Dialogue with an Anti-Corbyn Labour supporter

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(Published now, rather than when it was written because it lost relevance when…  given the convenient coincidence of Article 50 and two tricky by-elections…. a second coup looked all too likely.  This threat has fizzled out for the moment, although another attempt to unseat Jeremy Corbyn may well materialise if Labour loses in Stoke and/or Copeland.  Posting now was also prompted by John McDonnell’s warning  ‘This daily grinding out of distortion and attack can undoubtedly have its effect on our standing in the polls and in turn on the morale of some of our supporters, who are not always close to the action and may not be experienced in past trade union or political campaigns’.)

Dear Person,

We met the other day, and you told me that you had only joined the LP to vote against Jeremy Corbyn,

I asked you if you had actually seen any of Jeremy’s speeches or the debates in the leadership contest?

You did have the grace to look shamefaced as you shook your head… Then you countered:

“But, but I do read the ‘good’ newspapers, the leftwing papers like the Guardian and the i”

Rendered speechless at the idea that the Guardian or the i were leftwing, I stuttered:

“Did you really think Owen Smith was more electable… a man who makes penis jokes??”

But what I should have said was:

Reporting in the MSM is largely without reference to context or history… and typified by criticisms such as Corbyn’s lack of success in winning back Scottish votes. This is reductive to the point of misleading but not new. However, there have been a number of recent academic led studies which have looked at media bias and concluded that the coverage of previous Labour leaders were ‘nowhere near as destructive, as vicious and as antagonistic as is the case now with Corbyn’. One such study indicated that 75% of press coverage misrepresented him and expressed serious concern for its impact on the democratic process.

Furthermore, many of these stories have been fed to the media by hostile members of the LP elite who are rabidly anti-Corbyn, and acting against the expressed wishes of the overwhelming majority of the LP membership.

They justify their behaviour by arguing that Corbyn is unelectable and not a good leader. However, this is hardly convincing when it is clear that they will fight tooth and nail to make it impossible for another more (in their view) ‘plausible’ but similarly leftwing candidate to replace Corbyn. For example, they could agree to reduce the number of nominations required from the PLP to stand for the leadership, from the current 35 to 5.

But they won’t do that because, just like Hilary Clinton, they believe that ‘it’s their turn’ and that the LP can return to being two shades left of the Conservatives and it will suddenly be electable.

This is the complacency and out of touchness that led to Donald Trump being elected. And a fact, that Peter Mandelson acknowledged when he blamed three terms of New Labour for Brexit and a majority rejecting globalization.

But in any event, the undue focus on Corbyn also ignores the plight of neoliberal social democratic parties globally.  As Stephen Bush wrote in the New Statesman:

Across the continent, just two centre-left parties regularly outpoll Corbyn’s Labour: the Portuguese Socialists and the Italian Democrats, the latter of which averages 30 per cent on a good day. And of the two politicians held up as examples by Corbyn’s internal opponents – Matteo Renzi of Italy and Manuel Valls of France – one suffered a self-inflicted defeat in 2016 and the other looks likely to join him in 2017.

Labour’s Corbynsceptics have not yet accepted that the party’s problems do not start or end with the leader. They describe him as an insurmountable obstacle to victory in 2020, but the bigger problem for them is that he has also proved an insurmountable obstacle to their thinking about the party’s long-term future.

http://www.newstatesman.com/2017/01/jeremy-corbyns-internal-critics-have-compelling-diagnosis-they-dont-have-cure

 

It’s not that I have an uncritical relationship with the current Labour leadership but I’m not going to jettison Corbyn and co with all their really good points and policies when there is no comparable candidate who would get the nominations required.   Furthermore, I have no doubt that JC is staying on for the same reason. I don’t know how on earth he stands the constant twisting of facts, delegitimisation and misrepresentation.

Then you would have replied:

172 MPs passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn!

And I would have suggested that you read this review of Gaye Johnson’s book with its introduction by the late Michael Meacher:

A systematic analysis of the biggest internal coup d’etat in the history of the Labour Party. It contains a wealth of hitherto unreported material of how this was achieved. The Blairite machine gathered and fostered its own panel of ultra-reliable potential candidates (often special advisers of existing MPs) and helped to train and prepare them for the day when winnable seats might become available, exactly as the Blairite ‘Progress’ faction continues to do within the party to this very day.

