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Now’s no time to ditch Labour

Responsible capitalism.”

It’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue with great ease nowadays. Claimed by Ed Miliband as he attacked “predator” energy companies, media groups and banks, it was seen as a huge Labour success when the term spread across the political spectrum.

At least Labour is no longer “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy rich.” But for all the uses of political jargon, sometimes it’s just plain rubbish. Put two contradictory words – “responsible” and “capitalism” – together and create an oxymoron. But say it enough and you might convince yourself.

    As well as celebrating the inspiring legacy of the post-war Labour government, Ken Loach’s new film The Spirit of ’45 questions whether Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” agenda can turn the tide of neoliberalism.

    After the initial previews of the much-feted picture, Loach wasted no time. Labour, he said, had proved itself an inadequate opposition and could never again be truly representative of the British working class.

    The cynics among us might have noticed the swiftness – even stage-management – with which the established online network Left Unity became a political party overnight to realise Loach’s dream of a new socialist electoral force.

    The group’s Facebook page has excitedly announced branches springing up from Dundee to Darlington. A Surrey branch has impressively garnered 40 members already.

    But doesn’t this all sound rather familiar? Rewind to the late 1990s and witness the formation of the Socialist Alliance, which brought together activists from existing Trotskyist groups alongside disillusioned Labour supporters such as former national executive member Liz Davies.

    A few years and a few splits later, such an alliance was attempted once again with Respect, of which Loach was a key member.

    And as if to suggest that we need not only a new party, but a new party for every election, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition was formed in advance of the 2010 election.

    You might start to notice a pattern, especially if you consider the motivating factors. All three of these parties followed significant betrayals by, and disillusionments in, the last Labour government.

    No matter what your approach to left strategy, you could understand the demoralisation caused by the initial control-freakery of new Labour. The Iraq war was seen by many as the greatest political treachery in a generation, with Labour party members resigning in disgust like never before.

    And many saw the back-door privatisation of Blair’s third term, and its continuity under Gordon Brown, as a sign that Labour had irreversibly morphed into a neoliberal party.

    Yet it is telling and rather tragic that none of these parties survived as a national force beyond their first general election challenge. The Socialist Alliance collapsed after bitter infighting. Respect lost its only parliamentary seat in 2010, and has only been resuscitated as a personal vehicle for George Galloway. What about Tusc? It recently celebrated its first electoral victory – a Parish council seat which no other party candidate contested.

    The tragedy is that building these forces has taken huge amounts of time and effort from sincere and committed left-wing activists, only for them to implode. Or worse, fizzle into oblivion, their fate being decided by our electoral system as much as their failure to become mass movements. What is there to suggest that this moment will produce something successful or different?

    Indeed, one wonders why Loach and other committed figures have chosen now as the moment to attempt another left realignment. Labour undoubtedly has its most left-wing leadership since 1994. For the first time in over 10 years its front bench includes a range of figures from the party’s left and soft-left – Jon Trickett, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, for instance, all of whom opposed Trident replacement alongside other aspects of new Labour triangulation.

    There has also been a renaissance of grass-roots activism in the party since the last general election. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy saw the best attendances in over 20 years at its annual conference events, while Owen Jones has given voice and leadership to thousands of party members campaigning against the Tories’ austerity agenda both within the party and through direct action campaigns.

    Affiliated trade unions have also been more active in party matters than for decades. Under Len McCluskey’s leadership, Unite has led a drive to recruit 1,000 union activists as active party members. Labour’s 2012 annual conference saw the extraordinary spectacle of a trade union general secretary, TSSA’s Manuel Cortes, moving “reference back” on the conference agenda from the podium, in support of a more democratic and radical movement.

    That’s not to say everything’s rosy. The prospect of Labour putting forward a manifesto that will win back the confidence of the five million votes lost from 1997-2010 is still a distant one. The next election offers the worrying prospect of an austerity Labour government – which if Greece and Spain are anything to go by will last only one term.

    What is needed now is a determined effort to transform Labour into a modern, democratic and inclusive party that will offer a bold alternative to austerity.

    This will take work outside the Labour Party too. Yet here hope is offered by the People’s Assembly project, that hopes to develop an anti-austerity mass movement and narrative.

    If left activists cannot work within Labour, this is the project that can deliver real political change. A new party can offer little more than false hope, disillusionment and wasted effort.

    This article originally appeared in the Morning Star, Tuesday 2nd April 2013

    12 Comments

    1. Dave says:

      Not many who read this blog will disagree with the need to “transform Labour into a modern, democratic and inclusive party that will offer a bold alternative to austerity” but the mechanisms needed for reform are unavailable and that’s why people go elsewhere.

      I rejoined after Ed became leader and found Labour had become more top-down than ever. If I wanted that I would’ve joined a Trot group or Progress.
      Members, it seems, only have a role as a voiceless fan club for a self-replicating PLP elite. The Labour Party isn’t really an option for a mature person who wants to be politically active.

