Sleep-Walking in the Labour Party
By Ben Sellers previously published here:
I know those to the left of me will snort, but I genuinely think there are plenty of good people left in the Labour Party. I’d go further than that. Many of those people sincerely believe in socialist values and a different way of organising society. Most of them were drawn to the party and joined because they believed in those values and because they wanted to turn the things they believed into action. Equally, most of them understand how illogical it is to be basing our policies on Tory spending plans and talking about “responsible capitalism” at a time when the country is in crisis because of austerity and the pillars of capitalism itself are coming tumbling down.
The problem is, however, that these good people seem to believe in magic. That could be the only explanation for the fact that people will voice these views over the dinner table, in pubs and (as Owen Jones has said repeatedly said, by shouting at the telly) and yet do precisely nothing to attempt to change the party into one they could be proud of; one that reflects their values, however imperfectly. Granted, we are slowly moving from a more deeply entrenched quietism to a more public discontent, but still people are not convinced of the need to take action, to take responsibility. What I’ve heard time and time again over what has been a magnificent few months (including the Bedroom Tax Protests, the Miners Gala and the People’s Assembly) is that people, and that includes ordinary Labour members, want a Party leadership that stands up for working people and their families with the same determination that the trade unions today (and the mining unions in the past) have stood up for their members. There is huge frustration at our party representatives who have failed in their basic duty – to represent their communities and the membership views.
Now, I understand that people are demoralised, that they have been defeated again and again by the right of our party. The right and centre of the party seem to have all the cards – the resources, the media, the patronage – while we have been patted on the head and told to smile and wave. The thing is, we’re not little children. Many of us are confident, forceful people who if they were treated like this by their employer, would fight back with a vengeance. So why do we voluntarily submit to being mere cheerleaders in a party that was supposed to be for us, that was set up with the express intention of representing us (working people, the trade unions and the wider communities they come from)?
Tony Blair cemented this idea of going above the heads of the members to appeal to the nation. It was not just anti-democratic, it was a tactic to silence the party membership. We are being served more of the same with One Nation Labour. It’s a ridiculous idea that a party formed by the unions could borrow the clothes of One Nation Toryism. It’s the old New Labour spin – but which of us were consulted? What role did the party members have in this? None at all – it was just a marketing gimmick – like a scene from the Thick of It – and now were stuck with a new branding; a New Labour lite with a few Union Jack’s thrown in. Smile and wave, guys, smile and wave.
There has been much talk over the last decade about the alienation of the vast majority of working class people from the workings of an increasingly remote political class, operating via the machinations of professionals and with little reference to those people’s real lives. What we need to acknowledge is that this alienation, this disengagement has taken place within the Labour Party too. We have become bystanders in our own party and let the professionals take over – at a local as well as national level. For us, party politics has become a spectators sport. We’ve become too timid to criticise our representatives, because “they work very hard, you know” and “rocking the boat only helps the Tories, you know”. Where does this sort of deference, this quietism end? Well, we know don’t we, because we’ve already been there? Back with Blair and New Labour.
I realise that I’m talking to a minority here, both in terms of the party membership and the wider left, but I just don’t think it’s an insignificant minority. We talk ourselves down, self-censor our distinct political perspective. There are good reasons for this. Our voices are drowned out on both sides. To the right of us, the right and centre of the party have tight control of the messages given out by the party. They officially tell our story. On the left, we are assailed by the righteous indignation of the outside left, who blame us for that story which we have little or no control over. This has reached its apogee in a relatively new narrative on the so called “revolutionary left” – that Labour socialists provide “left cover” for the austerity-friendly Labour. Of course, this narrative isn’t new at all – it was the tactic employed by the Communist Party during its “Class Against Class” period of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Only the rise of fascism ended this ultra leftist attitude to the Labour left. It wrongly conflates the party left with the leadership and the PLP – which are in most respects polar opposites. Nevertheless it is difficult not to sound apologetic about your membership of the party when being tarred in this way on a daily basis. However (and this is the crucial bit) we need to break out if this defeatism – unless we want to continue to live in this prison created by our political adversaries on both sides.
It’s clear that too many people on the left of the party are paper members only, cowed by defeats, beaten down by the hegemony of the right and the depoliticisation at a local party level – and finally convinced by the leadership who tell them to accept that there is no alternative. Of course, many good socialists have left and that has hit us hard, but for those of us still in the party, is it not time to question the practical usefulness of such membership? In other words, if you’re not in the party to “cause trouble” (i.e ask the questions that need to be asked and organise to win our positions in the party) – considering its trajectory for the last 15 years – what are you in it for?
Rather than moaning in public meetings and amongst comrades, we really need to take some responsibility for this party of ours. It’s time for a new kind of left in the party. One that understands the challenge of the likes of Progress and organises itself to take on those forces; one that tries to mobilise the thousands in the party who have stayed quiet in the face of the Blairite onslaught, and one that takes seriously the task of democratising the party again – even of it means upsetting a few people on the way. One that is less apologetic and more decisive. We either attempt to reclaim the party or we don’t. We either try to claim it for the members or we don’t. We’re either cheerleaders for One Nation Labour or were not, but lets not pretend we haven’t got a choice. We have, it’s just that we’ve been sleepwalking for too long.