And the legacy of this takeover remains. The leader may be Jeremy Corbyn, but the MPs, party officials, leaders in local government and many more remain the excrescence of a bygone era. Party employees especially have a long history of right-wing bias and working against left-wing candidates. A former Party Director of Communications openly boasted in 1998 of how he had worked to label the Grassroots Alliance slate for the NEC as “hard left”. Party staff are known to grade Conference delegates according to their loyalty to the leadership and harass delegates about how to vote. Staff themselves were pressured to behave in a certain way by the increased use of short-term contracts.

Many of the powers of the NEC were delegated to hand-picked subcommittees in the New Labour era. Labyrinthine policy filtering mechanisms were introduced, undermining the sovereignty of Party Conference.

http://www.organizedrage.com/2016/12/book-review-new-labour-was-gain-worth.html

 

Then I could have said:

The pivotal moment was the PLP coup when the rebel MPs revealed their true colours, either politically or indeed in moral cowardice.  It was much more important for the prime movers to remove the leftwing leadership than it was to hold Cameron and Osborne to account for their gross irresponsibility and hubris.  It said it all.

At that point, many in the LP membership realised that these rebels MPs were not on the same side as themselves and that being elected on another neoliberal, New Labour platform was worse than useless.

Blair, Brown, Mandelson and the rest, were able to do things that the Tories would not have been able to do and we let them because they did increase funding public services  but in reality it was not enough… and the door was left wide open for the Tories to walk through in 2010 and defund, sell-off and privatise.

As for Jeremy Corbyn’s electability, a friend wrote to me:

Most people want a more equitable distribution of income and sourcing of tax, adequate funding of the NHS, increased public sector funding and management of social care, and investment in services and job creation, support for the integration of migrants and prevention of their exploitation, and that a Labour Government would deliver them. None of these measures is ideological, and the people supporting them within the party or in the population are not ideologues. They are ordinary people, and they rather like Jeremy Corbyn because so is he.

I agree.  And thank you to the Person who I met the other day, who told me that they had only joined the LP to vote against Jeremy Corbyn.  You showed me how unerring George Orwell and Chomsky were in recognising that the propaganda of the elite is contained in the quality press, aimed squarely at the educated middle classes.  Needless to say I think there are a lot of people out there who need to take their blinkers off.

https://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/pdf/JeremyCorbyn/Cobyn-Report-FINAL.pdf

 

 

 

 

John McDonnell at The Peoples Assembly Against Austerity

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Targets should be to tackle homelessness, food banks, joblessness, withdrawal of social care, climate change not GDP which just measures how much wealth has moved to the top.

 

John McDonnell MP Shadow Chancellor The Peoples Assembly Against Austerity 05 12 15

Building a Movement from Below: The People’s Assembly

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The People’s Assembly: Building from Below:

  • What does this really mean?
  • What are the Implications?
  • Where does Labour Stand?

By Luke Cooper on this Saturday’s People’s Assembly Against Austerity previously published here:

The People’s Assembly

The People’s Assembly has resulted in a considerable bout of energetic debate on the British left, ranging from the super-supportive, to the cynically-critical, and those, on the money perhaps, who are supportively critical. But no one is seriously downplaying the size or scope of the event. With over 3,500 people set to converge on Westminster Central Hall it is clearly going to be the biggest ever gathering against austerity in Britain. It would be foolish to not see this as a big step forward in its own right. Bringing together a grand coalition of trade unionists, grassroots campaigners, socialists, Greens, pensioners, disability rights activists, and maybe a fair few regular people who want to turn their anger into action, is a big step forward for the left and shouldn’t be sniffed at.

This is a particular achievement seen in the context of divisions that have blighted the anti-cuts movement since the Tories came to power. Those of you who have not yet experienced the fractured socialist left, will be shocked to hear that campaigners against austerity have had not one, not two, but three competing anti-cuts campaigns, none of which can seriously claim to have a strong, organic relationship to grassroots organisations.

