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Why lefties must drop the cry of betrayal

Unions selling out their members. Ed Miliband surrendering to the Blairites and the right-wing media. Spineless Labour MPs who would vote for the killing of the firstborn if it was a three line whip. These are the sorts of accusations you will often hear being hurled around by people on the left – and yes, that includes me. The cry of betrayal is as much a part of the culture of the left as duffle coats, five-hour meetings in a pub on a Saturday afternoon and factional disputes over Hugo Chavez’s dress sense.

I’ll give you an example of ‘betrayal’ from bitter experience. When I worked as a researcher for parliamentary trade union groups, me and my fellow flunkies were occasionally tasked with helping to coordinate backbench rebellions. One such revolt was provoked by plans to privatise the probation service in the dying days of Tony Blair’s premiership. A straightforward issue, you would think: no self-respecting lefty could dream of voting for it. Even Norman Tebbitt, the standardbearer of the Tory right, had come out against.

One of the ringleaders (who, against my better judgment, will remain anonymous) was, on paper at least, a left-wing Labour backbencher. He signed the Early Day Motion, lobbied Ministers, and even organised a Parliamentary debate on the issue. He ended up voting with the Government. Why? “The Whips lied to me,” he claimed. “They said we were in danger of losing the vote [er – sort of the point] and there’s local elections coming up.” Another supposed opponent of the policy was told in no uncertain terms that his career advancement under heir apparent Gordon Brown depended on voting with the Government. He was said to have voted with a tear in his eye. Heartbreaking stuff.

It would be easy to use words like ‘treachery’ (and a whole load of expletives) in these circumstances. But the problem with the ‘cry of betrayal’ is twofold: one, it rests on the assumption that there is a movement tobetray; and two, it is rooted in the myth that it is those at the top who determine political direction. Above all, it absolves activists of the responsibility of building powerful grassroots pressure from below.

Imagine yourself as a newly elected Labour MP. You are under huge pressure from the party establishment to tow the line. Media hacks circle like vultures, waiting to crucify you for the mildest of left-wing sentiments. Yes, you have a desire to climb the career ladder – and to be ‘taken seriously’ and appear ‘respectable’.  You operate in a neo-liberal consensus that is so entrenched it is virtually passed off as commonsense. You tell yourself that you want to represent your constituents as best you can – and, with no other game in town, you have to respect the status quo to do so.

Where is the countervailing pressure to resist all of this? Sure, you will get a politician like John McDonnell who will vote a bad policy down on the basis it is bad, regardless of the pressure he is under: but that makes him all the more courageous. It would need a really powerful movement to offset all of the things dragging even many well-meaning politicians to ‘moderation’ and ‘respectability’. And let’s be honest – the recent hopeful stirrings aside – there hasn’t been one for a very long time.

The reason that even the ‘left’ has drifted to the right isn’t because of a surrender of abstract principles on the part of the people at the top. It’s because of a perfect storm that has engulfed it. It started when the New Right used the economic crisis of the 1970s to demolish the post-war consensus. The labour movement – the historic backbone of the left – had its power obliterated. To top it all off, the end of the Cold War unleashed a tidal wave of capitalist triumphalism. The US neoconservative Midge Decter summed up the prevailing attitude in 1990: “It’s time to say: We’ve won, goodbye.” Margaret Thatcher was often quoted as saying “There is no alternative” in the 1980s: but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it really did feel that way.

That’s why the cry of betrayal is so futile. It ends up being used by an assortment of left-wing sects to justify  calling for a break from the Labour Party – as though Labour was a conservative deadweight holding back an avalanche of unrest. If only it was so simple. The truth is that the timidity or outright surrender on the part of those who are supposed to be on the left is a reflection of where we are. Of course there are uber-Blairites who are ideologically wedded to Thatcherism and who will not budge, however much pressure they come under. But the reality is that most politicians and trade union leaders will shift their positions if they come under enough pressure to do so.

It may be an apocryphal tale, but the US journalist I. F. Stone once wrote of a meeting between former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a group of campaigners who, at length, tried to win his support for their cause. “Okay, you’ve convinced me,” he responded. “Now go on out and bring pressure on me.”

That’s the attitude the left needs to take. The responsibility lies with us to build a strong movement that can drag the Labour and trade union leadership to the left, whether willingly or not. Only then can we start talking about betrayal.


  1. Paul Evans says:

    Nothing to add to that apart from saying that it’s a really good post Owen.

  2. Terry Crow says:

    The reason why the LibDems are down to single figures in the opinion polls is because of their farcical betrayal on tuition fees.

    Makes absolute sense to me to highlight lies any and everywhere – how else do you get any integrity or principles?

  3. Mary says:

    A very powerful post. Agree with much of it.
    Am sure many people will recognise from their own workplaces, the pressure MPs are out under. In many situations if you dont toe the party line you are in trouble and life is made difficult. Yes I know we expect more of MPs but with the media we have, and party structures, they are set up to fail more than anything.
    I agree as well that you have to be extra brave and fearless to be like John McDonnell, if you are in the Labour Party.
    Where I do disagree is with any notion that any time soon, the Labour Party is going to change to be the party those described loosely as “lefties” want it to be, which is one of the many reasons I dont support the Labour Party anymore. Its difficult to leave a “main” party and join a small party but Ive found in the Green Party everything and more Id been looking for in the Labour Party for years, and years.
    The Green party has always been against the cuts, has put forward clear alternatives such as the Robin Hood Tax, which I understand Ed supports but dosnt say so in public.
    We also have a leader who is prepared to act as well as speak, she has actually been on marches and spoken out against excessive policing.
    I think what is frustrating is that the Green Party is where a lot of people want to be but, they are as I was for years, wary of supporting a small party.
    Despite all that I think we do have to forget what party we are in or not and work with anyone who is opposed to what the Tory government are doing. I think people are working together more, and sincerely hope that will continue for all our sakes.
    Was it Kinnock that made the speech aout being scared if you are old/ill when Thatcher got in ? I cant remember but with this lot in Im bloody terrified!

  4. Peter Garbutt says:

    Not a bad analysis, but I have to say I agree with Mary.
    It is VERY frustrating to be in the Green Party, which is everything most Left Labour members want, and yet to have so little electoral support or even respect from the other Left organisations.
    Everyone seems to concentrate on getting Labour back to the Left. I’d say the best way of doing that is to start leaving Labour en masse, and joining the Greens. Either Labour WILL change, because of the haemorrhage of members; or they won’t, which will no longer matter, because the Green Party will carry the (eco)Socialist flag instead.

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