Call me insufferably pretentious, but when I think of the Labour Party I can’t help thinking of the opening of Chtcheglov’s 1953 Formulary for a new urbanism. (Bear with me, there’s some good stuff further down.)
We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the roadside hoardings, the latest state of humour and poetry:
Showerbath of the Patriarchs
Meat Cutting Machines
Notre Dame Zoo
Golden Touch Sawmill
Centre for Functional Recuperation
Saint Anne Ambulance
Café Fifth Avenue
Prolonged Volunteers Street
Family Boarding House in the Garden
Hotel of Strangers
And the swimming pool on the Street of Little Girls. And the police station on Rendezvous Street. The medical-surgical clinic and the free placement centre on the Quai des Orfèvres. The artificial flowers on Sun Street. The Castle Cellars Hotel, the Ocean Bar and the Coming and Going Café. The Hotel of the Epoch.
And the strange statue of Dr. Philippe Pinel, benefactor of the insane, in the last evenings of summer. Exploring Paris.
And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.
The hacienda must be built.
I do like ‘Golden Touch Sawmill’; it’s not quite ‘Lucky Smells‘, but this was (a) 1953 and (b) reality. But anyway:
Maintenant c’est joué. L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n’existe pas. Il faut construire l’hacienda.
Call me insufferably pretentious, but where the Labour Party’s concerned that for me just about says it: maintenant c’est joué. The Labour Party under Kinnock and Smith was still, in some significant and useful respects, the same organisation that it was under Wilson and Gaitskell and Attlee. When radicals like me argued against Labour there was always an unanswerable counter-argument: this is the Labour Party; this is the party of the organised working class in Britain. It’s a big argument, and it got a lot of use. Labour leftists used the Argument to justify staying in the party; entryists used it to justify burrowing away within the party rather than building their own organisations; even Socialist Workers used it, to justify supporting Labour ‘critically’ (or ‘without illusions’ or ‘go on, just once more’ or whatever it was).
Maintenant c’est joué. Firstly, the Labour Party – whatever else it is these days – is not the party of the organised working class. Secondly, the New Labour clique (who are serious about power) have taken steps to prevent it ever becoming that party again. Thirdly, the frankly spectacular New Labour approach to mobilisation, combined with a massive and broadly welcome disaffection with Labour as a party, have left the Labour Party in so weak a state that it wouldn’t be much use to the organised working class, even if they turned up tomorrow asking for their party back. If we want a party of the Left, we’ll have to build it. The actually-existing Labour Party is a distraction at best.
I’ve thought like this for a while, but a debate I was in recently brought home to me again the enduring weight of the Labour Party on the Left – and the increasing deadness of that weight. In a comments thread on Dave‘s excellent blog, I recently got involved in an argument with a Labour Party member. It was something of a dialogue of the deaf; I never really got an answer either to the question “why are you in the Labour Party?” or to “why do you think you’re on the Left?”, and I got the impression my interlocutor’s silence wasn’t down to inadvertence or rudeness. Rather, it seemed that the two questions were at once inseparable and unanswerable:
of course I’m in the Labour Party, I’m on the Left!
of course I’m on the Left, I’m in the Labour Party!
It’s an increasingly meaningless and arbitrary association of ideas, I’d argue, and one which badly needs to be challenged.
Anyway, here’s my half of the conversation (with light edits):
I’m slightly depressed, but mostly surprised, to see someone talking about ‘us’ being in power. Mind you, I didn’t really feel that the Labour Party was in power under Callaghan and Healey (for verily, I am an old fart and do remember the last time Labour won elections).
Parties change, and the Labour Party’s changed more than most. I voted Labour all through the Foot, Kinnock and Smith years; right now I’m actively opposed to Labour and doubt I’ll ever vote for them again.
I used to vote Labour, because I believed in what I thought to be Labour policies and I thought that the Labour leadership in government, kept under pressure by the Labour Party in the country, would implement some of those policies. All that’s gone now. The policies of the leadership are far to the right of anything that has ever gone out under the name of Labour before, even under Ramsay MacDonald. The mood of the party in the country is better, but it’s still more right-wing (and more leadership-friendly) than anything I remember even from the Kinnock/Smith period. In any case, the leadership has systematically dismantled all the structures which enabled the party to hold it to account, and now openly claims the right to make Labour policy on the hoof.
New Labour doesn’t mean socialism, or social democracy, or even the kind of timid while-resources-permit reformism the party had been reduced to by John Smith’s time. New Labour means corporate capitalism, disciplined communities and a tight hold on the reins of power. So, for as long as Labour means New Labour, Labour is not us.
The long-term trouble with Labour is that if you back away from ‘extreme’ left-wing policies for long enough, you end up with something that nobody will actually vote for, because there’s nothing really there. Blair understood this: he offered a break from the Labour leadership’s long history of apology and evasion, all those years of left-wing but not far-left, left-wing but responsible, left-wing but patriotic…
Blair isn’t left-wing at all: that’s precisely his strength. He came to power promising something radically different from the previous fifty years of Labour policy, and he’s delivered it in spades. I distrusted him from the off, but he’s gone beyond even my expectations. (Privatisation of the Health Service, by a Labour government – I wouldn’t have believed it even five years ago.)
