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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.

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  1. June 3, 2009 at 1:23 am

    Loyalty is about trust.

    It’s clear the strategy of Compass with regards New Labour figures is to challenge policies rather than people. So, they’re trying to build a relationship of trust with senior politicians – yes, we will challenge your policies, but we’re not out to defeat you personally.

    So, this is why Cruddas praises the coalition of social forces which brought Labour to power in ’97 – its a narrative that encourages those loyal to New Labour to consider the need for a broad church.

    This is not dissimilar to what McDonnell did during his attempted leadership campaign – he stressed that Labour was best as a broad church and that the party had to rebuild its base of support or lose power.

    I understand that he was shafted by Cruddas and co. – they failed to back his leadership challenge. But there’s no reason to think they haven’t learned from their mistakes. A second coronation – this time of Johnson – would be ridiculous.

    So, I’d be worried if McDonnell didn’t try to engage with Compass over Labour’s future.

  2. June 3, 2009 at 5:48 am

    To whom is it clear? Several of my points – both above and in posts linked to – have been that Compass’ parliamentary group doesn’t really challenge New Labour policy. The think tank can say all it wants, but as outlined, Cruddas and his allies sound like Blair lite. How easily the soft Left seem to have forgotten what Blair sounded like before power was handed to him. Radical.

    Cruddas’ praise for the ‘coalition of social forces’ is so much chaff when compared to concrete policy issues.

    I imagine that in a future leadership struggle, the LRC will engage with Compass. Even such senior members as Susan Press are part of both organisations. But as you say, Charlie, the problem is one of trust – and from where I’m standing, Compass seem all talk and no real action.

    Moreover, if you judge they made a mistake not backing John4Leader, exactly where are you getting the idea that they think they were mistaken too? They don’t.

  3. Sam
    June 3, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Mark Steel hits the nail on the head about why the left can’t seem to get its act together:

    “The difference here must be partly that the left in the Labour Party are unmovable in their belief they should remain members, no matter how humiliated they become. If the next Labour leader was The Joker from Gotham City, and he sprayed the world with deadly laughing gas, the last choking gasp of the Labour left would be “Nonetheless Labour is the traditional party of socialism and I will remain loyal although I urge any survivors to raise this matter at the next constituency meeting”.”

  4. June 3, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Spot on with this post, Dave, though I’m (as ever) more optimistic about the chances of more short term advances within the Labour party by the Left, and the development of ‘proper’ alliances.

    Charlie, I’m not sure loyalty is about trust first and foremost. As I’m saying over at my place, this is where Hirschman’s Exit Voice and Loyalty model is really coming into its own (though some of it is a bit too public choice theory for me), in which political actors make strategic choices in their own interests. I’m not saying that the PLP does’nt have some group ethos and trust, but the last few days have been marked by the strategic calculations of many of them about when and how best to exit so as to give themselves the best chance in the future of being part of a new power base.

    As I’ve said at the Record,Purnell’s move to ally himself sooner rather than later to ‘the grassroots’ is the most surprising, while Blears (news just in as I type) is predictable enough in its shortsightedness, thinking that the new power base will be around Johnson.

    In a funny sort of way, Sam is right. The PLP masses will gather around the new Kryptonite Johnson, but going to the local CLP to talk aobut it all, and to develop new grassroots alliances (that next step, I suspect, alludes our Sam) is absolutely the right thing to do, because if we get it right, with the appropriate input from LRC and the best bits of Compass – people like Tom Miller – then there is a chancce that the grassroots spotted by Purnell as the new repository of credibility will become a proper power base.

    Why am I always the optimistic one? I’m the oldie who’s supposed to be battered and cynical.

  5. Robert
    June 3, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Love it Purnell is now seen as being left, the ass hole who has taken the welfare reforms into a new world of slavery.

    thank god I’ve left.

  6. Sam
    June 3, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Paul, don’t you get it? Mark Steel, who may be excused from his former SWP twatmanship, points out how pathetic it is you lot are still in Labour and yet try to lecture others about “the Left” or what The Left should be doing.

    My advice? Either leave the Labour party or FUCK OFF. Simple as. If you want to waste your life trying to change a party that has crapped down the throat of socialism, by all means – that’s your right. But I’d rather not see good membership money go to waste.

  7. June 3, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Sam

    I meant ‘eludes’ not ‘alludes’ of course.