Life-of-Brian-300x168

It’s an all too familiar example of the infamous Life of Brian sketch that satirically depicts the infighting of the left. What makes that scene so farcical isn’t that people are arguing. The farce lies in how the myriad of groupuscules all have ostensibly the same ideas. In much the same way there has been barely a rizla paper to separate the competing anti-cuts campaigns politically. The People’s Assembly does create the possibility of unity, but it also poses sharply a question of how to unite in a way that maximises democracy and participation.

To kick off an argument about how to do this doesn’t mean doing yet another Life of Brian rendition. It’s not about ‘splitting’ for no good reason, or having huge rows over nothing, because debate is what the People’s Assembly should be about.

There is no shortage of things to discuss and there have been too many left wing conferences over the years when everyone says the same thing, no one dares disagree with one another, and the audience is left bored. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other constructive critics, here are three things that deserve some critical attention. The last one is the most important – what comes next and how it’s organised to maximise democratic participation – because it’s here that the opportunity to build a really powerful anti-austerity movement might be lost.

1. Unions

First off, there’s the unions. It’s excellent that the People’s Assembly has won the backing of the major public sector unions. They are an essential part of the fight against austerity. But there is no getting round the fact their existing leaderships have failed to deliver the action we need to start to the turn the tide on austerity.

When millions went on strike in November 2011 it testified to the enduring power of organised labour. But hopes that this might be a new dawn for workplace radicalism were soon dashed. The strikes were called off. And many of the union leaders who will grace the platforms of the People’s Assembly were central to delivering a rotten pension deal when there was still all to play for. The People’s Assembly will have failed the very people it is seeking to represent, if it doesn’t provide a platform for trade unionists that feel let down by leaders whose pay packets far exceed those of ordinary members and who, for this reason, don’t feel the pain of austerity.

Unison, as the biggest public sector union, has big questions to answer. Not only did it lead the retreat from the pensions fight, but, worse still, its leadership have for many years witch hunted activists out of the union on trumped up charges, with bullying, intimidation and bureaucratic measures becoming the norm. It’s a classic example of an entrenched bureaucracy not wanting an activist union and doing everything in their power to keep the membership atomised and passive.

And this at a time when the Tories are on the offensiveAs Labour MP John McDonnell has put it in admirably undiplomatic terms:

“… In order for free market policies to flourish, for wages to be held back, for privatisation to continue unopposed and for workers to be made to pay for the crisis in the economy then it is equally necessary for the organisations of the workers, our parties, our trade unions, to be made impotent. One way to do that is to clear out fighters and militants. That is what this is. Unison’s leadership are doing the bosses a favour.”

It is little wonder that many Unison activists find their blood boiling when their leaders talk the talk, as they no doubt will at the People’s Assembly, only to the very next day carrying on doing nothing to fight back. It’s right that the unions are involved, but there needs to be be a voice for the grassroots in the hall too.

2. Labour 

Secondly, the major union leaderships all have a strategy: to do everything in their power to ensure Labour wins the next election. If Labour were presenting a powerful and coherent alternative to austerity, this strategy might well look appealing. But what if – as is obviously the case – Labour have no intention of turning back the cuts and, in a stream of recent announcements, have even expressed their commitment to many of the Tory spending and welfare policies.

It’s tempting to see recent policy announcements on welfare as falling into line with Tony Blair, who back in April took a swipe at Miliband’s leadership and warned against Labour becoming a ‘party of protest’. But these announcements have been long prepared for. Labour are happy to vote against the government today, but everyday make it crystal clear they stand for austerity-lite tomorrow.

These facts pose big questions to all of us who want to see a real alternative to austerity. And its one recognised by many Labour Party supporters of the People’s Assembly. Independent columnist Owen Jones, who has gone up and down the country rallying support for Saturday’s meeting, is the first to admit that Labour has offered no alternative. He sees the Assembly as ‘giving Labour some real competition’ because ‘finally, the left is entering the ring’. Jones might sound convincing, but think it through for a moment and the logic starts to unravel.

The People’s Assembly might, hopefully, become a powerful social movement (more on which in a moment). But the Labour Party has long been unresponsive to those – remember the Iraq War when millions marched to say no to Bush and Blair’s crusade? Despite funding the party to the tune of millions, even the unions have no say over policy. But Labour is not entirely immune from pressure. Ultimately it is accountable to a working class electorate that it arrogantly takes for granted. What would start to shift Miliband and co is a party to the left of Labour eating away at their electoral support: a party doing the same to Labour as UKIP is doing to the Tories.

