Emily Thornberry’s support for Labour Party Democracy

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Posted below is the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry’s letter to her constituents which paints a very different picture to that presented by former members of the shadow cabinet who took part in the staged walkout of the coup.  The most significant aspect is her disgust at the way that the party hierarchy have done their best to stop Jeremy – first from getting on the ballot, then by excluding 130k new members from voting and then by the £25 ‘voting tax’ for supporters.  It is so heartening to know that some MPs have a sense of what is democratic … and are prepared to stand up for what is morally ‘right’ not what is (apparently) politically expedient.

Emily is absolutely on the money with her plea:

‘I do not understand why anyone in the Labour party would want to turn their back on that membership, in the way that the party hierarchy have tried to do this summer.

Instead, it is time to unite as a party – the membership and the elected representatives alike – and together take our fight into the only contest that matters: getting this dreadful Tory government out of office, and punishing them for the mess into which they have plunged our country.

That is what we should have spent our summer doing – uniting, facing outwards, taking on the Tories, and energising the public to our cause – and that is again why I regret so much the chaos and distraction that this attempted coup against Jeremy has caused.’

Emily Thornberry’s full letter to her constituents:

What had begun as the necessary modernisation of the Labour party in 1994, showing how a belief in a dynamic market economy could be combined with the drive for social justice and the transformation of public services, had become distorted into an agenda where the test of every new policy from the leadership was how much it would antagonise the Labour party’s core membership.

Tuition fees, the attempt to marketise the NHS, the careless disregard of long cherished civil liberties and the drive to war in Iraq were being imposed by a leadership who convinced themselves that, if the members hated it, they were doing something right.

When I walked through the voting lobbies against the attempt to impose 90 days’ detention without charge in 2005, Tom Watson –then one of Tony Blair’s whips – growled at me that I was a ‘traitor’. But a traitor to who?

Not to the country, when this was a draconian measure designed to look tough on terrorism, but one that would undermine the cohesion of communities like ours, alienate people and actually undermine our security. My members knew this and I remember when Compass polled party members – at my instigation – it was clear this was the national view as well.

So who exactly was I betraying? Just a party hierarchy and a party leadership who were trying to shore up their relationship with the right-wing press by ‘taking on’ their members, and trying to out-flank the Tories on security.

When Jeremy stood for the leadership after the disaster of the 2015 election, the difference was palpable. Here finally was a candidate interested in listening to the party’s members, reflecting their views, and promising to represent them. As a result, hundreds of thousands more joined, including huge numbers who had left because of Iraq, tuition fees, and other issues.

Here we are now, less than a year after Jeremy’s overwhelming victory, and the party hierarchy – through decisions of the National Executive Committee – is attempting to overturn that result, quash Jeremy’s mandate, and put the party’s members back in their box. And they are doing so in the most naked way.

I was disgusted to see the attempts to try to stop Jeremy from getting on the ballot. And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, hundreds of thousands of fully paid-up Labour party members were excluded from taking part in the election, having been told the opposite when they joined. Third, your membership fees were spent on securing that decision through the courts. And then lastly, registered supporters, who had been told they could be involved in the Leadership election, were then told that they must increase their donation to £25 within two days to remain eligible for a vote.

Indeed, you should probably know that even to put on the social events we have held for local members in the last two months – occasions that have been really important to welcome in our new members – we have been forced to seek permission for each event from the party hierarchy.

In short, some people have done their level best to deny the party’s full membership a fair and equal vote in this contest, or even the chance to make their voices heard. Instead of welcoming the enthusiasm of our new members, instead of celebrating the strength of our mass membership, they have been behaving as if it is something to be afraid of.

As someone who spent nearly 30 years as a grass roots activist before becoming your MP, I cannot accept this.

But even more important, as someone who believes our party and our country are best served when our elected representatives and the party membership work together, I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to take us back to the years when our members were deliberately antagonised, alienated and ignored by the people who they helped to put in power.

Islington South and Finsbury Labour Party has a proud reputation for being one of the great campaigning local parties and our election results in the past 11 years have shown what can be done when the membership and its elected representatives work together with respect.

We now have the potential to replicate this success across the country, creating a national activist base that could be unlike anything else in modern British politics, taking our message into the street and onto the doorstep, and turning the activism of thousands into the support of millions.

I do not understand why anyone in the Labour party would want to turn their back on that membership, in the way that the party hierarchy have tried to do this summer.

Instead, it is time to unite as a party – the membership and the elected representatives alike – and together take our fight into the only contest that matters: getting this dreadful Tory government out of office, and punishing them for the mess into which they have plunged our country.

That is what we should have spent our summer doing – uniting, facing outwards, taking on the Tories, and energising the public to our cause – and that is again why I regret so much the chaos and distraction that this attempted coup against Jeremy has caused.

So my plea to all members, and one I will make to my fellow MPs, is this: whatever the outcome of this leadership election, we should stop the internal division, unite as a party, and take the fight to the Tories together.

