rescue these failed institutions and now they are back gambling with our deposits which if they lose the bets, are anyway guaranteed by the Government!  Miliband has talked about ‘predator capitalism’ which is certainly what it is, but he hasn’t said what he plans to do about it. Meanwhile the very business friendly shadow chancellor Balls has been heard to say at a private business function ‘You might hear anti-City sentiment from Ed Miliband but you’ll never hear it from me.’[ii] Yet it is the City itself that is and has always been the key problem for the UK economy and it is the activities of the banks and finance houses that populate the square mile and that Thatcher liberated with the Big Bang, over 30 years ago that caused the crisis.

So here we have it. The coalition has provided Labour with an open goal which the party constantly misses. Is it because they are afraid to shoot for fear of alienating voters who are unlikely to vote for them anyway? Is it because they don’t want to shoot because they believe in a strong financial sector?  Or is it because they know that they need the financial sector onside because it can bring governments down and they don’t know how to mobilise popular support for a policy that would bring the City under control.  If there is a lesson from the past, it is that appeasing the City simply strengthens it, and getting the City out of trouble, as Labour did in the financial crisis, loses you elections because the City has plenty of opinion formers who can shift the blame onto the Government and get away with it.
Must Labour die or must it change in order to stay alive? If there is a lesson from what is happening in Greece and Spain, it is that it is possible for ‘left wing’ political formations of a new type to emerge from popular activity involving different groups and movements. In the case of Greece, it can win an election, and start to implement its policies, though the forces of financial rectitude opposed to it, led by the ECB, are trying to prevent this. But a governing party that remains a campaigning one can retain its popular support by doing what it said it would do and mobilising the population to ensure it is done. Labour could learn from this and start to do things differently, not be afraid to take sides with the unemployed, the working poor, the inadequately housed and the food bank dependent, and link up with progressive movements which seek systemic change. That would include the Greens. But for that to happen Labour would need to be a different party and I’m not optimistic, after all those years when it missed the chance, that it can become one now.

[i] Peter Lawrence, Is the Party Over? in (ed) Mike Prior, The Popular and the Political: Essays on socialism in the 1980s, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
[ii] Patrick Jenkins, Labour steps up charm offensive on City leaders, Financial Times, February 3, 2015