A debate has to take place at the assembly about Labour and the possibility of alternatives. Its one the unions aren’t keen on because it challenges the very heart of their strategy: to sit on their hands, wait for 2015 and hope for a Labour return. To go away from the Assembly having not talked about Labour, and having not had the opportunity to subject its leadership to trenchant criticism for not putting up an alternative, would be a terrible waste. This is especially so when an exciting call has been put out by filmmaker Ken Loach for a new party of the left, one that has already been signed by over 8,000 people. So, Labour has to be at the centre of the discussion. Loach, who is speaking at the Assembly, can use the platform to inspire a debate on a political alternative to the pro-austerity parties. There is far too much at stake for it to be otherwise.

3. Unity

Finally, there is the democratic deficit in how the People’s Assembly is organised that others have highlighted. A statement will be put to the Assembly that neatly side steps the first two big issues – Labour and the union leaders – and can’t be amended by conference participants.

This might seem reasonable. After all, with over 3,500 people set to turn out what if they allwanted to amend the statement? Chaos would indeed ensue.

Benefit-Justice-Campaign-BrumBut it’s not as simple as that. Imagine if the local people’s assemblies that took place all over the country had discussed the statement. Imagine too if they had been able to submit amendments that could then have been composited into the main debating points. Even then perhaps not all of them could have been taken but the most popular amendments could then have been put to a vote. The base at the bottom would have then had a genuine say about the outcome at the top.

Unfortunately, this isn’t set to happen – the statement will only be amendable by local people’s assemblies in the run up to a conference in… 2014. Not only that but it doesn’t appear that the organising group will be elected at the conference either. Despite the many workshops on excellent subjects – a refreshing difference from the day-long-rally-conference – the People’s Assembly risks being a top-down affair, when the movement we need has to be a bottom-up one.

This is intended as an entirely constructive criticism. Because at the very least it’s worth reflecting upon how this new People’s Assembly Movement – which I certainly hope is here to stay – can be organised democratically after Saturday.

A big problem with how the left in Britain does things can be summarised as ‘the cult of the next big thing’. The huge spectacle of the grand conference. The next major protest and demonstration. It is all too easy for activists on the left to jump from one thing to the next without laying down proper roots in communities.

If the People’s Assembly is to play the role that Owen Jones clearly wants it to play – a mass social movement, rooted in localities and built from the bottom up, promoting an alternative to austerity – then it needs to develop a democratic structure that grassroots groups can relate to.

There is no great mystery in how this might be organised. If the wide variety of local and national campaign groups and unions that will all be there on Saturday are able to affiliate to a People’s Assembly Movement, then they can send delegates to a conference to represent their views. The organising group can be elected by and accountable to this delegate conference. Delegation sizes can be suitably weighted from different organisations to make it appropriately democratic. Local People’s Assemblies can be convened to channel proposals into the next huge conference – which should should aim to be 10,000 strong. The People’s Assembly, with this structure, would soon be transformed from a meeting into a real movement.

It’s good that ‘building from below’ is becoming a new mantra on the left. It’s a sign of a cultural change in thinking we are only slowly coming to terms with. But it’s equally important that we start to take it more seriously. That we don’t just let it become a phrase divorced of all meaning. If the People’s Assembly kicks off a debate on what ‘building from below’ looks like in practice – as material prescriptions, and not just vague aspirations, then that will be really welcome. The People’s Assembly is already a success as a conference. The question is what comes next?

New Labour excluded the parliamentary left in a ‘sealed tomb’.

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There is a strong argument that Tony Blair and New Labour are culpable for allowing this ‘economy and welfare-wrecking’ government to be in power.  Not only did Tony Blair leave the ‘door open’ for much of the Tory/LD legislation to be easily implemented but New Labour’s ‘Tory-lite’ policies succeeded in alienating both the left of the party and much of the Labour supporting electorate.  ‘According to Ipsos MORI, while middle-class professional support for Labour declined by five per cent between 1997 and 2010, support among skilled workers plummeted by 21 per cent.’ 

