Monday, August 17, 2015

Hard labour

Here are two pieces that go beyond the superficiality of much of the debate around the Labour Party leadership contest. One is pro-Corbyn, the other anti. But their allegiances are only a by-product of their analysis. It is the same for the way many people feel about leadership candidates, they are seen as empty vessels into which we pour our hopes. That is why they always disappoint and are only redeemed in retrospect.

First, Sarah Perrigo, who once taught me on my MA thirty years ago now (!), analyses Labour's performance and demolishes a few myths. There are things that I disagree with in her article but these are the main areas where I think that she is right:

1. Labour's defeat was not as bad, nor was the Conservative victory as convincing, as the Cassandras make it out to be. It was a complex result, simplified by the electoral system. The debate over PR will not go away, neither will the obstacles to power under the current system.

2. The Blair government had real successes, but was also cautious, fearful and nothing like as "new" as it proclaimed itself to be. It didn't challenge political culture, preferring to be progressive by stealth, making it harder to defend. Its "big tent" was also smaller than it seemed. Traditional Labour voters and working class communities were left outside as they "had nowhere else to go." (They did have somewhere else to go of course, they went home. Turnout crashed in 2001). It was a missed opportunity.

3. The failure to challenge the Coalition strategy to blame Labour for a global crisis was a disaster. It prevented any effective opposition to economic policy and made Labour vulnerable to negative campaigning over economic competence.

4. The idea that Labour lost solely because it was anti-aspiration or too left-wing is unsustainable. Election data does not bear that out. The reasons for the defeat are complex and more long term.

5. Labour members were treated as if they were fans rather than members, just like football supporters, and were patronised into passivity. But even football fans are getting stroppy these days, as fan-owned clubs, supporters' trusts and independent supporters' associations show. Loyalty is not unconditional. This is one of the reasons why Corbyn would appeal more than machine politicians.

Her support for Corbyn is based on her perception that his candidacy would open up the debate she wants on the nature of the Labour Party. I'm not sure about that. It can just as easily be seen as another chapter in the factional struggles within the party, especially as his campaign is partly being driven enthusiastically by the activist groups organised around the anti-war movement. We will have to see.

In the second piece, Martin Kettle does not support Corbyn, but he also sees Labour's problems as longer term and structural. The myth he tries to confront is the one that it was the Iraq war that started Labour's decline. That led him to try to draw a parallel between the current state of Labour and that of the Liberal Party before the First World War, as described by George Dangerfield in his Strange Death of Liberal England. It's stretching it a bit, but he sees the 1997 Labour landslide in the same light as the 1906 Liberal landslide as "a victory from which the party never recovered." Kettle picks out three vaguely similar issues to keep his comparison going:

1. There is the question of the Union. Labour's policies on devolution handed the initiative to the nationalists.

2. The relationship with a declining trade union movement is problematic: "Just as the Liberals in the last century were unable to embrace labour, so the Labour party today is unable to free itself." A sectional party of organised labour would be a minority one.

3. Though both of these are pretty tenuous, the third is interesting because he re-frames the women's suffrage campaign within the context of a struggle for democratisation of the state and society. It is often forgotten that Labour was elected in 1997 with a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on proportional representation. It never saw the light of day after Labour won a huge majority under the existing system with 43% of the vote. The electoral system that favoured them then, disadvantages them now. New Labour also failed to revive local government, submerged industrial democracy under aggressive managerialism, and restricted party democracy. A centralised system that empowers a minority can be as easily used against you as it can be by you.

Both pieces call for a more thorough re-think of what a modern, social democratic party should look like and the sort of society it wants to create, whilst I would add my plea for a re-imagined, credible political economy. Both see a failure by the Party to respond to social change being apparent early. Even in victory, the signs were there - turnout in 2001, winning on 36% of the vote in 2005. Neither of the warning signs were heeded. We all have different times when something happened that changed the way you thought. Mine was December 1997. It saw the beginning of the sense that 'they are all the same,' even though there were still significant differences. It was then that the New Labour government voted to cut single parent benefits. Despite the protests of some forty or more rebels, party loyalists queued up to make speeches in support of the proposals. The same people were defending the identical measures that they had attacked stridently only months before. The lack of sincerity was breathtaking. It was unnecessary and, even though working families tax credits began to fill the gap later, it marked the first time when some voters "looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

We are living with the consequences.

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