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Either Labour starts to do politics. Or politics will do in Labour

working classOblivion is a shuffle, lurch, and crawl away for the Conservative Party. Even if by some dark miracle they are returned to power next year, the terminal crisis enveloping them cannot be sidestepped. Either the hard right lunatics decamp to an ever-so-pure and ever-so-irrelevant electoral lash up with the purple people bleaters, or they don’t. And for as long as they lay claim to Toryism, so the Conservative Party will be permanently hobbled. Yet things aren’t too great for Labour either. Demographics, economics, and culture are chewing up the Tories. But they’re doing the same for Labour too.

Consider the big shocker during the referendum campaign. Honourable members, party workers, activists and trade unionists who trekked north were deeply shocked by the awful state Scottish Labour was found to be in. As the SNP boast of passing the 100,000 member mark Scotland’s former ruling party is languishing on something like 12,000 members. That’s just utterly, utterly pitiful. Local conditions have a role to play, but when stagnation and decline is too often the lot of Labour parties outside of London something else is going on. Just as the Tory collapse cannot be stymied by a few more canvassing sessions and new returns entered into Merlin, so it is true with Labour. Keeping calm and knocking on doors is not sufficient to see off the shadow on Labour’s lung.

I’ve blogged loads about changes to class and culture in Britain these last 30 years. The working class as more or less cohesive networks of communities institutionalised into the political architecture of post-war capitalism has gone. The bedrock of the Labour Party that provided it generations of politicians who did their internships at the coal face of life has largely melted. As the political economy underpinning the structural foundations of British Labourism turned to dust the communities of solidarity they sustained frayed and drifted apart. The labour movement remains. But the labour movement as a counterweight and repository of hope for something different and better, that’s more an idea than a reality, unfortunately.

New Labour can profitably be read as an attempt to overcome this structural weakness in labour movement. And the means it chose was rather novel. Making a virtue of necessity, the “old Labour” of industrial politics was interred under Tony Blair’s stairs along with inconvenient trade unionists, the “S word”, and anything that smacked at all of, ugh, working class people. In came the slick presentation and reaching out to swing voters. Workers vanished, hard-working families proliferated. Blair’s New Britain was a “young nation” unconcerned with the socialist muck of the past. Economic efficiency and social justice were to be the twin pillars of a modernising government that would be in power forever. This was the third way to the New Jerusalem.

The problem was New Labour was only ever a superficial electoral construct. When the wheels came off after Brown ducked an election in 2007, and then capitalism rudely reminded the former iron chancellor that it can and quite possibly could go bust, the electoral coalition – that had come to look a bit threadbare by 2005 – frayed and unravelled in 2010.

Far, far more problematic was the kind of constituency New Labour tried to build itself while in power. Temporarily British capital’s government of choice as the Tories knocked lumps out of one another, Blair and Brown tried to make this affiliation permanent. Hence no meaningful finance regulation. Hence the pro-business homilies and exaltation to “enrich yourselves“. Hence the mania to open up public services and the NHS to more and more marketisation so a parasitic section of British capital weaned on the taxpayers’ teat could profit from New Labour largesse.

While this was going on, workers’ rights were retarded; new folk devils among working class people were picked out and panicked about; the minimum wage held down and, yes, the continued offshoring and gutting of manufacturing; casualisation; the closure of pension funds; only now do Labour’s leadership belatedly recognise that doing nothing was perhaps not the best of ideas.

New Labour was a product of labour movement weakness. And it sought to deal with it by compounding that weakness. So the problems afflicting Labour heartlands across Britain isn’t because policies failed socialist purity tests: if that was the case, the likes of TUSC would be running Labour close, not Elvis Loves Pets. It’s because they broke up and dispersed working class communities and solidarities just as sure as Thatcher did. No wonder she thought New Labour was her greatest achievement.

Here’s the easy/difficult job. Labour can arrest its decline. Catastrophe can be averted. And, what’s more, doing so is a less arduous job than the rebirth by fire awaiting the Tories. But it requires nuanced, smart politics. Here’s the challenge:

For Labour to dominate the 21st century it needs to, first of all, not attack its own people. Not too difficult is it? If our most vulnerable can’t depend on the party that was set up to represent them to not deny them the resources they need, then who can they rely on? It’s not just about benefit cuts, Labour needs to be alive to the toxic consequences of successful markets. Where markets exist in public services, they provide bumper profits for the few off the back of lower standards, lower wages, atomised workers, insecure working. Is that a price worth paying for some abstract efficiencies target? No, it is not.