Unfortunately, the exodus of left wing activists from the LP massively weakened opposition from within the party, particularly after Iraq, and facilitated further moves rightward.  A similar effect is currently observable in the LD’s grassroots .. those that remain are much more supportive of Conservative policies than those prior to the GE 2010.  In fact, New Labour moved so far from its previous roots that, as Owen Jones writes in the Independent ‘Time to demolish the Blair myth’ (1), Tony Blair’s greatest admirers are to be found in the Cabinet:

His influence is certainly “very firmly felt” among his adoring Tory fans, as they build on the foundations he laid. But Labour’s leaders would be best advised to leave the swooning to Cameron’s acolytes. Blair was fortunate to lead Labour just as Tory Britain imploded; but the old Blairite formula offers nothing to those who want a real alternative to the Conservative crusade.

The result has been disastrous for the UK which desperately needs to U-turn away from ‘austerity’ economics, and to reverse the dismantling of the NHS and welfare state.

Unsurprisingly, much of the electorate remains cynical that Ed Miliband’s LP has changed sufficiently, when there was so little difference between the Tories and the Tory-lite LP of New Labour.  This skepticism is particularly true for former left wing activists  However, at present, there is not a lot of choice … the only hope of removing the Tory/LD government is the Labour Party. 

It seems timely to consider what happened within the Parliamentary LP under the control -freakery of New Labour, and what of that legacy remains to undermine Ed Miliband’s LP in implementing a left wing agenda.  To that end, Think Left reproduces a Red Pepper article published in 2007, in the aftermath of Brown’s unopposed ‘election’ and the success of John Cruddas in the deputy leadership election.  This article quotes extensively from Alan Simpson MP, a leading member of the Socialist Campaign Group in Westminster, and the owner of one of the ‘greenest’ homes in the UK.  It is frustrating to think of what the LP might have been under such a ‘red-green’ politician who has now sadly left parliament.  It is even more tragic that the left were deliberately excluded throughout New Labour’s governing because subsequent events have shown that they were correct in opposing lighter regulation of the financial sector, Iraq, the hollowing-out of manufacturing, PFI and so on.

However, there are some rays of hope.  Ed Miliband employed Alan Simpson as an advisor, when he was at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in spite of hostility from both the civil servants and Gordon Brown’s cabinet.  The 2010 GE also saw the election of many more left-ish MPs, and the PLP contrasts favourably with the PLP of the previous 20 years. But most encouragingly of all is that the Unions are taking up the battle for the LP.  The most recent development has been the establishing of a union-funded think tank, Class: Centre for Labour and Social Studies which ‘seeks to shape ideas that can inspire the trade union movement, cement a broad alliance of social forces and influence policy development to ensure the political agenda is on the side of working people.’

It is hoped that the Red Pepper piece will provide a context for understanding the battles within the current LP and why there has been such a gulf between the politics of the ordinary Labour supporter and New Labour’s PLP. (Bold indicates my emphasis not Alex Nunns.)

What became of the Labour left?  by Alex Nunns  Red Pepper magazine September 2007

‘After more than a decade of a concerted attempt to silence the left in the Labour Party, Alex Nunns inquires into whether there is still life in this vital challenge to the power of the executive.

When John McDonnell conceded that he couldn’t get the 45 MPs’ nominations needed to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party, commentators leapt into action, gleefully declaring the death of the left. ‘It’s pathetic,’ Andrew Neil said to Diane Abbott on the BBC’s weekly political show, This Week. ‘Your lot can’t even muster 45 backers.’

Six weeks later it was different. Jon Cruddas’s strong showing in the deputy leadership contest prompted headlines such as ‘Why Labour is lurching left’ in the Sun. All of a sudden the left was a force that Brown couldn’t ignore.

So what is the true state of the Labour left after Brown’s coronation?

Sealed tomb

After a long period in power under the most right-wing Labour leader ever, who initiated a disastrous aggressive war, the left should be on the ascendant. The grass roots should be rebelling, and MPs should be getting braver. This would follow the pattern of other times – such as the end of the Wilson/Callaghan government.

But Alan Simpson, longstanding Labour MP and a key figure in the left Socialist Campaign Group in Westminster, believes the left is in ‘a seriously weakened position in parliament, consistent with the declared New Labour objective that the parliamentary left would be a “sealed tomb”‘.

