There has been a lot said, mostly by Labour Party hacks, about the Party ‘renewing itself in government’ – a catch-all phrase encompassing the changeover between Blair and Prescott with Brown and Harman, a way to reverse the sliding scales of popularity and a new method of saying we’ll do something for the poor without actually scaring the CBI and their associated allies.
For Vernon Bogdanor there is only one route to a turn-around. Labour must tread the very ‘third way’ New Labour was originally set up to find, within the ‘golden straightjacket’ of globalisation theorized by that noted social commentator T.L. Friedman. Anything else and we might be indulging in the fatalism so ill-regarded by our friend over at Cole Not Dole. Heaven forfend.
I prefer a different explanation for the seeming fatalism of so many Labour supporters after the last year, or indeed since the advent of the 1997 Labour government. It is the natural response on the part of Party members when they don’t like where the government is going but can’t see any way to change the direction of Party and government, at least prior to the next election.
On the other hand, it can also be a byproduct of the stasis into which Labour is descending amidst increasingly hostile reception by every quarter of the media and the gaping fissure existing between the different sections of the popular alliance knit together by young politicians and their professional electioneering machine, on the back of overwhelming antipathy to the Tories, to overthrow an ageing government.
I fear that renewal in government is a forlorn hope when faced with a government floundering, caught, as it were, between two masters and able to please neither. Without challenging the overarching weltanschaung of Thatcherism, there is little the government can do to combat the intrinsic disorders of the free market except withdraw even further from duties on things like fuel. Up with that most people would not put.
If I am fatalistic, it is an explicitly political position; I do not want to see Gordon Brown re-elected. What James Purnell and the other members of this Cabinet have laid out is a reactionary, Conservative agenda and it may as well be Conservatives enacting it under their own banner. At least then when we point to the class enemy, New Labourites will have adopted a radical guise and will help us try to tear down that enemy.
What worries me most is that at the next election, good parliamentarians will suffer because of their party political allegiance, even though those parliamentarians have fought as hard as possible within the constraints of one Party against all the things which are now coming back to haunt Labour. A five-figure majority may not protect men like John McDonnell, or even soft figures like Bob Marshall-Andrews.
That is enough to rouse me from any fatalism to the point where I feel the need to travel up to Gillingham or Hayes and Harlington to campaign. Even that, however, will not be enough for those of less nuanced political view. No few people I know, still loosely connected with the Party via Co-operative societies and the appertaining social network, think of the entire PLP as only somewhat to the left of Mussolini.
Marxists like myself often get attacked for economic reductionism or a fatalism induced by an imputed sense of the inevitable fall of capitalism. Perhaps I should in turn attack Professor Bogdanor for his reduction of ‘renewal’ apropos governments to some transhistorical concept wherein a Party must seek its Canaan of new policies and new ideas that will give its discourse, whether left or right, new life.
More fitting, I think, would be to gleefully accept the challenge to ‘renew Labour in government’ whilst categorically rejecting the methods whereby the Party autocracy has decreed that I can make my voice heard: the National Policy Forum, NEC elections, Leadership elections and (one might issue a harsh laugh) national conference. Renewal for this government means root and branch reform of all these things.
Yet that is a reform of which it is incapable – compelled by its own inner logic and the class forces which have shaped it out of the defeats of the 1980s. Unable to go back, the other choice is to become ever-more like the Tories, as the Party has done under Brown’s leadership, inevitably marching towards the final showdown with its own inconsistencies. That these inconsistencies, as seemingly impersonal as avenging Furies, now threaten to rip the Party apart is not the result of fatalism on members’ part, but it might seem like Fate.
The world must seem a dismal place for Gordon Brown right now – the vultures are very obviously circling. Even what he wears and where he goes on holiday are now the subject of political speculation from the vapid morons who populate various corners of the media. Yet even the more respectable corners of the political world are obviously in ferment. Gordon Prentice has called for Brown’s resignation and the very state of Labour’s disintegration in office is calling into question whether or not the Party itself can be saved.