Likewise, throughout the wider economy as a whole Labour need to turn an unsympathetic ear to British business who’ve had it all their way for far too long. Workers representation on boards, yes. New rules on hire and fire and union recognition, new rules on tribunals, permanent and temporary working – stuff hardly redolent of Trotsky’s The Death Agony of Capitalism but have the effect of reversing the disaggregating effects 30 years of marketisation have had.

Let’s get more ambitious. It’s time Labour staked out what the labour movement really is. Our movement is a broad tent of workers and consumers. Everyone from the well-heeled professional and the celebrity, to the call centre worker and the disabled should have a place with us. It is a community founded on the need to labour and the sets of material and political interests flowing from it. The labour movement’s interests are coincident with those of the vast majority of people who live in Britain. Our interests are the universal interest. But the Labour Party only represents everyone because it is a party of workers, by hand or by brain.

Labour is a parliamentary party. Labourism is the marrying of the interests of the labour movement to constitutionalism. But let’s be honest, there’s been plenty of constitutionalism and not enough marrying it to our interests these last 20 years. And the price we’ve paid is horrific. The terrified and deeply anxious society we live in now is because New Labour did nothing to address the economic and self-security of the great mass of our people. Small wonder there are CLPs hanging like rotten scraps in the wind, and that Labour are seen as part of the Westminster problem – not its solution.

As it stands, the present policy platform on offer shows a bit of an understanding of Labour’s nature of threat, but scant awareness that punitive policy and continued market madness will do the party in the long run. Those are the stakes. Either the leadership wake up – a doubtful prospect, alas – or it’s up to the rank-and-file of the labour movement to push this settlement through the party.

Once again, you either do politics. Or politics does you.

Image credit: Hors Contrôle


  1. Peter Kenyon says:

    Phip – you are right. Labour’s leadership is engaged in a race against time. The party’s support in Scotland is at risk as the Scottish nationalist scramble to maximise devolved powers whatever the damage to the UK. Particularly irksome as the Labour leadership might see it is the disloyalty of Labour voters particularly in heartland areas that voted for independence. Any policy to address the ramifications of the No vote has to address the economic issues that encouraged too many Labour voters to vote yes. That begins and possibly ends IMO with the UK budget and UK treasury hegemony, not constitutional cravings.

    I have set out my thinking in a resolution for my local Labour Party posted here

  2. Peter Kenyon says:

    Apologies for the name typo – sd of course be Phil….

  3. David Ellis says:

    The centre cannot hold. Capitalism is no longer in agony it is dead. Even the old Maoist Peter Mandelson could not save it. Either the working class takes the power or it will be drowned in its own blood. The era of opportunism is over.

  4. swatantra says:

    ‘It was politiks that dun Labour in’, has a familiar ring about it.

  5. Pauline Sharp says:

    This is all I am hearing at the moment that Labour has lost its core voters, however I firmly believe this is the right wing press speaking. My biggest concern is workfare, we must look after people and not treat them like slave labour. Just unacceptable, so why am I not hearing more on this issue. Please get more passion Labour party. I heard more passion from Harry and Andy Burnham at the conference. People are desperate out here.

    1. Robert says:

      So ATOS was fine but workfare is nasty what’s the difference

  6. James Martin says:

    Perhaps we can start this renewal at local government level. Take the wonderful occupation and campaign in Newham by the E15 mums against eviction and being socially cleansed and shipped to accommodation as far away as Manchester. Every Labour Party member and councillor should be actively supporting them and others like them – but instead we have the appalling sight of Robin Wales screaming at a single mum and the local Labour Party being on the wrong bloody side.

    Not that Robin Wales is unique here, given that large numbers of Labour councillors around the country have had to seek medical attention for RSI given the amount of times their hands have been up in the air to vote for cuts and redundancies.

    So if we are genuine about a grassroots renewal and a Labour Party that fights for working class people rather than craps on them form a great height lets start with local government and the councillors who attend our Branches and CLPs. This is not about resolutions, but about doing what the Labour Party should be there for but now isn’t. Or is that too hard?

    1. Robert says:

      I cannot see labour changing the issue is now how many left leaning MP’s does it have and the fact is not to many, it’s now infested with Progress right wingers.

      The battle is to stop people like the Miliband’s brothers from even being voted in as MP’s never mind leaders, the same for the Tory Ball’s sadly if you look at labour today it’s a right wing copy of Thatcher.

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