And I would like my local party to know that I will remain totally loyal to the leader of our party, whoever he shall be.

In the meantime, you all know that I have a very full in-tray with constituency business, and with representing the party on Brexit, foreign affairs, and – together with Clive Lewis – our future defence policies.

I will be concentrating on this vital work in the run up to 24 September, rather than this unnecessary and divisive leadership contest. And when that is over, I hope we can all start focusing on those bigger issues on which Britain needs an effective, united opposition.

I know that not everyone will agree with the conclusions I have reached, but I am completely confident that in Islington South and Finsbury, we will continue to debate this and other issues in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

Best wishes, and please as ever, let me know your views. Looking forward to seeing you on a doorstep with me soon!

Emily

A Daring Prediction: New Labour is Finished

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 A Daring Prediction “New Labour is Finished”

By Martin Odoni:

Previously Published here:  The Great Critique

I am reminded of Genady Yenaev.

If that name is unfamiliar to you, twenty-five years ago, during the dying months of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, President Mikhail Gorbachev was briefly overthrown in a coup, or ‘putsch’, by hardline Communists. Yenaev was their leader, and he was unhappy with Gorbachev’s ‘Perestroika/Glasnost‘ reform programs. The putsch lasted days, but eventually, when the Red Army refused to attack its own citizens, Yenaev and his colleagues backed down and Gorbachev was restored to the Presidency. It was one of the most foolish, ill-judged attempts to topple a political leader since the brief restoration of Henry VI of England at the expense of Edward IV in 1470. Yenaev’s failed attempt to maintain the Soviet Union pre-dated its demise by all of four months; the Hammer & Sickle flag was lowered for the final time on Christmas Day that year, and the coup was what started the countdown to the empire unravelling.

This week, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party have attempted their own putsch against their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and it has proven as foolish and self-destructive. The whole fiasco has been a speculative ‘hail-mary‘, chiefly because it has been almost entirely reliant on that most undependable of weapons – hope. Yes, their attack has included all the classic dirty tricks and intricate co-ordination with overly-helpful media who are gasping to curtail any resurgence of the real Left. But in the end, the whole strategy of the coup has hinged almost completely on the hope that Corbyn would simply be the first to blink. For the ‘Red Tories’, the hope was that because Corbyn is an honourable, decent, unaggressive man, that must mean he is a wimp. If he is a wimp, they could simply bully him into resigning. Right?

But decency and being a wimp are two very different traits. Given all the character assassination Corbyn has had to endure throughout a career in the House of Commons for thirty-three years, and especially over the last twelve months, this assumption about him seems laughably simple-minded. Having soaked up relentless, uncivilised pressure for half a lifetime, and still come out of it the same person, Corbyn has become as tough a politician as they come. He has shrugged off so many insults, so many blatant lies about his character, so much intimidation, and still he maintains an air of cool, patient dignity, honesty, graciousness and down-to-Earth good manners. To resist so much unfair provocation and hardly ever lose his temper is a quality that I can only envy. Having been in politics for so long, Corbyn will also have seen every dirty trick ever played, and he was always going to be ready and waiting for them. Sure enough, he had contingencies in place against the coup, including having a new Shadow Cabinet assembled before the stream of resignations was even halfway through. He was never just going to crumble and submit.

The ‘strategy’ of the coup throughout has been feeble and basic, relying on bullying and then hoping everything responds and pans out in a particular way. The minds behind the coup have given so little thought to the ‘what-ifs’ that there were no contingencies in place for anything. No one asked, for instance, “What if the national support sticks with Corbyn?” or “What if Corbyn refuses to blink?” And in behaving so deceitfully and treacherously, they have damaged, perhaps permanently, their own reputations, and to an extent that of their party. Such is the damage that, even if by some Excalibur-like miracle they succeed in dislodging Corbyn,they will still be in a helpless position afterwards. They have sacrificed everything, including their own futures, for the sake of controlling the future. That they did not see the impossible contradiction in that gamble says little for their intelligence.

The Red Tories’ only apparent chance since their failure to yell Corbyn into resigning on Monday has been more blind hope; they hoped to find a way of interpreting the rules so that Corbyn could be barred from standing in a leadership contest. With fewer than fifty MP’s backing him, they hoped they could argue that he did not have enough support to be nominated. But he does not need to be nominated; that rule quite explicitly applies only to challengers, not to the incumbent. The idea of the leader being nominated would make no sense on various levels; if Corbyn is being challenged for the leadership, by definition he has to be given an opportunity to meet that challenge, with or without nominations. Otherwise he is not being challenged but usurped, ergo the challenge cannot proceed. Indeed, his election to the leadership itself is his nomination, in a sense, and if he is no longer wanted, he will simply be voted out anyway.

Of course that is not going to happen, because Corbyn is still wanted by the great majority of Labour members nationwide. It is therefore right that Corbyn should stand. Corbyn will stand. And he will win. All signs are that his support in the Labour Party nationwide is, if anything, even greater than it was in September last year. The ten biggest Trade Unions in the country have all reaffirmed their support for Corbyn, which may even be enough to give him an unassailable lead even before the wider membership have their say.

