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Labour must not lose its soul to pragmatism

15024926027_384702cb70_zThis week I felt an immense wave of joy and solidarity with our American comrades and the judgment they have just been handed by the US Supreme Court to recognise all marriages as having equal value. It is a beautiful and poignant moment for so many reasons but the one that sticks out for me is the recognition of such a long, hard fought fight. A fight fought and won on the streets and in the courts. And as Obama speaks the line that shifts of hearts and minds is possible I am reminded of the power of people and civil society.

Last weekend we saw, in the UK, our own fight in the streets. A quarter of a million people came to London to march against austerity; to call out the UK Government and say to them loudly and clearly: you might have ‘won’ an election, but your legitimacy can and will be questioned; we will not let you destroy our country and the people in it.

Being an active member in the Labour party basically means one thing at the moment: choosing loyalties. Who will you vote for mayor? How will you preference the leadership candidates? And what about deputy? It’s a really exciting time that has people challenging the party and their own values and, perhaps less easily framed in a positive light, choosing sides.

But I think it can be positive. I think it is a myth and at best superficial to claim that we are a united party based on a single set of values. For sure we can rally around an election and fight the same fight, but leadership elections bring out our true selves. They expose the cracks and bring to the surface the questions and tensions that have been bubbling below.

For me, the conversation keeps boiling down to one thing- one crucial disagreement that puts me on one clear side versus another. The crux of the great leadership debate for me is what are our goals? Is winning in 2020 the priority and if so, what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it?

My  belief is that winning 2020 should not be the priority of the Labour Party. This belief comes from a further belief that the Labour party is a movement above and beyond anything. It was founded to fight for workers, to fight for those oppressed by the ruling classes and it became a political party because that was seen as the most effective way to improve the lives of the people the movement was looking to represent. I think that is still true; that should still be the goal of the party and when we make compromises such as supporting the benefit cap or not properly reversing anti-trade union laws then we betray everything and everyone we stand for and we might as well not exist.

I’ve read quite a lot recently statements in the realm of You change opinions from inside government- why don’t the left understand that? and whilst there is some truth there, my fear is what happens in reality (as I think is exemplified by Liz Kendall’s campaign) is that you have members who continue to say that as we sit in government. Those policies got us elected becomes these policies will keep us elected and we end up with the reality that is a Labour government, unrecognisable from its values (and its members) and a reality where the only opinions that get changed are our own.

A response to that can be that we should be representing the majority- we were elected by them after all, but let us not forget that those that suffer most from Labour staying in the ‘centre’ ground (is condemning 40,000 children into poverty by implementing a £23,000 benefit cap really a centre ground in which Labour and the Tories can both feel comfortable?) are those who do not vote. We do not have their mandate and it is on this basis (along with our continuing reliance on first past the post voting system) that we can challenge the legitimacy of the current government. We are well beyond the ‘if you don’t vote, you don’t have a say’ era- we know that there are barriers to political engagement that reflect class divisions in our society and it is therefore the responsibility of every parliamentarian to continually fight for real democracy.

But back on to the point about movements. To focus only on elections loses sight of other ways of making effective change in society- it undermines the power of civil society. Power that we have seen today, last week, that we see every day, is great. To be part of the Labour Movement means continual struggle inside and outside of government and even parliament.

I would like to see a Labour Party that has a real political wing functioning outside of Westminster. I want to see a level of activism and challenge to the government that goes beyond social media sharing. Our elected MPs should be the tip of the iceberg that is our movement- not the foundation. We already have a model of this infrastructure through our trade union movement but the Collins Review has done a disservice not only to our movement but to those we are fighting for and on behalf of. We must strengthen our unions and our union link but we must also go beyond this to establish a real grassroots movement that has its roots in civil society, outside of the workplace: in our communities and not in the debating chamber.

There are so many ways that members can engage in civil society but our party does not reflect those methods of engagement. Come election time, sure- you can call, knock, deliver but you can’t make change. You can conference, vote, debate in the party but, as an average member, you look outside the party to get involved in your community and to fight. Activism takes so many forms, we need to start seeing this from within our movement, taking the lead from our unions.

We can win in 2020 but not through having the shiniest candidate who appeals to ‘middle England’ and ignores their, our, responsibility to fight the much more difficult fight of engaging the disengaged and rebuilding our movement.