I find the Prentice call for Brown’s resignation to be relevant because far from being just another backbench idiot seeking his fifteen minutes in the spotlight, Prentice serves on the Public Accounts Committee. This means that Prentice has been in the front line of government oversight, whether listening to the disingenuous answers of Dawn Primarolo or watching millions of wasted pounds walk out the door to consultants. Not for nothing has this chap voted against foundation schools and hospitals.
It’s very easy for the chairman of the Party, Tony Lloyd, to dismiss Prentice as unrepresentative of the rest of the parliamentary Labour Party. Doesn’t anyone stop to think that self-same PLP was basically hand-picked by the leadership precisely for their excellent quality of following in a docile fashion to their own slaughter?
The result within the Labour Party is pretty evident; a ‘leadership’ candidate to replace Brown has apparently emerged in the figure of Jack Straw. More than likely this is only a candidate in the sense that John Redwood was a threat to John Major. Much more promising is the re-emergent candidacy of John McDonnell, and the John4Leader 2008 campaign. Owen Jones and Marsha-Jane Thompson have been circulating different emails via Facebook and email lists.
John McDonnell himself has made a new run for leader conditional (though I say that almost ironically) on the outcome of the Warwick University negotiations of the National Policy Forum, and whether or not they adopt a radical departure from current New Labour doctrine. John has said that “Warwick 2 may contain some very limited advances in the preparation of a policy agenda that could limit the damage to our party at the next election but it is equally clear that it does not go anywhere near enough.”
On the other hand, anything remotely like an advance will be balanced by acceptance of the government’s agenda in things like welfare reform. For the record we really need a new way to describe what goes on when the government makes inroads into welfare; it’s no more ‘reform’ than using a wrecking ball to knock down the Houses of Parliament is ‘reform.’ I’m still of the opinion that we’re going to get screwed at the next election but Warwick throws up some difficult issues.
As in 1983, when by the time of the election, the Party heirarchy was once again firmly in control, whatever people say about it being a left wing manifesto, Warwick 2 will present the hacks of New Labour with an opportunity to spin our oncoming electoral annihilation as the result of selling out to ‘unelected trade union barons’ as Nigel Willmott describes them in the article linked to at the end of my opening paragraph. Not a heartening thought, to be sure – but no doubt the Nick Cohens of the world wouldn’t object too much.
In short, my patience with the Labour Party is rapidly becoming exhausted. As a machine for electoral victory it can still pull off some surprise results – but the very fact that our greatest electoral success over the last year was Oxford City Council, heartland of political hackery, worries me. John McDonnell’s campaign for a 2008 victory as Labour leader seems like the last gasp of a left-wing which is rapidly running out of options as the supposedly ‘social-democratic’ Brown moves further right than Blair
The general trend of abandonment of the Labour Party will eventually kill the soul of the Party, bent and battered as that may be. The only way to reverse that trend is to start giving power back to members – and not in the formless OMOV manner so beloved by the leadership: but through a democratic and binding conference, where delegates are chosen by constituencies and aren’t hounded by leadership lickspittles and confronted with the representatives of world capitalism.
Warwick 2, whatever it might achieve, isn’t going to deliver that – so as far as I’m concerned, game on.
I got a real taste of the Lambeth conference last night from various clerics, translators and lecturers who I had the chance to talk to at some length. Myself and a friend were sitting at our table outside of Marlowes on the high street and these people sat at a neighbouring table. Overhearing their conversation about gay bishops and women bishops both myself and my friend felt compelled to intervene.
Many, many bottles of red wine later the Bishop of Botswana was arguing the gender of the Greek word ‘sophia’ and about how we are all African. Two translators were facing a harangue, for such it should properly be called, from me on the subject of communism and the fourth of their party was listening and laughing to my American soldier friend utterly pan Barak Obama. It was some night.
More people should have nights like that – and I’m glad that, living in Canterbury, I got the opportunity to have a long discussion with people evidently of good education and deep life experience. However even within that conversation was buried the weaknesses which I’ve come across in religious arguments from all faiths; the inability to clinch their argument rationally, but the unwillingness to dismiss or abridge rationality.
