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Bad journalism and Labour’s future

Labour conferenceIt seems that every time I pick up an article about the state of the Labour Party it is by a journalist who either doesn’t have a clue what he (or she) is talking about or who doesn’t care that the manner in which are describing the situation is just dishonest. The most recent example is an article by Martin Kettle over at Comment is Fatuous, about how Gordon has unleashed a “reversionary leftist mood” at Labour conference.

A much more spectacular example was last week’s (Thursday?) article in the Indy about a survey on Labourhome, thereafter taken to represent the mood of ‘Labour activists’ – which anyone familiar with Labourhome can tell you, it doesn’t, as Tom Watson MP outlines. John Harris is also at it, evidently so swept up by the Labour conference that he can really see John Denham as an embryonic leftie, should New Labour discard it’s excessive caution.

The world really does feel as though it has been turned upside down when Kettle can straightfacedly write the following:

Brown’s celebration of his interventionist actions in the financial crisis is designed to protect him from his challengers. But it has unleashed a torrent of old-time anti-capitalist rhetoric from the party in Manchester. There was a lot of it in the hall on Saturday, semi-sanctioned by the Labour leadership including Brown himself, and there was a deal more of it in last night’s Compass rally and at the union events on the fringes. And I think Brown is already worried – rightly – about what he has triggered. […]

I think Brown has realised that he has let something out of the cage that he may not be able to control.

I have several problems with this. Where is the torrent of anti-capitalist rhetoric? Have we so conceded the field to TINA that our journalists now find ‘anti-capitalist rhetoric’ amid whatever scraps are thrown by Labour ministers to conference delegates? Any mention of ‘social justice’ or (gasp) ‘redistribution’, in the age of anaemic socialist movements, now refer to an ‘anti-capitalist’ agenda. It’s frankly embarrassing that supposedly educated people are so unknowledgeable about history as that.

Secondly, what has Brown loosed from the cage and how can he not control it? There are going to be no shocks at this Labour conference – for that reason a Labour MP has come right out to say that she’s not even going to bother attending. Whatever Diane Abbott has become since, she was part of the 1970s and 80s left insurgency as it gathered pace, spurred on by the betrayals of Wilson and Callaghan. The Labour Party of today has nothing remotely so well grounded as that.

From within Labour, Gordon will face no challenge before the election, unless someone who is himself or herself a dyed-in-the-wool New Labourite manages to get the Unions on board. From outwith, Clegg is busy turning his own party rightwards to avoid slaughter in the South and Cameron and the Tories aren’t likely to jump on the anti-capitalist bandwagon in any meaningful way. For all of these, populist flirtations are a fantasy to be dispensed with once power is achieved.

The activities of Compass aren’t governed by the Party bureaucracy, and I imagine that the speakers at the Compass events were interested in keeping their own left-wing credentials intact and so directed their rhetoric accordingly. This parliament has shown Compass up in a none-too-flattering light from the point of view of those on the Left. Even the Cruddas- and Trickett-juniors are liable to succumb before a New Labour willing to pander in the interests of populism.

At the root of all of this lies an ill considered distinction: there is a long distance between “saying” and “doing” anything remotely progressive. In the case of the union fringes, again there is a huge disparity between talk and action, as anyone who reads Marsha-Jane’s blog will know full well. Talk is cheap, and only last week UNISON shied away from joint action with the NUT, UCU and PCS, probably condemning the efforts of the other unions to outright defeat.

In all these respects, Kettle has totally lost the plot. The key indication is that once again the wilderness years of 1983-1997 are regurgitated as a caution against a swing to the left. Says Kettle:

“The party lost four successive general elections while it remained committed to high taxes and tough state controls over the economy. It began to win general elections when it rethought its positions”.

I’m so sick of this concept I could vomit. The underwriting contention is that the voters don’t want high taxes and tough state controls over the economy. Without conceding the point, even if we assume this to be true, such an assertion doesn’t explain the rise of Cameron’s Tories. They aren’t playing up tax cuts and the unleashing of the free market, in fact Osborne was just saying the other day that he’s going to put stability first.

Are the public now leaning in the opposite direction? Have state controls been removed too far and do the public believe that the Tories will reassert some regulations? Not bloody likely, but that is the logical conclusion of thinking in such narrow terms as Kettle. The situation is infinitely more complex, involving the media, the changes in day-to-day life, the changing nature of industrial and political organisation and so forth.