When journalists refer to the Labour left, they usually mean the Campaign Group. Formed in the aftermath of the 1981 deputy leadership contest, the group endured but is now steadily losing members – comprising just 24 of 353 Labour MPs. ‘The difficulty is the numbers,’ says Campaign Group MP Neil Gerrard. ‘We lost members at the last election. Next time a big chunk of the Campaign Group is leaving parliament. There are no new left MPs joining because they aren’t being selected for winnable seats. Is it going to be able to sustain itself?’

How can this gloomy picture be reconciled with the Cruddas result? In a way it is not comparing like with like. It was when Cruddas got beyond the parliamentary protection barriers that he really scored – in the trade unions especially. MP Neil Gerrard believes the deputies’ contest became a proxy for the leadership battle that never was. Parliamentarians felt more secure in nominating Cruddas due to the lack of an obvious front-runner.

Cruddas is also distinctly not of the Campaign Group. He is associated with the Compass think-tank. The lineage of this group is best illustrated by Cruddas’s own biography – he worked in Number 10 during Blair’s first term, representing the trade unions within government when, he says, ‘there were still spaces to occupy, like on the minimum wage’. He became disillusioned with the rightward drift in the second term.

The Cruddas campaign was not intended as a challenge to Brown – in fact Compass came under pressure from some of its own members because it refused to back either John McDonnell or Michael Meacher. Some see Compass as the re-emergence of the ‘soft left’ after years of loyalty to New Labour. But the breadth of involvement from across the left and the organisation’s openness to non party members indicates an attempt to go beyond the debilitating division between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ categories. However in parliament Compass has none of the organisational strength or purpose of the Campaign Group.

But does the state of the left of the Labour Party really matter? Many people working for social change decided long ago to focus their efforts outside parliament and the Labour Party.

Powerful actor

Like it or not, though, the Labour Party is a powerful actor. Due to the first past the post electoral system, it has significance even for activists who do not believe it can ever deliver radical change. Sooner or later, every campaigning organisation comes up against some noxious piece of legislation, or needs the help of an MP to discover information or get something done. Given the enormous strength of the British executive, when Labour is in power rebellions from the party’s left are among the few ways of holding the government to account.

The balance sheet over the past ten years has not been completely in New Labour’s favour. An early revolt over benefits cuts, led by the Campaign Group, provided the context for Brown’s tax-credits policy. On foundation hospitals, government concessions meant hospital trusts could not act as completely commercial organisations. Alan Simpson points out how ‘since the Kinnock years the Campaign Group has worked collaboratively with a wider coalition of dissenters, for example in opposition to tuition fees, academies and immigration legislation.’

The Campaign Group’s advantage is that its members have a shared lack of interest in conventional parliamentary careers. Government patronage has been the main mechanism for taming the left but it does not work on the likes of Lynn Jones or Jeremy Corbyn, especially when such MPs are organised in a group. One of the worries over the MPs loosely coalesced around Compass is that they might be more easily bought-off by Brown. Critics point to Compass’s failure to back a leadership challenger as evidence that this process has already begun, while in response supporters emphasise Cruddas’s decision not to take up Brown’s offer of a job.

But how did the left reach this state of apparent weakness on the one hand and vulnerability on the other? Any explanation must be set against the context of a decades-long beating at the hands of Neil Kinnock and then Blair. Since Kinnock’s 1985 Conference speech and the expulsion of the Militant Tendency, the Labour leadership has sought to delegitimise the left. Helped by the electoral system, Labour turned smashing the left to its advantage, secure in the knowledge that leftists had nowhere else to go.

These trends went into hyper-drive under Blair. For Simpson, ‘the weakness of the left is seen in the extent to which the party machine has become involved in virtually every selection of neutered parliamentary candidates, using open shortlists in a fast and loose way, mainly to ensure that left candidates are excluded or defeated.’ Neil Gerrard concedes most of his Campaign Group colleagues would have ‘great difficulty being selected as parliamentary candidates now compared to 15 years ago’.