One of the translators jumped the chasm and went all the way to postmodernism; the idea of completely relative interpretations no doubt appeals to the religious because it absolves them from having to ground the wackier of their opinions in reasoning. Indeed my assault on this got to such a point that one of the translators resorted to ‘the source of light’ in every individual and the ‘choice’ to see it or not.
That was the basis of her argument that we all must be religious regardless of our views – because there is an (unquantifiable) ‘something missing’ from those who are not. Now obviously I couldn’t accept that and as the night was wearing on, the two translators parted company with the rest of the group whilst the others were continuing their various discussions. Social justice, political advocacy in an Anglican context and the nationality of the early church fathers all featured there somewhere or other.
It was certainly one of the more interesting nights I’ve had here in Canterbury. It has left me with the view that altogether too many young people struggling to get to grips with oppression in the modern world start off from very faulty premises with regard to the potential for alternative movements. Not enough of them are well-informed about the very nature of a socialist model of society nor about why the nature and origins of society, the economy or even our perceptions about human nature.
A revolutionary party, were we to build one, would almost certainly have to move outside the comfort zones of big cities and into the south of England to start winning such people to the cause of socialism. Maybe the very act of winning them will begin to turn the intellectual tide once more to a leftward direction, where the relativism of postmodernism will surrender to that which it was designed to fight: the materialism of Marx.
One of the most enduring stereotypes of that heterogeneous bunch who go by the name of ‘revolutionaries’ is that they are middle class, from stable backgrounds and that in truth the very idea of being radical is a youthful, incomprehensible reaction against the cloying atmosphere of a home in which daddy and mummy really did love one another. Often this stereotype can translate as a disrespect for ‘intellectuals’ who talk about the working class and how to ‘fix’ society.
Even within the Labour Party, there are those who attack any notion that in order to explain the experiences of everyday life and to render social, political and economic experience cogent, one might be forced to depart from using the everyday language of ‘common sense.’ These attitudes have their inverse also; many revolutionaries whom I have known railed against listening to classical music as a bourgeois taste, a capitulation to mainstream opinion, as though their grunge was a protest.
I’ve never felt akin to either of these attitudes, being an ardent lover of classical (or properly ‘western art’) music, apart from baroque which is just so tedious, and also being something of an intellectual – at least by the standards of those people I’ve debated with on Labour Members’ Net. Yet I’ve always wondered whether or not these attitudes are developed as a result of the culturally lacking proletariat from which these elements emerge.
That might seem snobby, to imply that as a general rule the working class in this country lack culture, but then no one who teaches outside of grammar or private schools can argue that any significant proportion of our children or their parents seem like well-educated sorts. Perhaps that’s an indictment of the examination-focused education system but even were our system different, in day-to-day life people aren’t encouraged to study or talk about abstract knowledge or theories of art or music.
Nothing says that in enjoying this sort of thing, we should exclude simpler forms of art such as the absolutely hilarious LOLCat Bible or that relating to each other on the level of daily experience would become obsolete. Yet the purpose, in my view, of a communistic society would be to broaden the experience of the masses and lift the level of common knowledge above the merely technical, which we need to get by, towards the vistas of philosophy achieved only by a minority under hitherto existing forms of society.
In Soviet Russia, the opposition to the broadening of education in what could be considered the dominant forms of bourgeois culture was known as Proletkult, short for Proletarian Culture. One of Trotsky’s major essays, Literature and Revolution, was aimed against that strand of thought – and for all the snobbery one might wish to perceive in a diagnosis that suggests the working class could be better educated, I’m forever encouraged by the lofty goal expressed by Trotsky of ‘levelling up’ the working class.
We might find some relevance in that in a country where we are constantly complaining about the dumbing down of the BBC, the collapse of education standards and any number of other ways we have of suggesting that we’re not achieving anything like that powerful, earth-moving vision of a future which men had ninety years ago. Miners’ reading groups might be gone, the political education officer in CLPs might get little traction but it is our duty for fight for the education of the working class, not merely to pass the buck to private institutions.