    I get absolutely what you are trying to say.

    It’s hardly as though you are the first person to raise the notion that someone who considers himself to be on the left should leave the Labour party.

    What you display, though, Sam, is a very narrow view of what the Labour party is.

    Please thrrefore do try reading and ‘getting’ what I said above before insulting my intelligence.

    I’ve commented on Dave’s site previously that the choice between ‘exit’ and ‘voice’ is one that I take seriously, and at the moment my voice, and that of many within a Labour party that is far more complex than you appear to appreciate, is starting to grow, and may soon be heard. As I’ve noted, even James Purnell is taking notice(though I appreciate that that is contentious).

    I know you will it as some form of ‘cop out’, and there’s nothing I can do about that, but I don’t engage in multiple, increasingly vitriolic back-and-forths via comment boards, so I won’t be back to respond to your next barrage of abuse.

  8. June 3, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    As ever, good post, and as ever, far too much to think about in one sitting. Predictable response to faction-critique:
    1) “In no sense can Compass realistically be seen as an alternative.” Depends which side of ‘the coin’ you’re looking at. It’s clear to me that the weakness of Compass is in its parliamentary work. Yes, pluralism good, but there needs to be a minimum programme of sorts. That said, lobbying and campaign work is very good. Doesn’t matter if your campaign is open and activist led if that isn’t enough to win. It needs more. That, and the puritanism stuff, are my two issues with the LRC (there seem to be a lot of deliberate shibboleths and a conscious disdain for disagreement on most policies; their attitude is a mirror image of the weaknesses of Compass).

    I think Charlie Marks basically has us v. well described, at least, he’s described my personal view as a Compass activist. Should imagine that most others feel very much the same.

    The result of this is that Compass is highly likely to take a very different attitude to the leadership question this time round. The question is, will the LRC?

  9. June 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Isn’t this the weakness of the whole PLP Tom, excepting the LRC? I don’t mean to blow our trumpet – but the LRC group is much more disciplined from the point of view of the activists, and even its formal chairman is much more accessible than people like John Cruddas.

    In turn, I don’t think this is a difference that can simply be left floating, as though it’s a mere accident. I think the difference in inflection between the LRC and Compass is a result of different orientations and compositions; ours is to and of the working class. Compass is mixed, both the think-tank and the parliamentary group.

    As for your remark that if our campaign is open and activist led, it’s all for naught unless we win, I have two things to say. Firstly, if history has taught us anything it’s that if victory is achieved without those things, victory proves to be hollow. That is as much true for the Soviets as for New Labour.

    Secondly this: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  10. June 4, 2009 at 1:09 am

    For the record, I have not been a member of Compass for several years,

  11. June 6, 2009 at 3:19 am

    David,

    apologies for not replying earlier. So here is my reply:

    These are the sort of alliances we should be considering, rather than the stale manoeuvring between MPs of different stripe.

    I’m all for building alliances with Trade Unions, and by extension working with trade unions to build a stronger left within Labour. Not sure how that negates my point, though Trade Unions would no doubt argue that it makes more sense for them to be closer to govt than take an antagonistic approach that basically makes their life more difficult.

    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.

    Well, you do know that Compass is generally against most of these, icnluding Trident. Neal Lawson signed the letter against 42 days that I published in the Guardian. They’ve been against most of the anti-terrorism legislation and are now pushing for PR and an elected chamber etc. Do you even read Compass material?

    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.

    I’m afraid this is rather rubbish. Perhaps outside London this may be true. But most of the rallies in London were SWP organised.

    Why is George Galloway always speaking at these events? Why were the most popular banners at the anti-war march, and more recently the Gaza march, all SWP or Muslim Association of Britain (Islamist org) banners?

    This isn’t HP rhetoric since they go completely overboard. It is a fact that the StWC is primarily SWP organised, with a few Trade Unions helping out. It is not a Labour left driven movement.

    Most recently, only the Put People First march was. But that should have been a brand started years ago.

    You don’t even want an alliance with the Alan Johnson types because he proposes some degree of marketisation of the NHS. That is a separate issue, but this is my point about you not being open to any sort of compromise

    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.

    Yes yes, great words etc. But you have to realise that most people in the country are not as leftwing as you. They don’t speak the language that you do. Even the far left is split into different movements and parties, let alone being able to offer a big challenge to the centre-left.