The extent of New Labour’s control-freakery and the crippling impact it has had on the left is remarkable. Under Blair, No 10 and the Labour Party head office were obsessively concerned with every parliamentary candidate’s selection. Left-wing hopefuls, like Christine Shawcroft or Mark Seddon, were stopped at all costs. Party workers were tasked with personal lobbying for the leadership’s preferred choice, or were even told to chase up certain postal votes but not others. On the flip side, safe New Labour candidates were coached before selection meetings – events often packed with supporters. Blair was said to have taken a close personal interest in many selections.

These tactics have been used for elections to policy forums and in choosing Labour conference delegates. Conference management has been staggering. The renowned ‘delegate liaison’ staff – experts in arm-twisting – work tirelessly to ensure correct speakers are chosen and votes go the right way.

The upshot of this style has been the loss of many activists. Alienated by war and policies like the patchwork privatisation of the NHS, many feel a lack of influence over the direction of the party and leave. Labour’s membership tumbled from 407,000 in 1997 to just 177,000 in May 2007. Ironically, this hollowing-out has accentuated the effectiveness of these tactics – it is easier to manage a party that is an empty shell.

The weakness of the parliamentary left follows from this. Critically-minded MPs take strength from local campaigning groups. Without them they can feel isolated and more vulnerable to pressure from the leadership. This was demonstrated starkly in the failure of a challenger to secure enough MPs’ nominations to take on Brown.

Fragmentation

But it would be wrong to see the left as a helpless victim of attacks from the Labour right. Alan Simpson traces the left’s weakness back to its own ‘fragmentation’ in the mid 1980s. He says that vents like the Socialist Conferences in Chesterfield – which drew together a broad spectrum of activists and thinkers between 1985 and 1987 – ‘contributed to the erosion of the left. There was nothing wrong with getting Tony Benn to stand, but this happened at the same time as people were jumping ship. It led to a diminished left in the Labour Party.

‘The Chesterfield stuff was the origins of Blairism because we lost the discipline of the collective and said ‘the personal is the political, so everyone go off and do your own thing’. The right then picked up this individualism and ran with it. The left was dispersed, resulting in the chaos we have now.’

An alternative view would posit that Chesterfield-style connections between social movements and the Labour left could not have such a causal impact; after all they have not led to fragmentation in other times – for example, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when activists joined a more open Labour Party in significant numbers and added their energy to the Bennite campaign.

Indeed, it was these kinds of connections that John McDonnell attempted to rebuild in his leadership campaign, which comprised nearly a year of travelling and speaking to countless meetings. He is now channelling this momentum into the Labour Representation Committee, ‘a national network of Labour Party activists and trade unionists who are fighting for socialism in the Labour Party’, which is pointedly ‘open to members of the Labour Party or of no party at all’. Many argue that it is in opening practical and intellectual connections with campaigning movements that the future of the Labour left lies.

McDonnell’s leadership bid caused ruptures within the Campaign Group. He did not enjoy the full support of its members, some of whom, including Alan Simpson, backed Meacher instead.

The big unions refused to back either Meacher or McDonnell, despite the fact that both men stood on a platform that promised to increase union power and stop privatisation. Unions work within constraints – they often take the view that their members’ interests are best served by working with the Labour leadership, or in this case the leader-in-waiting. Within the union movement there is also a dense network of reciprocal ties that inhibit a union from going it alone. The large unions believed that a challenger to Brown would have no chance, and most of the smaller ones followed suit.

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, believes that the process wasn’t helped by tactical errors. ‘I think there was a miscalculation in the deal between Michael Meacher and John McDonnell on that Monday afternoon,’ he says. ‘I never thought it would be the case that Meacher’s supporters would all switch to McDonnell, but I think most of McDonnell’s would have backed Meacher.’

By contrast, when it came to the deputy leadership contest the lack of an obvious front-runner meant unions were more willing to throw their weight behind a candidate – Cruddas had the backing of the UK’s largest union, Unite.

Cruddas’s success surprised everyone, including himself. The Compass/Unite combination was key. In the first round of voting he actually came first with the highest percentage among trade unionists and good support in the constituency parties – gaining 19 per cent overall in a field of six candidates. Eventually he finished third, beating ministers Hilary Benn, Peter Hain and Hazel Blears.