I’ve always wondered about the extent to which New Labourites actually believe in the tripe they talk about, and correspondingly the extent to which it is a self-serving attempt to ingratiate themselves with the thriving current amongst the Labour Party leaders. For David Blunkett at least I think that has now been answered, and it can be heard by anyone who likes on the Fabian Society website, through an interview released on July 24th.
Blunkett is complaining that there has not been enough progress made in reforming university access and admissions standards or in restructuring grants to local government in order to counteract poor take up of post-16 education and HE amongst the poorer sections of society. Amongst other things, Blunkett speaks up for private schools and finally he wanders off into the realms of debate on what class is and how it has changed.
Not unnoticed were his barbs about dragging the University of Oxford into the 21st Century, and therein lies a classic example of New Labour dissemblance. The reforms touted by the government and all but rammed down the throat of Congregation, not to mention bought hook-line and sinker by the effete wannabes of the Students Union, were basically an attempt to wrest control of the university from its own democratic procedures.
It was an attempt to legitimize the government’s continued under-funding of Higher Education. Rather than create a progressive tax or at-source charge aimed directly at the 50% of Oxford students who come from private school backgrounds for the purposes of redistribution via bursaries and replicate this across the “top five universities” which Blunkett was attacking, the government would prefer to portray the entire university as backward-looking, crotchety old men.
As for this ridiculous idea that take up of post-16 education will increase merely because more money is being spent in ways other than via local government LEAs, it’s really just more of the same: not “education, education, education” but “academies, academies, academies.” The preposterous contention implicitly stated in the idea that all private school kids are confident enough to achieve university places, even “the thick ones”, is that we must hand over state education to private initiatives.
It’s utter bollocks; try smaller classroom sizes, teachers who actually know and love their subject – attracted by a healthy working environment and sufficient remuneration as to justify seeking qualifications in the higher reaches of higher education. All of those are in short supply in the university courses and in the schools which I’ve had the chance to observe over the last year. A teacher can’t teach if they’re bluffing their way out of not knowing something, but neither can a teacher teach if their audience is thirty kids, half of which were up all night on a PlayStation.
Once we actually manage to achieve that, then working people might get a somewhat better deal when it comes to education. Yet we should also stop deluding ourselves about the wider ramifications of this; we might bemoan the slip of the sciences or other subjects such as economics (recently mentioned by the BBC) but we’re not going to get anywhere until the government gets serious about the creation of a highly skilled, high-value added manufacturing sector workforce – and gets the unions involved with such a plan.
Then you might see kids who can only envision themselves as beauticians, as its one of the few forms of stable employment they feel they can reach, changing their tune slightly. Mr Blunkett would probably have a coronary at such a suggestion; after all, this government loves any type of clunking-fisted centralization except economic. We’ll not be counting on the Conservatives for it either. Perhaps our methods of protecting ourselves from immigrants should be extended to include a sign at ports and airports: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
An American soldier friend let me listen to some of his pro-war music last night and one track that stuck in my head was Clint Black’s “I-raq and Roll,” the lyrics of which can be found here and which can be listened to here. Apart from being so ridiculously catchy that I’ve been singing it all day, possibly leading any listeners to think I’m the worst sort of social-patriot, the song is interesting by the context it provides to the debates on the Iraq war.
Whenever the cultural historians, that insipid half-breed of political opportunist and pretentious ideologue, are let loose upon American history of the present day one of the things they are bound to flag up is the masculine archetype portrayed by this song. Present in most of the films, books and music of any cultural worth from the USA is the vision of a man as aspiring to self-sufficiency and set in contrast to the highfalutin intellectual.
In everything from Stephen King’s novels, which invariably have some semi-damaged but ruggedly independent male figure in Maine, to the attitudes towards homosexuality amongst high society in Savannah, Georgia, there is a picture of what a male should be, regardless of class. It is startling by its very consistency across all these different forms of cultural expression, from “Salem’s Lot” to John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” to the lyrics of country and western songs.