    2. John P Reid says:

      Daves right about more top down than ever, its’ not facing the fact the party is in debt and doesn’t care about anything other than target areas, and union subs, look at the Scrapping of the shadow cabinet elections Blair wouldn’t have dreamed of that, as for Brown, he was left wing he just wanted to persent himslef as a blairite to appeal to the sun,regarding socialist alliacen ,scargills Socialist labour ,tusc, or respect, all i can say is “Splitters”

    3. Tom Blackburn says:

      Good article. Can’t say I blame socialists for giving up on Labour but I can’t see this latest attempt to start a new party getting off the ground when so many others have failed. Hard not to feel demoralised by the leadership’s capitulation over workfare though. It seems there are still too many within the Labour Party who are always looking for an excuse to cave in to the Tories.

      And John, Brown was an integral part of the New Labour project. He was Blair’s chancellor for ten years! Your efforts to bracket him as some sort of crypto-leftist aren’t terribly convincing.

    4. RedShift says:

      Workfare was incredibly disappointing, especially to me as someone who’s been unemployed for over a year under this government (fortunately, no longer) but a comrade did point out to me the other day how there disappointments are really quite rare these days compared to the days of New Labour.

      Hardly makes up for it but things are getting better!

      Keep the faith!

    5. Gerry says:

      Labour should not be worried at all by the creation of Left Unity …I am glad that there is now a home for ex-SWPers, ex-Respect-ers, other Trotskyists and assorted far-leftists! With Ken Loach and Owen Jones as cheerleaders, they will need all the luck they can get to last even till 2015!

      There should always be parties to the left of Labour, as there were Communists and Commonwealth parties for many decades (both of which also achieved their high electoral peaks in 1945)

      Labour was the product of a coalition of fabians, socialist and coop societies and trade unions and in 2013 should stay a broad church of socialists, social democrats, centrists and progressives, appealing to the majority of working class and middle class men and women, north and south! And – I think – Ed has made a decent start….

    6. John Reid says:

      Tom Blackburn. Brown new he would have to wait to oust Blair. Labour had committed itself to stocking to the Tory sending ma for its first. 4 uyrs , once 2001 was over Brown went behind Blairs back spent more than we had sphe could win the left of the party to help him oust Blair

    7. Dave says:

      @ Tom and Redshift

      Capitulation/disappointment re workfare.

      Well, look at it this way: Current arrangements make the administration of workfare unattractive to potential private providers. So therefore it must be ‘reformed’.

      Just as the NHS logo is increasingly used by private providers as an indication of state approval, in due course, private insurance companies will use the DWP (or its successor’s) logo to indicate state approval. More functions will continue to be transferred to the private sector even if Labour win in 2015, as happened under Labour from ’97 to ’10. And the contributory aspect will be enhanced, those who want a better standard of healthcare or unemployment provision will, if they can afford it, be able to contribute more. Eventually there’ll be greater inequality – just as under Labour ’97 – ’10.

      Listen carefully to the way Labour’s front bench criticise the Tories – not so much because of what the Tories are doing, but mostly because of the way they’re doing it.

      All this will be presented as tough choices in hard times or, for the more intellectually inclined, as the triumph of pragmatism over ideology.

    8. Dave says:

      @ John Reid re Blair Vs Brown

      You should read NHS plc by Allyson Pollock (2004).

      Prof. Pollock was a specialist adviser to the Labour government. On page 3 of her book she recounts a conversation with Gordon Brown. She asks Brown to explain the rationale for using private finance for public investment, given that it is more expensive. Here’s the reply, Pollock writes:

      “His response was simply to declare repeatedly that public sector is bad management, and that only the private sector is efficient and can manage services well.”

      That doesn’t sound very ‘left wing’ to me. And, as someone who has had much experience in the private sector I can tell you that it is, putting it bluntly, rubbish.

    9. P SPENCE says:

      Will Labour put the welfare state back together again and challenge private property interests? Highly unlikely. Post war social democracy here and in Europe is being dismantled at a pace.

      Marxists offer the best analysis but such ideas do not penetrate the LP leadership. Presently I anticipate the next Labour government will fail very quickly to meet the basic needs of the working class which now faces a social and economic crisis as great as the 30s.

    10. Maurice says:

      Conrad – are you intensely relaxed about being filthy rich?

    11. Peter Rowlands says:

      There is one organisation that undoubtedly supports the call for a new party of the left, namely Progress, the organisation of the Blairite right within the Labour Party. They know that such a party could well attract sufficient numbers from the Labour left to weaken them as a force within the party and thus enable the right to take over again. If this was the price of the emergence of a viable new left party then it could be argued that it was worthwhile, but that will not happen. It is not possible to establish a new party of the left until there is a proportional electoral system for Westminster, which for this and other reasons I believe we need. Meanwhile let us not throw away the the most favourable position the left has had in the Labour Party for over twenty years.

    12. John p Reid says:

      I’m sure progress have no problem with left wingers joining the party even though democratically it’ll undermine them swinging the party to the right, that’s why progress, Luke Akehurst and Peter wheeler backed ed for leader, as maybe they realised that Ed M, knew tat we needed to get left wingers to win, and David M, didn’t that’s why they didn’t ack him,

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