Angela Eagle seems poised to be the ‘sacrificial lamb’ who will be sent to challenge Corbyn, but that is another self-destructive move; not only is she almost certain to lose to Corbyn, but she could also be put in danger of losing her seat in Parliament. This is because  her own constituency party has come out very publicly in support of Corbyn, explicitly protesting against the coup. It seems that, if Diane Abbott’s insights are the truth, this pattern of MP vs. constituents could have been replicated in Labour seats up and down the country, had the coup not been carried out with such indecent haste that there was no time allowed for discussion.

This speaks of the superiority complex of ‘Blue Labour’, the contempt in which it holds the public. It therefore also speaks of exactly why Tony Blair’s vision of the Labour Party has to die. Its refusal to respect the right of the party’s grassroots to be heard will be mirrored in the wider public, and that constitutes a threat to democracy. Blairism will die too if the Red Tories continue on their present course, for if the constituency parties are alienated from their own candidates, the basic foundation of an MP’s election-to-Parliament will crumble.

There is no way out now. The Parliamentary Labour Party has trapped itself by its refusal to respect its leader’s mandate, and its unwillingness to give him a genuine, fully-supported chance to prove himself. Even Ed Miliband got more of a chance than Corbyn, and most of the party regarded Miliband with professional contempt. They have now presented Corbyn potentially with the authority to purge the party of the neoliberal elite, and to restructure the party so that its MP’s can no longer trigger leadership contests without the approval of the grassroots. The party will probably split into two once more, like it did in the early-1980’s.

 

What that means for the future is not necessarily the return of a genuine left-wing Government; the breakaway of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 not only split the Labour Party but also split its support, and there is bound to be at least some measure of lost support during the split ahead. The hope is that the rapid groundswell of support Corbyn has drawn can offset that, if it continues to grow, while the Conservative Party are dragged backwards by the equal chaos in their own ranks – a chaos that was not duplicated in the 1980’s. Also, future generations of Labour MPs will doubtless include once more many from the political ‘centre’, or from even further right. Yes, they will have to be watched closely to make sure they do not resurrect the parasite of ‘watered-down Toryism’.

But for now, the back of the current incarnation of ‘watered-down Toryism’ has been broken. With the Chilcot Report just days away, and likely to associate the Blairite philosophy permanently with the spectre of war crimes, the whole brand of neoliberalism-with-a-queasier-conscience will be irredeemably tarnished, as will all current politicians who subscribe to it.

I may regret making this prediction, but I shall say it anyway. New Labour is finished.

See also Think Left: What the Labour Leadership didn’t want us to know

What do the Labour Right think will happen if ‘they get their party back’?

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To be honest, I’m a bit mystified by the pronouncements of the Labour ‘modernisers’. Their thinking doesn’t seem to make any sense.

In the last two weeks, since Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership with 59.5% of the vote, we’ve heard Charles Clark say “It’s obviously been a very bad week for him.” (?) and that Yvette Cooper is waiting in the wings to take over as Labour leader if Jeremy Corbyn gets fed up with the job (?).

Much more ominously, there are ‘reports that elements of the British Army may rebel if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Prime Minister, and a serving general quoted as saying that “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it”.

Has it been a bad couple of weeks for JC?

Off the top of my head, he has put together a huge and an inclusive shadow cabinet, which comprises 52% women; made a very successful speech at the TUC and gained praise for his appearance at PMQs.  If that’s a bad week, then let’s have more of them.

However, as Phil Burton-Cartledge writes:

 ‘Driven by the press and then echoed by the broadcasters, the media assault on Jeremy Corbyn this week has perhaps been the most scurrilous, smeary, and desperate I have ever seen.’

Richard Seymour sees this as a continuation of what he calls Project Fear in which the Labour Right has tried to frighten JC supporters but he says:

‘.. there will be war in the Labour Party. Project Fear was just the panicked, clearly ineffectual start. And in that war, the right wing will have the backing of the media, the spooks, the civil service, and a good chunk of the membership.’

John Rentoul agrees that ‘..there won’t be defections. There will be a civil war instead.’

He continues to write of the Labour MPs:

‘How many of them could say, in their heart of hearts, that Corbyn should be prime minister?  Eagle is tribal Labour, but I know more than one MP, and there must be many more, who, asked to choose privately between Osborne, who is likely to be leader of the Conservative Party by then, and Corbyn, would reluctantly prefer Osborne.… But Labour MPs are not going to defect.  It is their party, and they intend to take it back.  It would be hard for them to fight an election with Corbyn as leader and, perhaps even more so, with McDonnell in a senior position, but they don’t think Corbyn is going to last.’

