As a Labour Party member since the 1970s and an active member for much of my adult life, like so many I felt cheated and disheartened that euphoria of the celebrations in 1997 soon led to disappointment, as we thought, “This is not what we worked and hoped for! This isn’t Labour!”
Where did it all go wrong?A party which was built on improving the lives of ordinary working people, and which believed in supporting the vulnerable and a fairer distribution of wealth, was no longer representing those people, and the gap between rich and poor was getting greater. Yes, there was investment in education and in health care, which was well overdue and welcome, and there was an introduction of a minimum wage but little progress was made in redistributing wealth and little real equality of opportunity. If party members were disappointed so quickly, then it is not surprising that eventually the electorate turned its back on those who should have represented them.
A party which was built on improving the lives of ordinary working people, and which believed in supporting the vulnerable and a fairer distribution of wealth, was no longer representing those people, and the gap between rich and poor was getting greater. Yes, there was investment in education and in health care, which was well overdue and welcome, and there was an introduction of a minimum wage but little progress was made in redistributing wealth and little real equality of opportunity. If party members were disappointed so quickly, then it is not surprising that eventually the electorate turned its back on those who should have represented them.
The signs started in 1983. At that general election Michael Foot was a leader, and Michael was ridiculed by the press. I had met Michael Foot shortly before he became leader and I had tremendous respect and admiration for him. He was a genuine socialist and loved by the Labour Party, but Michael Foot was presented by the press as being too left wing, not a strong leader and especially not strong on image. At that time, media image was quite a new idea. There was criticism of the party’s policy of unilateral disarmament, and still the idea prevailed that Labour in power meant the unions controlled Britain. Unions and workers’ co-operatives were unpopular. Labour’s ideas were presented as “old fashioned”. The words socialism, solidarity and comrade were branded as communist principles and not regarded as supportive of the lives of working men and women in Britain, and of uniting them for their common good. The idea that the unions were representing people’s rights seemed to be lost. The press was winning the argument.
After 1983, Neil Kinnock as Labour’s leader started to set about to make changes to the party and the target was the Militant Tendency, and this seemed to be an answer to the criticisms coming from the press that the party was “too far left”. I didn’t think Labour were too far left myself, but I was very much aware that the Conservative Party which had been in power since 1979 was destroying our society, had destroyed workers’ rights through demolition of trade unions, and there was massive unemployment and a whole generation had no hope. But Labour accepted that changes had to be made because we wanted socialist Labour in power to start to build opportunities for ordinary people again, much like it had done admirably in 1945. So this was the beginning of a top down reorganisation of the Labour Party, and was the beginning of the party becoming less democratic, and the members having less influence on policy. Along with so many Labour activists in 1992 I worked hard to help put Labour back in government.
We believed the electorate had had enough of the extreme right wing government. I still think they had had enough of Thatcher. Neil Kinnock believed in socialism, and in Labour, he spoke passionately about his policies, but the power of the right-wing establishment, the press and the wealth of the much too influential few could not be overcome. The Sheffield Rally is famous for the premature celebrations and the Sun for its famous headline. The election defeat in 1992 was devastating for Labour. The press had won the argument, and Labour’s media image was blamed yet again.
I had previously met John Smith at Tolpuddle and he turned out to be a very popular leader of The Labour Party. John seemed to have a good “screen image” which Labour were beginning to realise mattered if you were going to counteract the power of the press and media, and get the Labour message across. But it was John Smith who continued this modernisation and he reduced the union influence by abolition of the union block vote in 1993. In 1993, the spokesperson at Tolpuddle was a young Tony Blair, a very articulate speaker, a handsome man with a clever wife. I shook his hand, unaware of the changes he would make to the party and even more unaware of the influence he would have in Britain and beyond.
When John Smith died in 1994, Labour was hungry for what it believed would finally beat the Tories. And that was all about image.
Labour hardly flinched at removal of the Clause IV, and the announcement of the title New Labour.
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
That it was possible to make this change at all was because ordinary members had far less power to influence policy. The annual conferences became staged affairs. Ordinary members were remembering the devastation of 1992, and those ordinary members remembered the criticism of lack of image by Michael Foot in 1987. They were fearful of yet another defeat. In 1997, most ordinary members still believed in socialist ideals. But Tony Blair didn’t . He had no connection with Labour’s history like Kinnock had had, he had no foresight like Tony Benn, and no honest belief like Michael Foot had. What he could do was handle the press. He could spot an opportunity, and he took it. He had an image. Labour fell for it. The message didn’t matter any more.
That is when the Labour movement died.
The Labour movement was a collection of people not just politicians, they were workers, union members as well as activists knocking on doors. Solidarity was a good word and people felt collectively protective and protected.
Labour’s mistakes were:
- Allowing the media and the press to drive the political agenda
- Being focussed on media image rather than the message which needed to be communicated
- Removing the voice of the party from ordinary men and women
- Not listening
- Wasting the opportunity when in power to redistribute wealth
- Focussing on private businesses rather than encouraging workers’ co-operatives, and all ordinary workers
- An obsession with arbitrary targets rather than focussing on real meaningful change.
I think we now know it is the time to unite behind Ed Miliband, who I consider to believe in socialist principles, and to bring Labour home to the people.
It is my belief that the core values Labour held are still relevant today but we need take account of demographic changes to society. There needs to be work for all who can, and living wages for all to enjoy extended leisure time as they live longer.
It is good that Labour’s current leadership is consulting with grassroots.
These are the people who need to feel ownership of the Labour Party and to have confidence that it represents them.