    Let me put it this way. If you want to be an election winning coalition then you have to put together a whole range of alliances that will cobble together enough votes to win.

    You could build a strong far-left alliance, but if that’s not electorally significant then all you do is ensure in keeping the Labour party very left and thus out of power.

    Over the longer term, the only way I envisage your vision happening is if you build a strong far left coalition and then work with the centre-left to take over Labour and win an election. Once in power you’ll have to find a person charismatic enough to frame the debate so that leftwing positions are slowly bought by the public and the country shifts leftwards.

    I guess the best example is Ronald Reagan, and how the conservatives built a strong coalition outside the Republican party, did their take-over, and then got their man to frame the debates in such a way that America moved right-wards.

    So my point isnt that your ideas are bad. My point is that your strategy to get them into practice is bad. Merely relying on the Trade Unions isn’t enough. You have to find the language so ordinary people will also buy those ideas. Again, the right has people like Jon Gaunt, that guy from Top Gear, Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips and such idiots who are able to convince a big enough section of the population with their crap.

    Basically you need leftwing versions of that, in addition to the organisation offered by the Trade Unions. That is the only way you can flex some muscle and ensure the Labour party stays on side. Otherwise you’re just ranting from the sides.

    Perhaps we should discuss this all over some coffee or something when you’re in London next :)

  12. June 6, 2009 at 3:21 am

    Also, my point about loyalty was that it is sometimes important to create stability.

    Although I do think it can go too far. Right now I wish Labour MPs were more ruthless and got rid of Brown. But they refuse to be as ruthless as the Tories and we’re stuck with a lame-duck.

  13. June 6, 2009 at 6:15 am

    As the anti-war movement comment is tangential to our debate, I’ll deal with it first. Who called the demo in London is irrelevant. I feel confident in saying that most of those who showed up had nothing to do with either the SWP or the Islamists – including the thousands who marched under official trades union banners, the banners of NGOs or the banners of the other political parties. Including Labour Friends of Iraq and Labour Against War.

    If you insist on seeing the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition as the only means whereby we can assess the content of the march, well, at that time, the steering committee had representatives from groups way beyond the SWP and whatever group we might dub Islamists. I was on the Lebanon march in 2006, and I had a lot of friends on the big wahoonie in 2003 – they were of completely different consistency, though called by the same people.

    The reach of the later was fairly short. If you’re saying I’m trying to usurp the anti-war movement for the Labour Left, I’m not. On the Left there is no dominant group, and I’ve been trying to hammer that point home now for a long, long time. But there’s a difference between building alliances between those of us on the Left – in or out of Labour – and trying to co-opt someone who has supported the New Labour agenda for years. Alan Johnson isn’t remotely different from his colleagues.

    On the subject of who supports what, I read Compass material all the time. I was referring to the voting patterns of Cruddas, Trickett and others who consider themselves affiliated to the ‘Compass’ parliamentary group. My point was that the LRC generally vote how their activists want them to; Compass don’t. I’m sure that if there’s a leadership competition, and Cruddas runs, the LRC may tentatively endorse him – but we shouldn’t expect great things for a variety of reasons, which I’ve expounded upon at length.

    As for the sort of alliances, we should be considering, why do you immediately run towards trades unions? A paragraph of my article above suggests that this approach is doomed because trades union leadership are just as jaded as New Labour.

    Local trades unionists, single-issue activists, even people one meets on the doorstep – if we tie these groups together we can build the sort of resource pool that could fight local issues and win. Fighting from the Left, not from the opportunist position of New Labour, who want to be against hospital closures with one hand and to close them with the other.

    The whole ‘personalities’ thing will never work for the Left; for multiple reasons. First of all, the media is right-wing and chooses its commentariat darlings accordingly. The witterings of people like Melanie Phillips often logically contradicts itself within the same page – but editors don’t care about quality, they care about bile. And the right has plenty of it.

    Are you really saying we should recruit someone who spew the same badly-reasoned, jingoistic crap in the other direction?

  14. June 7, 2009 at 1:14 am

    To second what David has said, Compass literature I totally agree with. They’ve produced some great work on the future of public services and the Royal Mail, but their two affiliated MPs haven’t always been consistent in voting with their conscience and defying the leadership.

  15. June 9, 2009 at 12:59 am

    If you insist on seeing the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition as the only means whereby we can assess the content of the march, well, at that time, the steering committee had representatives from groups way beyond the SWP and whatever group we might dub Islamists.