Life in the party

‘There’s much more life in the party than I thought,’ says Cruddas. ‘When I started I thought the party had been hollowed out. But the result shows that the ‘virtual’ politics practised at the centre, the politics of positioning and messaging, was out of touch with the party.’

Cruddas set the agenda throughout the contest, raising issues of housing, immigration and foreign policy. ‘All the other candidates were saying the same things to start with but the terms of the debate moved as they realised that the centre of gravity in the party was not where they thought.’

‘Blears coming last was a fantastic outcome,’ he continues. ‘It showed that her message of what the Labour party is about was wrong. ‘

Neil Gerrard, too, sees the contest as a positive process that ‘opened up many opportunities – policy debates and stronger links with unions.’ But Alan Simpson is much more circumspect. ‘It’s important not to get carried away,’ he says. ‘Cruddas has a voting record outside ministerial responsibility that is not very adventurous.’

Indeed, ask Cruddas what he intends to do with his new standing and he is less clear. ‘How do you get alliances built across the unions, in parliament and in the grass roots?’ he asks. ‘Is there a case for an organisational capacity? That’s a debate we have to have.’

An interesting feature of the Cruddas result highlights a further dynamic within Labour. The left is now stronger in the unions than in the local Labour parties – a turnaround from the days when right-wing union bosses were the bastions of the Labour establishment against the Bennite constituencies.

In a supreme historical irony, this shift has come at a time when Labour’s financial crisis has left the party dependent on the unions for money. The concomitant influence was manifested in the Warwick agreement, in which the unions wrought concessions from the government in the run-up to the 2005 election.

Billy Hayes points to Labour’s last election manifesto as an example of the extent of union sway. The CWU was able to secure a government commitment not to privatise the Royal Mail, but only after swallowing glowing language about the liberalisation of postal markets.

Hayes believes this limit to union influence is largely down to the left’s lack of a well-presented economic alternative. The left agenda has retreated from the ambitious Alternative Economic Strategy of the late 1970s to a more defensive position of opposing privatisation, PFI, and private equity.

But union influence can be expected to grow. Hayes says the Labour right has given up trying to win back the unions, in part because of the mechanisms imposed by Thatcher’s union laws. In the mandatory elections for union leaders, turnout is generally around a quarter. That represents activists, who tend to vote left.

This worries the right. As New Labour blogger Luke Akehurst wrote following Cruddas’s result: ‘If we don’t ensure that the successors to the current generation of general secretaries are from the moderate wing of the party, we’ll end up in a decade’s time with Brown’s successor in a contested election being from the left.

New Labour set out to try to loosen if not break Labour’s links with the unions and create what Peter Mair dubbed a ‘partyless democracy’: consensus government ‘for the people’, which purports to be above special interests. But this project failed, and not just in the unions. The attempt to ‘marginalise’ the party brought with it all the features of control freakery that proved so devastating to the left. But this left the party without a campaigning base – which has turned out be much more important than the Blairites realised, especially for wining local elections.

Cash for honours has, for the time being, scuppered the project. This presents a golden opportunity for the left. Lack of money has reduced the party machine’s control. There has been a huge cut in staff – up to 70 per cent in some areas – meaning there is no longer the capacity to manage every selection.

What can be achieved in the absence of this management has been shown in elections to Labour’s National Executive Committee, where the one member one vote system has reduced the scope for manipulation. The Grassroots Alliance has been successful in getting candidates elected through simple but effective campaigning. If the left can get its act together, the chance is there to replicate this at all levels of the party.

And what about Gordon Brown? Can the left sleep easier in its bed, or should it be up and fighting? John Cruddas is cautiously hopeful. ‘The jury is out but lots of what he is doing is healthy. There’s a sense of relief.’ Neil Gerrard, too, says that opportunities are opening up and is pleased by the change of tone from the government on issues such as the NHS. But Alan Simpson is scathing: ‘The leadership coronation has led us to the same mistake of honeymoon loyalty that the party made under Blair. It ignores the fact that unacceptable legislation is being pushed through in shed-loads and without opposition, right now.

How ‘the left’ responds as the honeymoon effect fades will determine whether it really is weak, or vulnerable, or whether it has some life left in it yet.’

Red Pepper is a magazine of political rebellion and dissent, influenced by socialism, feminism and green politics.