So the Labour Right’s plan seems to be at least partly based on Jeremy Corbyn getting fed up with their machinations and resigning.  Then Yvette will step into the breach, untainted by association with the Shadow Cabinet (unlike Andy Burnham who gained 2% more support than Yvette in the leadership contest).   It seems like a fair guess that the ex-ministers who flounced off (refusing to serve even before they were offered posts) intend to form a Shadow-Shadow Cabinet.  Charles Clark remarked in a television interview the party was preparing to fight the next election without the newly appointed leader.

Really?

So what do they think would happen then?  Do they think that the 49% of full members who voted for JC, and the 60k new members who have joined since JC was elected, will welcome Yvette, Chuka, Tristam, Liz et al with open arms as the saviours of the LP?

Isn’t it much more likely that they will be blamed for undermining JC and crashing the LP?

Quite apart from the logistics of Tom Watson being elected as Deputy leader and the likelihood of a new leadership contest, I would make a fair guess that there would be a mass exodus of JC supporters if Yvette were to be parachuted in… and how likely is she to be elected?  Even with Liz Kendall and Yvette’s votes combined, they gained less than 22%.

Nevertheless, according to Luke Akehurst’s ‘conventional wisdom’:

Some of his grassroots supporters will go through the same painful process of awakening and political education that led to many Bennite activists becoming successively Kinnockite then Blairite in the 1980s and 1990s. Their idealism didn’t survive repeated interaction with electoral defeat and hostile working class voters on the doorstep. It’s natural to want to win. And people get older and in many cases their politics matures.

Trade unions will get fed up with not being able to deliver on pay and conditions and public spending for their public sector members because we don’t have a Labour government (they may also get jittery if we lose councils as they would prefer to negotiate with Labour employers not Tories).

MPs will feel they have to act or the electorate will sack them.

At least, Luke Akehurst sheds a little bit of doubt – ‘if conventional wisdom does prove correct’…. What conventional wisdom?  What planet do these professional politicians live on?

Can’t they see that whatever else happens over the next 5y, the political landscape has changed.  Globally, social democratic parties’ collusion with neoliberalism is being rejected and the electorate is polarizing between the far right and the left.  If JC fails, the LP under a Blairite/Brownite, committed to austerity-lite will, almost certainly go the way of Pasok. They had already lost 5m voters by 2005… and now they’ve lost the two subsequent general elections!

I could say more about the hubris and extraordinary sense of self-entitlement that has been revealed by the posturings of the former LP elite.  However, least said…

As far as I can see it, the choice for the Labour Right in the PLP is to join in the democratic debate and put their weight behind JC as leader, or ‘win their party back’ and reduce the LP to a hollow shell.

To improbably quote Blair’s old friend and member of JC’s Shadow Cabinet:

Asked whether Mr Blair was “right or wrong” to say that Mr Corbyn “is not going to be prime minister”, Lord Falconer said: “I have no idea. What we’ve got to do, to try to do is to make Labour an effective opposition and we need to try to make Labour a party that the public think can govern.” 

However, there is a very real danger to worry about, and it is not the rubbish about the national anthem, rugby matches and so on.

With reports that elements of the British Army may rebel if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Prime Minister, and a serving general quoted as saying “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it”, it seems that some in our established institutions regard democracy as optional.  We are allowed to make our choice, but if they do not regard it as an acceptable choice then they may feel perfectly entitled to disregard it.

As Bernadette Mearden writes:

Does the British establishment, in its entirety, really believe in democracy? Perhaps for some elements, the best reply to that would be – up to a point.

So is there any hope for Democracy?  Noam Chomsky was askedWhat is your opinion on the emergence of figures such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Pablo Iglesias in Spain, or Bernie Sanders in the US?  Is a new left movement on the rise, or are these just sporadic responses to the economic crisis?’  He replied:

It depends what the popular reaction is. Take Corbyn in England: he’s under fierce attack, and not only from the Conservative establishment, but even from the Labour establishment. Hopefully Corbyn will be able to withstand that kind of attack; that depends on popular support. If the public is willing to back him in the face of the defamation and destructive tactics, then it can have an impact. Same with Podemos in Spain.

Chomsky is right.   If the public is willing to back him in the face of the defamation and destructive tactics, then a left movement which reaches out internationally, and particularly across Europe, can create the conditions for a better world.  However, the call to fascism by the army general does not argue for an easy transition.  Before we get to that point, the Labour Right will have to decide whose side they’re on.

References:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/yvette-cooper-waiting-wings-take-6475790#rlabs=3%20rt$category%20p$7http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/yvette-cooper-waiting-wings-take-6475790#rlabs=3%20rt$category%20p$7

http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22092

http://www.leftfutures.org/2015/09/how-to-manage-the-anti-corbyn-media-storm/ 

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/09/jeremy-corbyn-labour-benn-kendall-blair-leadership/

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-will-not-spark-defections-from-the-labour-party–just-a-civil-war-10509520.html

http://labourlist.org/2015/09/whats-going-to-happen-to-a-corbyn-led-labour-party/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/11878514/Jeremy-Corbyn-cabinet-minister-attacks-new-Labour-leaders-policies.html

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/09/noam-chomsky-bernie-sanders-greece-tsipras-grexit-austerity-neoliberalism-protest/

Blair’s Coup d’Etat or Why the PLP is so right wing

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In the same way, as the dark side of the EU project was exposed by the Greek crisis, the campaign leading to Jeremy Corbyn’s staggering win of the Labour Leadership has exposed the gulf between the grassroots and the Westminster establishment.  So how did this happen?  Why are the vast majority of Labour MPs so far to the right of the grassroots’ membership?