Many of these expressions are also, perhaps unwittingly, self-contradictory. Some of Clint Black’s music focuses on the need for a man to go his own way, whether in love or whatever, but forming a context to this sentiment is talk about repossession by the banks, how hard a life it is to make a living from the ground and rising prices. The elements of the superstructure of capitalism are visible even when one tries to be walled off from it by constructing a world where the basis of causality is the character of the individual.
Stephen King, too, in his books often mention how his characters don’t much like the anti-Vietnam war protesting types but never fails to suspect that the government is intent on screwing people over. With King there is always an added element of whimsy because his stories are often lifted straight out of the housewife’s equivalent of the Fortean Times. Even still, the dichotomy exists through most of King’s books that I have read and I can’t help but feel that it is at once caused by and the cause of major social issues in the USA.
The American working class has rarely been its own master; even in the days of the IWW, the great railway and cargo corporations largely controlled the lives of millions of American workers and could break whole communities by announcing decisions based on the irrefutable logic of their logistic needs. This dualism in American cultural expression is symptomatic of that: where even the rudiments of workers’ organisation has failed, there is a retreat into a powerful individualism.
This is cultivated for political purposes by the Republican Party, which preaches small government to feed the anxiety of the average worker, who is basically taught that big government means big taxes and that this will threaten jobs. When you’re living on a knife edge, when American corporations can bulldoze right through you and your colleagues with no consideration other than their profit margin, a claim by anyone that they’ll make the US more competitive is like a siren call.
Yet the cultural expressions of this trend in American society also bear some responsibility because they validate it. They espouse man as a free agent whilst disingenuously demonstrating that human agency is at times subject to the determinism of things outside the control of the individual; leaving that demonstration implicit makes it even worse because it justifies the replication of this unthinking dismissal by those who take country and western music or other popular media to heart.
Britain during the Great Depression had a stout working class movement that very occasionally showed its teeth, and the increasing tempo of industrial and political disputes during that era are clear signs that corporations and the government were finding it harder than ever to cope. As a result, despite high unemployment, strikes and the Jarrow march created a response amongst the cultural elite who were compelled in the direction of socialism.
J.B Priestley’s works are an excellent example, and further removed but definitely influenced by his growing up through those years was R.F. Delderfield’s “To Serve Them All My Days.” The inimitable Bernard Shaw and his Fabian contemporaries don’t even need to be mentioned. There is a stark contrast between Britain and the USA in those respective eras, but I think it is evident that the missing ingredient, so to speak, is a powerful working class movement in the USA.
Whereas a strong socialist movement kept the distance between intellectual and worker quite narrow, via the Marxist concept of praxis and the average workplace being more relaxed about political chat, in America the remoteness of the so-called ‘liberal elite’ makes it easy to distrust. In times of hardship, when there is no workable alternative from the left, distrust turns to scapegoating. The vagaries of the capitalist economic cycles mean that this attitude can face a backlash whenever the Republicans manage to screw up, but even such populist waves have to crest and break and finally recede.
Unfortunately I can’t magically generate a working class movement in the USA, nor even inspire one from behind this keyboard, but with the coming economic troubles all over the world, the economic and political forces at work in this country may attempt to speed their attacks on the organisations of the working class. This is something we need to guard against and to actively fight if we are not to find ourselves in the position of the people of the USA: our military effectively conquering the world while we’re too busy trying to stave off unemployment.
There’s not much else to be said, following the defeat of Labour in the Glasgow by-election: the SNP have traditionally performed better than is their usual in by-elections, but that won’t bring much comfort to Labour. It is a damning indictment of the current direction of the government that a seat which basically has Labour stamped on it has gone down to Scottish nationalists.
Of course the Conservatives have been there to turn the whole show into hyperbolic farce with such comments as, “Labour is mired in failure. Throughout the UK it is the Conservatives who are setting the political agenda.” One really has to ask when politicians will get a sense of perspective. The Conservatives came a distant third place. But they’re setting the agenda ‘throughout the UK”? Do piss off.
I wonder is anyone in Downing Street even listening though?