    But this is precisely my point – no it doesn’t. In fact most of the anti-war marches I went to after the big one, as well the ones afterwards like the Lebanon and then the Gaza marches were overrun by the SWP types rather than Trade unions and other groups.

    I’m actually saying that the Labour-left did very little to capture and galvanise that anger out of the war, and on foreign policy. The SWP have taken full advantage, and nearly built an electoral vehicle out of it too.

    I don’t think what I’m saying is particularly controversial.

    I was referring to the voting patterns of Cruddas, Trickett and others who consider themselves affiliated to the ‘Compass’ parliamentary group.

    Well, voting isn’t the only way to judge an MP. Cruddas says a lot outside of the voting patterns that suggests he isn’t buying Nu Labour drivel. Trickets resigned over 42 days of course. And Compass itself is generally on track even if the affiliated MPs don’t vote with the activists.

    Which means that you could still work with the Compass group and its base, while ignoring the fact that its MPs don’t vote with you, until you build a significantly big enough block of activists. No?

    Local trades unionists, single-issue activists, even people one meets on the doorstep – if we tie these groups together we can build the sort of resource pool that could fight local issues and win.

    Can you point me to some successful examples?

    Are you really saying we should recruit someone who spew the same badly-reasoned, jingoistic crap in the other direction?

    I’m saying if you can’t convince ordinary people who don’t spend a lot of time reading politics of your ideas, what hope do you have? Mark Thomas is perhaps the person best personified by this. But he votes Green. You need more people like that. People like Billy Bragg. People who can connect. Not just those who can ride 5000 word essays. That is a serious problem for the left.

  16. June 9, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Voting is precisely the only way to judge an MP, and even if it wasn’t, I think I’ve spent plenty of time on this site parsing Jon Cruddas’ words. He’s New Labour-lite. He may be an improvement on where we are now, in the same way that New Labour were an improvement on the Tories – but if we don’t play the longer game now, then we’re doomed to repeat the previous twelve years about ten to fifteen years from now.

    I am in favour of working with Compass and its base and I have said so. My problem is that Compass, whilst gearing up for single-issue campaigns, has no broad-ranging critique that properly orientates it towards the long-term struggle. On the part of its members, this is substituted by an almost uncritical favouritism towards Jon Cruddas, and an almost hyper-critical revulsion over the LRC.

    The other thing is that while I favour working with Compass activists, many Compass activists worry me – in style, tone and content. Some of them seem increasingly desperate, following the collapse of New Labour, to seize the centre ground. And many of them seem worryingly blasé about the behaviour of their so-called parliamentary group.

    It doesn’t bode well for a future Compass-led Labour government.

    On the subject of local campaigns which we can win, yes of course I can. In Northern Ireland, the water taxes campaign. So successful was it that the four major parties capitulated their earlier support for the water taxes and the direct rule ministers were forced to call a moratorium on its introduction.

    If you prefer English examples, Richard Taylor’s campaign – which tied in minority parties and all sorts – is an example. This campaign isn’t as activist orientated as I would like – but there are other promising means of campaigning, such as Trades Union-led attempts to secure better terms and conditions for immigrant workers and the actions of various minority parties and pressure groups on the deportation of individuals to countries where their safety will be endangered.

    Finally in this regard, I would add that I’m advocating tying all these groups together because it’s not done enough, and it is one of the major tactical deficiencies of the Left in my view. I’m speaking from local experience, having witnessed English towns with and without district trades councils, with and without a major political activist base etc.

    These are reasons why at the last election Oxford bucked the national trend, with a major slice of the working class vote returning to Labour and throwing IWCA councillors out.

    Lastly but not least, on the subjects of a “Left-wing” Melanie Phillips, I think we operate from two different premises. I am of the belief that we must achieve everything inspite of the Press. Populist Left nonsense from the old Mirror or even the old Sun didn’t prevent the great swing towards the Right.

    We don’t need to reach people via the media; the media is how activists and the politically conscious talk to each other. We can reach people via what we do, what we achieve. We can have branches in every work-place. Community groups in every neighbourhood. Political meetings in every town and city. The Right can’t do this because the political motivations of the right run perpendicular to the interests of the working class.

    Ours don’t.

  1. June 3, 2009 at 10:18 am

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