The following review of political scientist Lewis Minkin’s book, The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management  goes a long way to explain how the left were excluded from becoming MPs during the Blair/Brown era.  It is particularly insightful because the review is written by Alan Simpson who was a prominent left wing MP who experienced first hand the Blair years.

 

The Blair Supremacy under Scrutiny

By former Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson

Reading Lewis Minkin’s new book The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management is like sitting alongside a skilled forensic scientist as he dissects the multi-layered elements that contributed to the death of the body in front of him.  This isn’t quite where Blair left the Labour Party, but it’s not far short.  The book reads like a thriller.   What makes it captivating is Minkin’s grasp of the scrupulous planning that went into Blair’s managerialist coup, which, for a time, took ownership of both the Labour Party and the country.  Minkin reports a ‘wry comment from Blair describing “New Labour” as “the newest political party on the scene and the smallest.  It has about five people.”’  ‘From within New Labour,’ Minkin continues, ‘the takeover of the party by this small minority was quietly and sometimes boastfully acknowledged to be a coup d’etat over the party.’

Minkin describes it as a ‘rolling coup’ in that ‘it involved a series of unilateral major moves over several years’.  These moves are what the book reveals.

I once described how the Blairite revolution turned Labour from a political party into a Tupperware party, but I was wrong.  The description is far too benign.  No one falls out of love with Tupperware, at least not in the way the country fell out of love with Blair.  Tupperware is also as useful to the poor as to the rich.  And Tupperware never stripped meaning and values from everything it touched.  Blairism did.  In doing so, it ruthlessly exploited (and then dumped) a lot of decent people whose lives had been devoted to the Labour Party.

Even today, many of these – MPs as well as party loyalists – have difficulty acknowledging how extensively, and cynically, they were taken for such a ride.  For them, the book should be compulsory reading.

If it has a weakness, Minkin’s analysis falls short only in the absence of a meta-narrative; this is something like explaining the Chilean coup without any reference to the USA. I shall return to this later.

Reluctant admiration

The Blairite plan was never just to lead the Labour Party, but to emasculate it.  To do so, every aspect of the party’s machinery of governance had to be subjugated to the leader’s whim.  Minkin takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through this process and the machinations that lay behind it.  Minkin describes the greatest unity of the small vanguard of ‘modernisers’ as their shared ‘negative appraisal of the party, including and particularly its affiliated unions and associated collective body – the TUC.’

Minkin’s dissection covers the entirety of my parliamentary life (and more).  It always puzzled me how, despite all the warnings and bollockings, I never got expelled from the parliamentary party.  Now I know.

It wasn’t that Blair’s ultras lacked a desire for purges; it was just that they screwed up more often than they expected.  Their ‘managerialist’ obsessions, which politically house-trained the party, created a space in which MPs, whips and others still backed away from pooing on their own carpet.  The machine knew that Blair would get the blame – ultimate proof that his control‑freakery had no limits.  And since protecting the leader had already displaced promoting the party as the Supremacy’s overriding duty, the hounds always got called off.

To be fair, some of this was also down to the wiser counsel of whips such as Nick Brown and George Mudie.  Both were better people than the Supremacy deserved, and it was good to see Minkin recognise this in his description of events.  I guess that many of the Labour rebels were also saved by divisions between the Blair and Brown camps, in what was to become the running distraction throughout the Labour years in government.

The Blair-Brown distraction

For me, the friction between these two characters – equally damaged, equally obsessive – was often a manipulated divide, spun out to lock the parliamentary party into the smallness of playground politics rather than the bigger canvas of real politics.  Loyalty invariably displaced integrity (or clarity) in the debates of the day.

Minkin captures this brilliantly in his description of the seminal moments surrounding New Labour’s first internal rebellion – the vote on lone parent benefits.  ‘Dealing with the issue of a cut in lone parent benefit became a significant landmark in the early management of New Labour in government, and had major consequences.  For Blair and Brown,’ Minkin surmises, ‘showing prudence and control on this was all the more important because the left-wing Campaign group appeared to them to be the driving force of a limited opposition.  They, the usual suspects, had to be faced down and publicly pulled into line some time or the other, so why not over this early issue and now?’

Minkin describes much of this as a tactical misjudgment on Brown’s part rather than a cynical move on Blair’s.  Standing in the middle of it felt slightly different.  Many of us saw no real divide between Blair and Brown.  Neither showed an ability to step back and accept they may have got something wrong.  Both were obsessed with demonstrating their power as leaders.  Loyalty and obedience became articles of faith, outside of which Labour’s world would crumble.