This belief has led me to back Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader and, of course, I urge you to too. However, whichever ‘team’ you join, ‘side’ you choose; let’s not lose sight of why we are here and what we are fighting for. Let’s build from the ground up- not through the same old pledges, or variations on, that we have to wait five years (at least) to actually benefit from, but through civil society and activism in streets and in our communities.

By Rhea Wolfson

This blog originally appeared on London Young Labour


  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    If pragmatism means adopting Tory policies then it makes a nonsense of voting Labour.

    New Labour adopted Neo-Liberalism back in the seventies and Labour Party members trusted Labour politicians; who talked in terms of balancing budgets whilst creating a fundamental change in beliefs in supporting the private sector against those of the public sector.

    This culminated in Gordon Brown’s 2006 Mansion House speech, where he said this and more to the worlds Bankers and Business.

    “Let me start by saying what a privilege it is to address this famous and historic dinner, where business, bankers and ministers come together to celebrate London’s strengths and achievements.”

    “I am grateful to many of you here tonight, including the Lord Mayor, who has agreed to serve on the new City advisory group.

    Ed Balls, our new City Minister, will work with you to develop publish and then promote a long term strategy for the development of London’s financial services and promoting our unique advantages and assets. We will set a clear ambition to make Britain the location of choice for headquarters and services, including R&D, for even more of the world’s leading companies.

    And just as two years ago we promoted the action plan for liberalising financial services across Europe, I can tell you that the Treasury is now working with Charles McCreevy and with you to ensure that the forthcoming European financial services white paper signals a new wave of liberalisation.”

    The full report can be seen here, please read it, every Labour Party member should know and understand it’s content.

    Labour politicians have secretly transformed the Labour Party into a second rate Tory Party, carrying on with the TINA formula of there is no alternative, with the consequences of the 2007 crash, which has not gone away and is being used to bolster and set capitalist neo-Liberal theology in stone.

    If real Labour after the war had decided to carry on the way these so called modernisers do, we would have already had a revolution in this country, as it would have been the only alternative.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Speaking to The Independent, Mr Taylor said: “Manchester Council want these homeless people to be evicted with an injunction which would prevent them entering and putting up tents on Manchester City land.”

      “If they fail to meet this injunction it could mean that they could go to prison for 2 years or face a fine of £5000. It is a city-wide injunction consequence is oppressive, unsympathetic and premature because it would mean that these homeless people have nowhere else to sleep.”

      In the wonderful Labor controlled city of Manchester; poverty is now a criminal offense punishable by up 2 yeas in one Straw’s, “run for profit,” slave labor camps, (it isn’t even as if it’s a bunch of Tories that are doing this.)

  2. gerry says:

    Memo to Rhea – don’t rewrite history! Labour has ALWAYS been a pragmatic party, and this “soul” vs “pragmatism” idea is very 1980s, and really sillly…

    Also silly is your idea that there is a monolithic group called “the workers”, all of whom have identical interests and politics, when a simple glance at any general election since universal suffrage would tell you that many working class people vote Tory or UKIP or Alliance ( in the 1980s) , especially skilled workers and older working class women and men…and the benefit cuts and caps are really popular with most working class people!

    There are no easy answers, Rhea, to how to build siccessful eft or left centre progressive coalitions in countries like ours, where the industrial working class has been on the decline for decades, but your simplistic and unhistorical ideas won’t really cut it or help us find our way through: and I want us to win in 2020 above all else…

    1. James Martin says:

      Yes Gerry, but what changed in the 1980s was the terms of reference for that pragmatism. Gone was the old right-wing pragmatism of someone like Denis Healy, based as it was on working class labourism and a paper commitment to socialism, and in its place we got New Labour.

      The result of the failing to articulate any sort of a socialist vision (as the right used to do, even if they never meant it) led directly to the disaster in Scotland where we lost to reactionary nationalists and has also indirectly contributed to the Tory/New Labour myth that the working class is now a tiny minority of the population rather than the truth that it is the vast and overwhelming majority (although now mainly in high-exploitation non-unionised service industries rather than industry).

      Rediscover socialism and you will rediscover the working class that has never gone away but has for too long been ignored by the trangulation policy muppets who infest the upper reaches of the Party these days.

      1. gerry says:

        James – if for you socialism is a faith, then yes what you say is plausible. And yes I agree that working class people are still a majority in the UK as you say, and that most work in non industrial, service sectors..but where is your evidence that if we “rediscover socialism we will rediscover the working class”? Are you really saying that the 60% of skilled workers who voted Tory or UKIP in 2015 are going to buy Jeremy Corbyn’s pro EU, pro open door immigration, higher tax policies? Or that working class pensioners, again 60% of whom voted Tory/UKIP in May are suddenly at the end of their lives going to ” rediscover socialism”? Do you honestly believe that would happen?

