Ship’s a goin’ down

The word on the streets:

“Even the most loyal Labour voters look embarrassed and look away. Others just laugh. Now, I’ve never had that before,” says one leading MP.

Loyalty to the Labour Party runs deep. You don’t just vote Labour or support Labour, you are Labour. “We’re Lib Dems” is a statement of principled, idealistic affiliation; “we’re Conservatives” is similar, but without the principle or the idealism. But “we’re Labour” is a statement of identity – it’s an adjective, not a noun. (Of course, this may just be because Labour is the only major party whose name isn’t already an adjective.)

Many of us on the Left used to be Labour, and many of us would quite like to be Labour again. The thought of voting for a Labour councillor, given the alternatives, is tempting. Many people who are still Labour are revolted by what they’ve had to accept since 1997 – since 2005, even – and have stayed with the party nevertheless. For them, a vote for a Labour councillor is an easy way to keep faith with the party – a party which has always meant much more than the policies of some clique of MPs.

But it’s time, if it will ever be time, to abandon ship. Andy Newman:

The degree to which the party has changed is disputed, but it is certainly not a natural home for grass-roots trade union or community activists; the party no longer gives voice to its working class supporters; and within the party there is no significant ideological strand that prioritises the cause of organised labour as distinct from other interest groups, except an historical and financial legacy with the trade unions. What is more, the Blair/Brown victory over constitutional questions within the party means that the triumph of the right in the Labour Party is probably irreversible. Even under Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party had a vigorous internal life, and although much ward level and constituency activity was mind-numbingly boring, the national conference gave real expression to debates within the movement, with input from the trade unions and constituency parties, as well as the MPs. This will never be seen again.It is significant that the government have not implemented even the modest promises of the pre-general election Warwick agreement with the unions. … New Labour fully accepts neo-liberalism, but they are pragmatic, and largely work around organised resistance, rather than provoke confrontations. So their privatisation of the NHS, and their attacks on education are long drawn out and exhausting battles, not Thatcher style set piece battles. The stop go dance of the public sector pensions crisis shows how New Labour could wear out the resistance, unless the union leaderships lift their game.

The background therefore is that the Labour Party has a broadly progressive electoral constituency, and historical links with the trade union infrastructure, but it is in continued antagonism with both of these elements. Nevertheless, although the Party no longer articulates the aspirations of these support groups, they do provide a constraint upon it, and mediate the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.

The key word here is ‘appears’. That, and ‘electorate’: given the New Labour leadership’s control over the party, Labour as a party is now significantly to the Right, not only of its union activist base – that much is old news – but of its own voters. Moreover, the fact that those voters keep the faith with the party – the fact that so many people still are Labour, even now, nine years down the line – has an effect on the image of the party: it mediate[s] the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.

My father was Labour, and not on the Left of the party; he’d backed Gaitskell against Bevan, for instance. He died in 2001, and wasn’t much interested in politics for the last year or so. Still, he saw Labour take power, and he saw what they did with it – and he was convinced that the “New Labour” turn was a stratagem adopted to gain power, and that Blair would eventually steer back to the Left. “He’s going to surprise us all,” he used to say. What Andy Newman’s argument suggests is that for people like my father to back the party under its current leadership is strictly a one-way bargain. The longer Old Labour loyalists give New Labour the benefit of the doubt, the easier it will be for New Labour to retain control of the party, to retain the support of the party’s voters – and to continue to remake the party in their own image. Nothing will make New Labour actually listen to Labour voters – nothing, that is, except losing their support. In 2006, that’s all they deserve – and it’s gratifying to see that it’s beginning to happen. It’s time to abandon ship.

PS Elsewhere in the piece quoted at the top, Polly (for it is she) writes:

As each new crisis eclipses the last, leaving no fewer than seven cabinet ministers in some trouble, their one comfort is in finding no great enthusiasm for Tories or Lib Dems either. The won’t-votes or the anything-but-Labour voters are motivated by a negative push factor away from Labour with little positive pull towards anyone else. Expect the lowest turnout ever, according to seasoned observers. The Institute for Public Policy Research is dead right to call for compulsory voting, but this is hardly the week for Labour to press it.

Negative push factor away from Labour … little positive pull towards anyone else … dead right to call for compulsory voting. The thought processes here are a bit too obvious. What Chris says of Geoff ‘Buff’ Hoon appears to apply to Polly as well:

He hopes compulsory voting will raise the Labour vote disproportionately. He hopes a disaffected Labour voter – the sort who stayed away from the ballot box last year – who is forced to vote will figure: “well, since I’m here, I might as well vote for the party I’ve always supported.”This, I guess, is the only way New Labour can get votes now.

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