In the same way that the Mafia asks you to destroy something precious to demonstrate loyalty, Labour MPs were asked to give a kicking to some of the most vulnerable in society.  This was a difficult step for many to take.

For the machine, however, it was the first big test of their ability to put the squeeze on people; and there were members of both the Blair and Brown camps who loved it.  MPs could be leaned on, cajoled, abused or bullied, all in the name of loyalty.  Many had their constituency officials phoned and told to kick their MPs into line.  Some had their families phoned and told not to get too comfortable with an MP’s life because they would be thrown out before the next election.  All were told it was New Labour (i.e. Blair) that they owed allegiance to.  Conscience was a liability, not an asset.

Both Blair and Brown may have wished to run with their ultras’ demands for a purge of the 47 rebels who ignored these entreaties, but the impact on the parliamentary party was different.  Most were reluctant to expel those who went into a division lobby that their hearts told them they should have been in too.  It established an achilles heel that was (fortunately) to remain throughout the Supremacy.

Lies, damn lies and New Labour

One of the strengths of Lewis Minkin’s book is its description of how all the groundwork for this managerial coup had been done long before the 1997 election.  The machine may have been surprised by the scale of the Labour victory but it already knew that it would rule by manipulation and disinformation, rather than through a new era of democratic engagement.

When Blair talked of ‘an unbroken line of accountability’, he meant everyone, and everything, being accountable to him.  His (initial) personal popularity was played out in talk of ‘direct democracy’ – a leader connecting directly to the people.  It was a great way of sidelining every structure of accountability that the party had ever created.  Minkin describes this with painful accuracy.

Minkin details how ‘the Blair coup’ set out to turn the parliamentary left into ‘a sealed tomb’: one that would not be re‑opened by new, dissenting, Labour MPs entering parliament.  Under the guise of ‘improving the quality of candidates’, Blair’s machine filleted the panel of those approved for selection by ‘eliminating candidates who “appeared not to have a pragmatic line on policy disagreements”’.

At the heart of what Minkin calls the ‘rolling coup’ was Blair himself – vulnerable, charismatic, insecure and obsessive – the centrepiece of a giant political Ponzi scheme.  Truth was always a moveable feast.  Statistics, or supportive polling data, would always be found to justify the latest move to ‘marketise’ and individualise everything advanced by New Labour.  It wasn’t just Clause Four that Blair wanted shut of; it was the whole notion of collectivism.  Business, particularly big business, wanted none of it.

So it was that, under the guise of new social partnerships, huge tranches of the social fabric of Britain were transferred into the pockets of the private sector.  My only quibble with Minkin is that this was as much Brown’s agenda as Blair’s.  The debacle of PFI and PPP debts that remain tied round the neck of public services is their common legacy to the country, not just a Blairite one.

The shadow of Nuremberg

Without doubt Blair was a consummate performer, with an unparalleled ability to lie for any cause.  It is only fitting, however, that his greatest lie should be the source of his ultimate undoing. On most issues he simply moved on and the machine behind him swept contradictory evidence under the nearest carpet.  But war doesn’t work like that – not, at least, when it is a war of choice.

As the chair of Labour Against the War, I knew how far we had gone to bring real ‘evidence’ within the reach of MPs.  Weapons inspectors had come into parliament, assuring us they had no evidence of any remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  International diplomats had arrived urging more time, and more diplomacy.  We even circulated our own detailed pamphlet to all Labour MPs on the eve of the Commons debate, dismantling the claims made in Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’.  But most of us knew that Blair had already promised Bush the war he was looking for.  Nothing was going to deflect Blair from his own jihadist inclinations.

Minkin is right in depicting the debate as one of Blair’s most outstanding parliamentary moments.  It was where he pushed ‘Trust me’ and ‘If you only knew what I know’ to its limits.  It was some achievement to get decent people to vote in ways that Nuremberg would have judged an inadmissible defence.

But the war, its consequences and the absence of WMDs turned out to be Blair’s unforgivable sin – the lie that will dog him to the end of his days.  Hubris had given the public, and the party, something to hate him for.

The meta-narrative

The only thing Lewis Minkin’s book lacks is a wrap-around.  For all we come to understand about the ‘how’ of Blair’s rolling coup, there is nothing that addresses the ‘why’.  It isn’t enough to put it all down to control-freakery.  To learn anything from this, we have to put it in a context.  Psychologically, Blair was always drawn towards wealth and celebrity, and has draped himself in more of it than can ever buy forgiveness.  His favoured acolytes all went the same way, becoming payroll beneficiaries in everything Blair privatised.  But the brains are to be found elsewhere.

My take is that Blair had long been groomed by the neoliberalism that was running away with American politics.  The agenda was not to make Labour ‘business-friendly’ but big business-compliant.  The global agenda of the time was about turning public services into corporate profit streams.