        Half of me hopes against all electoral evidence that you are right, as my socialism is also a faith too, but after nearly 60 years of Tory/Tory led coalition rule when so many working class people time and time again back parties of the Right…my head says your views are delusional.

  3. gerry says:

    That should read “successful left or left of centre or progressive coalitions”!

  4. swatantra says:

    Rhea may have a point: it is people that make the change, and people are usually stirred out of their lethargy by prophets and demogoges and just sometimes inspirational leaders; basically that means some good hearted persons putting the interests of the people first above their own. Gandhi said: ‘You are the change’. Change requires sacrifice. That’s why I get a bit fed up with ‘refugees’ who take the easy way out and run, instead of standing up and fighting the demogoges.
    But she is wrong in saying that JC is the prophet; if Gandhi had been say PM, then India would have descended into chaos and India would not be the great Nation it is today compared to the basket case that is Pakistan.
    It had to take a Nehru to build Modern India. Its just an analogy; good decent honest kind hearted people are not always the best leaders.

    1. Robert says:

      My god you can make the best written article into the best laugh I’ve had.

  5. Christopher wellard says:

    Memo to Gerry:-
    What’s the Labour Party for then? Is it a ‘progressive’ Conservative party or is it a party to change society? What Rhea was advocating was politics from the people upwards. The party branch should be a centre for political educational work in the community.
    Concerning ordinary working people supporting UKIP or the Tories; many if not most of these express ideas not much different from those of us on the left. The Labour Party must find common ground with these ordinary people like us. Like us, they don’t want mumpers in society at either end. Justice, Jobs and housing is what most people want, from the wealthy middle class to the low paid or workless workers.

    1. gerry says:

      Christopher – Labour is, and has always been, a gradualist left of centre party. We work from where the majority of the electorate really are (the centre ground, as it is) and build out from that to a more equal, just and fair society: that is what we are for, no more no less

      And because we are at heart pragmatic and realistic, we haven’t been consigned to the political margins, as so many European social democratic parties have been!

  6. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Rhea Wolfson the agreeing on aims should come first. Then one could discuss the strategy and tactics required to realise those aims in the short to long term. This is not what Labour does. Instead it asks whether supporting this or that policy would increase its share of the vote. This has led to a near total abandonment of polical thinking in the Party as the current leadership contests make painfully clear (with only Jeremy Corbyn as a partial exception). Another demonstration of this intellectually baren approach was the last major meeting of the NPF before the general election July 2014).

    But this electoral mindset is so deeply entrenched that it has be said that Labour lost any soul that it had long ago. As Ralph Miliband once wrote, Labour has always been a dogmatic party but its dogmatism was never about socialism but about Parliament. My MP recently wrote that the point of the Labour Party is to win elections.

    Can it regain a soul? To do so Party Members would have to start rejecting nonsense from the centrein a way they have so far shown no inclination to do. It would also need the left to show that it is capable of genuine informed debate about key issues. I am not holding my breath on either account.

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      There is a certain duplicity within the ranks of Labour who’s rhetoric talks of fairness and protecting the vulnerable, whilst wrapping it around position of electability.

      One such member told me locally that he did not think Corbyn was electable, and would rather support a Labour Party that carried out Tory policies rather than stay in opposition.

      The fact is though, if we don’t argue against what the Tories stand for what is the point of voting Labour in the first place?

      It really is down to the fact, that either the Labour Party exposes the Tories austerity policies or accepts they have got it right and join them.

      The direction of the Party over the last forty years has been to adopt Tory Neo-Liberal orthodoxy, which led the Labour Party into taking the Blame for the Banking crash.

      The reason why New Labour politicians have been shy to counter these Tory accusations is because they support the direction the Tories are going in but think like the Tories that they can do a better job of it.

      Ultimately for the rest of us, the results are the same, more privatisation and less democratic accountability.

      The arguments against those that presume they are just being pragmatic. Pragmatism works when you are at the top of the ladder and can afford to give ground, but when you are on the bottom up to your neck in water, it is a slightly different story.

      It really is up to all of us to recognise that the leadership have consistently sold us down the river, the evidence is all there for everyone to see, if we don’t get change in the party we will never change the country.

      The Labour Party will also become irrelevant as the Libdems are today.

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