If Labour loses the next four elections with a New Labourite / Compassite leadership, you can bet your arse these people won’t be saying that they lost for demanding too loose controls of the economy, or too low taxes. Quite the opposite; seeing the declining fortunes of their own caste within the Party, New Labourites have flown in the face of all available evidence and demanded Labour go further right, as Seumas Milne relates:

“…former minister Denis MacShane denounced the “insatiable greed of the state” for “taking the people’s money”, declaring that tax reductions, targeted especially at the “indigenous” working class, should be paid for by “cutting spending”. Then Tony Blair’s ex-speechwriter Phil Collins piled in, calling on Labour to embrace economic liberalism and treat income tax with “disdain”. Finally, the former cabinet minister Alan Milburn gave tax cutting the full Blairite benediction at the weekend”.

Honestly, I don’t know what world journalists such as the writer of the Indy piece, John Harris or Martin Kettle are living in, but it’s certainly not the world inhabited by those people who prefer politics to personalities, and who would rather fight for the soul of Labour than flirt with the notion that Brownites and Blairites might be on the cusp of a change of heart. Bearing in mind the amount of pressure they’d previously faced – millions of people in protest – rumblings from the grassroots mean nothing.

I don’t for a moment doubt that the senior heirarchy of New Labour are considering their position. The Guardian’s recent polling shows some worrying indications (at least, worrying for New Labour – the rest of us will not be so distressed to see these people go):

James Purnell and John Hutton would have gone, along with senior Blairites Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke. Jacqui Smith, Ruth Kelly, John Denham, Des Browne, Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw are projected to lose their seats.

Surprise would be the least of my emotions should I hear of anyone who genuinely wants to keep Ruth Kelly around, and I doubt many of Labour’s grassroots would fret terribly about the remainder. They are, after all, some of the most reactionary, authoritarian types ever to grace a Labour cabinet. Stewards of the database state and enemies of welfare, one and all. We’ll lose nothing by their absence. It’s the dozens of other Labour MPs, some on the Left, who’ll also go that are the problem.

Yet the result of this will no doubt be that Cruddas and Trickett and their coterie find themselves in the shadow cabinet of David Miliband, whose new Prospect article is reported to be neatly critical of the current phase of free market economics. A few more nods in that direction and the union bureaucracy may find itself wooed, and Cruddas may yet find himself deputy leader of the party. Far from being pleased with this prospect, it will probably stand squarely in the path of change.

Compass, which Trickett and Cruddas and others can use as a shield against pressure from the Left, will provide political cover for a move towards New Labour’s political position. Gordon Brown’s ‘fightback’ manoeuvres on things like a push to universal nursery school care are likely to be appropriated as the populist springboard of a Labour Party in opposition. As a result, the leadership will change almost wholesale and policy will not have to change an inch.

One cannot imagine people like Ed Balls being ousted – and nor can one imagine that he will be entirely pleased with the notion of David Miliband being accorded precedence in getting his grubby hands on the leadership. However, with so many of the ‘faces’ in the cabinet having been decimated, Miliband is the genuinely more popular figure I think.

Things may come to depend on who is left in the PLP – which will not swing appreciably left, bearing in mind those who now sit in rock-solid seats such as Rhondda, Normanton and Makerfield. This too may very well ameliorate any tendency on the part of new faces in a Labour shadow cabinet, such as Cruddas, to push for a real swing leftwards, even if they naturally have that impulse – which I don’t necessarily dispute.

Meanwhile, the real work must go on at street level. The nature of the economic situation might very well push a lot of the union leadership towards a more combative posture, if a Conservative government pushes for cuts in wages or for the restructuring of departments to make people redundant or to take on more part-timers, who are less unionized and more liable to accept less pay and worse terms.

That will be our opportunity to begin pushing people towards unions, and to enlist them once there in the fight for internal union democracy. Similarly there must be a battle to create new forms of campaigning, tying in all the smaller socialist groups now that Labour activism is barely alive in half the country. Marching in step must be a fight to link up unions branches and Labour CLPs, to make each more effective.

Whilst Labour’s leaders aren’t helping matters, having power and doing nothing constructive with it, progress is always going to be more difficult – but even from the point of view of those outside the Labour Party, these would be favourable developments. It may take ten years to erase the memory of this Labour government, just as it has with Cameron’s Tories and Major’s government. Yet these are ten years where we can replay struggles we once lost, and this time hope to win them.

  1. September 22, 2008 at 2:00 am

    I can imagine those New Labour MPs mentioned switching to the Tories a la Shaun Woodward…

    Speaking of that particular ex-Tory, he was on newsnight a few days ago talking about party loyalty. No really.

    On second thoughts, since Clarke & Milburn already have cushy corporate sinecures, they might be relieved to be kicked out of parliament…

    And what gets me about all this “lurching left” business is that the party has lost half of its membership and millions of its traditional voters – whose aspirations for social justice were denied as New Labour rimmed the rich.

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