Deregulation of financial markets, the World Trade Organisation, the TRIPS agreement on intellectual property rights and a series of US adventurist wars were all part of a bigger project.  The creation of new global creatures – corporate citizens – required the creation of new cultural norms within which they could flourish.  Rights were to be transferred from citizens to corporations.  Duties went the other way.  Somewhere along this trajectory from citizens to serfs is where we are now.

Blair was not the architect of this.  His shallowness, vanity and venal interests just made him a willing partner.  The real Supremacy lay elsewhere.

Accolades to the invisible

Some, in parliament, understood this.  And it is in a tribute to them that I want to end this review.  The Campaign group of Labour MPs barely figure in Minkin’s book, but they were the only bolt-hole of real political thought that I found throughout my parliamentary years.  Some of their leading voices get no mention at all, yet they were the MPs you would always find on picket lines, at trade union and social movement rallies, on anti-war marches and at the forefront of campaigns to restore rather than exploit the planet.

Epitomised by Tony Benn, these were the Labour MPs – socialists – who set out to explain that we always had bigger and better choices open to us than the Supremacy would have had us to believe.  Of course, it is sad that neither the trade union movement nor the party had the courage to wrap itself around those holding out this bigger vision.  But if Labour is to salvage anything from the superficiality of the Blair experience it will be the knowledge that we cannot manage our way out of the current crisis, any more than we can shop our way out.

The world is locked into a series of crises for which corporate feudalism has no answer; crises not susceptible to individualised solutions.  Tomorrow’s security will only be found if we grasp just how interdependent we really are.  Solutions will have to be on the scale of a new post-1945 settlement – with the planet as much as ourselves.

Tony Blair was never going to be relevant to this.  But the very thing whose removal came to symbolise his rise to the Supremacy – Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution – could well be.  What if common interests and common ownership/stewardship turn out to be the only viable form of tomorrow’s politics?  Think about it: the return of Clause Four – in local, national and global terms.  Now that would really piss him off.

The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management by Lewis Minkin is published by Manchester University Press. Alan Simpson was the Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010

Campaign briefing – CLPD Autumn edition 2015 issue no. 79

First posted in Red Pepper 

Related post – https://think-left.org/2012/06/04/new-labour-excluded-the-parliamentary-left-in-a-sealed-tomb/

 

The day the narrative changed

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The day the narrative changed

By julijuxtaposed  12.09.15

I’m so pleased, today.  I feel like I’m absorbing the collective surge of enormous hope and expectation.  It is a new day.  It feels like a miracle has occurred but, really, this shift has been dawning for a long, long time.  Not everyone wakes up together, of course but the election of Jeremy Corbyn, as the leader of the Opposition, heralds a discernible quickening.

Will Mr Corbyn have the personal and political capacity and resources for the momentous tasks ahead?  Will his Party’s dejecteds add yet another front for him to fight?  Will the media focus on the least relevant details of every political debate and gratuitously undermine his person?  Will journalicians serve public interest and present his narratives on the substances of his arguments or will they just filter for their confirmation bias, irrespective of merit or fault?  Aside from the first, I fear that I already know the answers.

It has always made me angry that Jeremy Corbyn was the only one to put himself forward because of what it revealed about the narrowness of the Parliamentary Party Mind.  How the Party and Establishment machines would dwarf him; how he would be painted as extreme, deluded and regressive.  It worries me, too, that so much ardent and desperate expectation is invested in him; that he is hoist on a saviour’s pedestal and may be pulled down by the disappointment and impatience of blind worship as readily as by his multitudinous opponents.  The battles ahead are numerous and will be vicious.  I don’t want to see the one man to stand for socio-economic decency and integrity made a scapegoat of fearful ignorance and I don’t want all the opportunities that his new status affords all of us to be thrown away, fighting distractions.

These fears abide.  But today?  Today, I see the tide turn.  Today, I anticipate breakthrough and shifts in consciousness.  I see a humanitarian public platform officially recognised and legitimized.  Today, I see the narrative space created for social justice and practical wisdom, old and new.  Today is for excitement and Hope.

Who Are the Labour Ideologues Now?

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Whatever the outcome of the Labour Party leadership contest, it is clear that there is a huge gulf between the grassroots and a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  Many MPs are left looking shaken and bewildered by the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn.  However, they shouldn’t be so shocked.  As far back as 2007, Jon Cruddas topped the first round of voting for the deputy leader.

‘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.’

 

The history of the Labour Party and of the UK would have been very different if Bryan Gould had been elected leader instead of John Smith and the transatlanticists like Blair and Brown.  In the re-posted piece that follows, Bryan Gould sums up the consequences of the Labour Party capitulating to the economics of Margaret Thatcher. 

Who Are the Ideologues Now? (UK)

By Bryan Gould – 3 August 2015

It is a truism of today’s political analysis that, over the three or four decades since the so-called “free-market” revolution swept across the western world, the centre of political gravity has moved substantially rightwards.  Most of those of middle age or younger will have grown up, after all, in a world where it has been widely accepted that markets are infallible, that government spending is wasteful and a drag on economic development, that running a country is just like running a business, that we all benefit if the rich get richer, and that private profit justifiably overrides all other considerations.