What I don’t understand is where Labour Party members actually stand these days: setting aside group loyalties, what is it they believe in which the Labour Party can deliver, and only the Labour Party?
[in response to a comment that this is a ‘centre-right’ country]
You can’t say there was massive popular support for New Labour in 1997. Nothing, short of a major split in the party, was going to stop the Tories losing to Labour in 1997. John Smith would have won easily if he’d lived. (Perhaps he wouldn’t have had quite so many ex-Tory votes or quite such a huge majority, but neither of those is necessarily a good thing.)
You can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour since 1997. Guess which election had a larger number of Labour votes – 1979 or 2005?
And you certainly can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour policies. Who knew in 1997 that they were voting for ASBOs and Neighbourhood Wardens? Who knew in 2001 that they were voting for an appointed House of Lords and an invasion of Iraq? Who knew in 2005 that they were voting for NHS privatisation and compulsory ID cards?
I don’t think this is a right-wing country. I do think that submission to authority runs very deep in British society, though: there are a lot of people who want to feel they’re being led by a strong leader, someone who knows what’s best and may even punish them for their own good. And what better proof of strength could a leader have than taking on his or her own party?
I think this last, tangential point may have been the most important one. You could argue that the Blairites haven’t done anything qualitatively new; they’ve simply improved and enhanced a self-destruct mechanism which was built into the Labour Party all along. I’m referring to the eternally recurring confrontation between the Moderate Leader and the Extremist Agitators. Labour is a left-wing party, but it’s not really acceptable to bring a party of the Left inside the institutional tent – at least, not until the leader has proved his party’s moderation by facing down the extremists at the grass roots. Blair has only done what Kinnock and Gaitskell did before him, only at a higher level.
The odd thing is that this anti-democratic manoeuvre – a trial of strength, a proof of mastery by leader over party – seems to have a definite emotional appeal. My interlocutor on Dave’s blog repeatedly harked back to the glory days of Kinnock’s leadership; it turned out that the pinnacle of Kinnock’s achievement, in this person’s eyes, was his confrontation with the Mils.
Shortly after the debate on Dave’s blog had petered out, I started reading Robert Skidelsky’s ghastly biography of Oswald Mosley. (Quite interesting in many ways, I have to say, and I’m sure there’ll be more mosleyblogging in the days to come. Still ghastly, though.) Here’s an excerpt from the original Introduction:
From 1961 onwards I was actively involved in the Labour Party, both at the university level and in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism. It was Hugh Gaitskell’s courage, in face of the bitterest denunciations from his own party, in fighting for what he believed to be right, that really attracted me to Labour politics at the time. To be drawn into politics by the personality of a leader may seem immature. Yet there is a sound reason for it. On the quality of the leadership depends the possibility of action. This truth has never, it seems to me, been adequately grasped by social democratic parties. They spend their lives talking about the world to come; yet saddle themselves for the most part with leaders who are all too obviously content with the world as it is: hence the literature of ‘betrayal’ which pours out in unceasing flood from social democratic pens. Early on in my reading about Mosley I was struck by the dedication of John Strachey’s book Revolution by Reason (1925): ‘To O.M. who may some day do the things of which we dream’. This exactly parallelled my own feelings about Gaitskell, though not about his successor.
What Skidelsky says here, among other things, is that he was drawn to the Labour Party because the leader was at odds with the party. In effect, his loyalty wasn’t to the party but to the leader, and the leader’s faction – since, after all, the quality of the leadership determines the possibility of action.
Politics as the cult of the leader – and the cult of action (a favourite Mosley word). It’s a way of thinking that hollows out the party, and ultimately the government; democracy doesn’t really come into it, either ideologically or structurally. In this perspective the tragedy of the Labour Party is that, although the movement from which it grew represented a strong and coherent challenge to this mentality, the structure of the party itself created opportunities and incentives for new leaders to assert and impose themselves – progressively weakening the party’s democratic values as they did so. The rot set in a long time ago, in other words; by 1997 I suspect it had already gone too far to reverse.
L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas.
Update 25th July: Today’s dose of Skidelsky fortuitously brought me to this passage:
Although officially the struggle was between socialism and capitalism, Labour and Tory, Mosley interpreted it in personal terms: himself versus the Chamberlains and the press-lords.
(On the same page Skidelsky writes: “With the local Labour newspaper, the Town Crier, and its editor, W.J. Chamberlain, Mosley established excellent relations (fortified by substantial subsidies).” Not all press-lords, then – or all Chamberlains. But anyway…)
This personalisation of the conflict heightened its drama and bound working-class voters to Mosley (and through him to the Labour Party) in a way which more orthodox methods would never have done (or at least so quickly); at the same time it left something of a bitter taste in the mouths of some of the eclipsed, plodding, local Labour officials. … Mosley’s fault to these Labour activists was that he identified the Labour movement with himself, rather than the other way round.
It looks as if one reason why Oswald Mosley never made it as a Labour politician was simply that he was ahead of his time.