Loyalty in politics
The impending resignations of Jacqui Smith and Tom Watson from their ministerial positions throws into sharp relief the issue of loyalty, which Sunny Hundal brought up in the previous thread on John McDonnell. Two famed Brownite loyalists are to step down, and it may be that Alistair Darling – one of Brown’s closest cronies – is to join them. Gordon Brown’s government has lasted almost two years and seems on the verge of disintegrating in ignominy, deserted by the Guardian, the chattering classes and not least, the voters. Yet it was the passivity of Labour MPs which put Brown into power, rather than call a leadership election.
Since then, it has been the passivity of Labour MPs which has continued at whiles the farces of extended detention periods, ID cards and well-paid bankers who transferred to the civil payroll following the collapse of their banks. Not to mention multiple failures of parliamentary oversight, the continuance of a ridiculous ministerial code which has not restricted the swinging door between public and private sector and reform of the constitution and expenses systems which are still stuck in neutral. Rather than working together, Labour MPs have been content to allow policy to remain solely the purview of the government, and go through the lobbies as and when required.
There are a few exceptions. The organisation Compass, for example, brings together activists, parliamentarians and thinkers in attempts to discuss potential policy ideas. On the other side of that coin, the man widely considered to be the leader of Compass (even though it has no real ‘leader’) often sounds just as Blairite as the for-real Blairites. Plenty of members of Compass’ ‘parliamentary group’ are loyalists, in the sense that they nominated Brown and repeatedly vote for government policy. The anti-terrorism laws; the ID cards; even such basic things as an elected second chamber of Parliament. In no sense can Compass realistically be seen as an alternative.
For my maintenance of this point of view, I am indicted by Sunny for having a Puritanical streak. If we want to build a coalition, Sunny says, we need to work with others of different political axes. I have no trouble accepting that, but on the other hand, ten more years of the type of politics we’ve seen for the last ten will kill the Labour Party. That is the sort of politics necessarily envisioned by trying to forge alliances within the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is essentially a lame duck stuffed with lobby fodder. Even an alliance with MPs like Cruddas, who are charismatic speakers, is rendered difficult by his tendency to sound Blair-lite.
Alliances from the top will never work. Just how true this is has been highlighted by Dave Osler’s recent article on the CWU. Dave claims that should the CWU leave Labour, it will simply result in the depoliticisation of the union, rather than its reorganisation around some other group to the left of Labour. Which is probably true; the political will of CWU leadership is neither clear nor strong. However, Dave neglects to point out the advantages that could be had from the point of view of local politics if the CWU were to free up its branches to endorse political campaigns of their choice. The RMT and FBU both permit this, or have in the past at any rate.
These are the sort of alliances we should be considering, rather than the stale manoeuvring between MPs of different stripe. Such manoeuvring operates on biased principles, bearing in mind the extent to which the NEC can influence selections, and just how much better funded ‘New Labour’ selection campaigns often are at Constituency level. Local alliances would begin to counterbalance superior New Labour organisation and funding, not to mention might have some beneficial effects on Labour’s profile, by affiliating our image once again with workers’ struggling for their needs, rather than with parliamentary sophistry and plush ministerial cars and allowances.
Sunny goes on to say that of course he would want more Labour MPs to rebel, but the fault is ours (‘we’ being the secular Left) for not organising pressure that Labour MPs would respond to. This is a valid point, except rather hamfistedly made, including reference to how the anti-war movement was largely “SWP and Islamist friends” – a notion which is pure unadulterated bunkum. The mass movement that was built over the war was built by NGOs, other minor political parties and had the full backing of the trades union movement. In Belfast at least, the march had nothing to do with Islamists and was overwhelmingly white – and what I saw of the other regional demoes was the same.
Once we’ve got past the “Harry’s Place” style narrative, it’s true that the divorce between the masses and the Labour Party has reduced the ability of political movements to influence internal Labour Party politics. However, that’s far from being purely the fault of the secular Left. Indeed, the collapse of internal democracy within Labour is as much part of the Thatcherite backlash against socialism as the laws restricting trades union rights or the attempts to break the NUM. New Labour is the unhappy successor to a Labour Party that was forcibly sterilised from the top down, abandoned many of its core constituents and subsequently began to wither at local level, now dying a death in many areas.
The reason that only RESPECT was left to issue a challenge for seats at the 2005 elections is simply that the moral authority of Labour had not by that stage been completely exhausted. This may now change, but I suspect that Sunny would run a mile from any electoral alternative to Labour simply by virtue of the fact that those most interested in establishing one are activists, may be regarded as somewhat puritanical of view (by which I mean ‘left-wing’, rather than the preferred and fashionable ‘centre-left’) and would be utterly crucified by the media and have scorn heaped upon it by various other groupuscules of the Left for whatever reason.
As I’ve outlined above, the effectiveness of any such group could only be enhanced by the ability to link in at local level to trades union interests (beyond merely one union, which is primarily based in London). That’s something that will take years of patient work.
None of this will be changed by alliances between MPs – certainly not with people like Alan Johnson, who are the standard bearers of a marketised NHS and other such preposterous schemes. I have sincere doubts whether the craven loyalty of many MPs can ever be challenged and the centralisation of power within the Labour Party reversed at all, but we need to recognize that for many MPs, changing these things would be anathema. The Brownites and Blairites have enjoyed and continue to enjoy hegemony over Party institutions – and perhaps not even a national economic disaster and completely discrediting expenses scandal will remove their vice-like grip.
Alliances with such people would therefore be worse than useless. It may now be down to years of patient work, and network building, to establish an alternative to Labour; this work needs to grow deep social roots rather than taking the quick route of allying with groups that have marginally better policies than New Labour and the benefits of a media profile. This has less to do with policies, though that must inevitably have a role, and more to do with styles of politics; popular and open versus insular and media-focussed, which is the difference between the Left and the Right in the Labour Party, between the Labour Representation Committee and pretty much any other group in Labour.