So insidious and comprehensive has been the advance of this orthodoxy that even those who choose to question or oppose it are hard put to understand how complete has been its victory.  As we see from the current plight of the Labour Party, political leaders who seek to offer alternatives are disarmed and enfeebled, without realising it, by their experience of growing up within its confines.  They are, in any case, urged – on electoral grounds and even by their friends – to accept the new reality; and that reality, of course, keeps on moving inexorably rightwards.

This re-definition of the political landscape has meant that what would once have been regarded as the extreme outer edge of what is politically possible is now the new centre ground.  Any divergence from this central position is, by definition therefore, literally eccentric; and any move away from “free-market” orthodoxy is condemned as either a return to the past or an irrational lurch leftwards.

These definitions of centrality and divergence have the further advantage, for their proponents, of confirming a long-held public perception.  In the days when the political left was prepared to challenge existing power structures, they were undoubtedly helped by their development of an ideology of sorts that allowed them to ground their objections to orthodox policies in some loosely defined analytical framework.  The consequent identification of the left as the doctrinaire element in the political spectrum seems, however, to have inhibited today’s leaders of the left, if the current contest for the Labour Party leadership is any guide, from straying too far from orthodoxy for fear of appearing too ideologically driven.

The right, by contrast, was usually seen as pragmatic and concerned solely with what would work.  Politicians of the right still seek to prolong that advantage by clothing their steady move rightwards in the language of experiment and exploration of what is possible, rather than of ideology.  They have also learned to proceed stealthily, one small step at a time, with the intention of concealing from the public that each new step is in reality a further development of a highly ideological agenda.

That may, however, be about to change.  As the tide of ‘free-market” orthodoxy has reached its high-water mark and appears to be receding (at least in most parts of the western world other than the euro zone), it is more and more likely to leave exposed to public view those new policy initiatives that seem to have little to do with common sense and practicality and to reflect much more clearly what are doctrinaire preoccupations.

Those preoccupations are becoming increasingly apparent.  The priority accorded to the drive for private profit, for example, has led to well-publicised failings in delivering what were once public services, epitomised by the misfortunes of Serco – an international firm operating, among other things, as a private manager of prisons and under pressure for its failures in a range of countries.

Privately owned academy schools, an idea that has now been shown even in Sweden, its country of origin, to produce disastrous results in terms of educational standards, will nevertheless no doubt continue to be supported by enthusiasts on the ground that business people are best placed to decide educational priorities for our children.

And what about the wacky idea, now being contemplated by New Zealand’s right-wing government, of financing the delivery of social services to some of the most vulnerable, including the mentally ill, by selling bonds to private investors who will then look to make a profit from their “investment”?

What links all of these and many other similar ideas is that they have little to do with what will work and best serve the interests of society and its citizens.  They are instead all statements of ideologically driven preference – in each case, a preference for private provision, not because it works better, but because it is a faithful rendition of “free-market” theory.

It seems, in other words, that the usual view of the left as doctrinaire and the right as pragmatic is in course of changing.  It is now the right that espouses the ideological approach and that will go on doing so for as long as it is not held to account and its bluff is not called.  It is the left (when it can make up its mind and, like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, reclaim its courage) that has the opportunity to offer new alternatives to free-market orthodoxy – alternatives that are not the product of doctrine, but that are simply sensible and practical and likely to produce better outcomes.  Isn’t it time that Labour’s leaders caught up with this new reality?

 

Answer to a silly question about Jeremy Corbyn

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‘I have been a member of the Labour Party since 1960. I am 70 years of age. So I don’t need any lessons in supporting the Party, through thick and thin over the last 55 years. I supported Wilson, I supported Callaghan, I supported Foot, I supported Kinnock, I supported John Smith, and I tolerated Tony Blair, until Iraq. That is where I drew the line. I supported Ed Miliband, whilst the traitorous Blairites tried to undermine him.

I support the aims that Nye Bevan embraced. He spoke about the commanding heights of the economy being under public control. There is great support for the public ownership of the Railways and the Utilities. Jeremy Corbyn understands this and he wishes to re-establish Party democracy to the Labour Party.

Many people are fed up with having, the totally untalented sons and daughters of past Labour ministers and leaders, parachuted into their constituences without the consultation of local members.

So, we who support Corbyn are saying no more, enough is enough. We lost in England, and we lost in Scotland because of this. So I will be supporting the original reason for Labour’s creation, as is Mr Corbyn. That is why I will be supporting him. I hope this answers your rather silly question.’

With apologies to the unknown author for ‘stealing’ your words.  They reflect the experience of so many long-term Labour Party members and deserve to be shared far and wide as a response to the ‘increasingly charmless’ New Labour attacks on Jeremy Corbyn.  

What was the ‘silly question’?  

“So, if Jeremy isn’t elected as Leader, will you still support whoever is?”

Frankly, what a bloody cheek!