The Labour Party. For those of us on the non-Labour left, it sits across radical discourse like Philip Larkin’s toad. Large, morose and with a massive sense of entitlement that leads its members to believe that it, and it alone, has the answers to the various crises affecting Britain.
I’ve been reflecting on the role of Labour quite a lot, following an interesting exchange of views between Labour and Green bloggers on the relationship between the groupings; and in the light of various pronouncements by Ed Miliband over the past few days – on the economy, on Labour’s legacy from its last period in Government, on the prospect (wholly imaginary, it transpires) of disloyal trade unionists threatening to disrupt Britain’s day of national rejoicing at the Royal Wedding. It’s depressing.
Labour and entitlement
One of the biggest problems I have with Labour is that its record in office shows beyondany argument that it is a right-of-centre, authoritarian party at home and followed a slavishly neo-Conservative agenda abroad. Much of what the coalition is doing now was foreshadowed by Labour in office – tuition fees, NHS cuts, erosion of civil liberties - and it should not be allowed to forget that.
But there is a sort of collective sense of entitlement – a sort of mix of arrogance and amnesia – in Labour quarters that it has a God-given right to be the voice of progressives. I am an elector in the Brighton Pavilion constituency, which, at the last General Election, returned a genuinely progressive MP to Westminster in the person of Caroline Lucas. Before the election, I had a number of depressing conversations with Leftish people who agreed that Labour’s record was in many respects dismal, and whose own political position was much closer to Lucas; but when I pointed out that they should consider voting Green, the excuses came thick and fast – always been Labour, will die in the Labour Party, only hope for progress, need for unity and solidarity etc. Expressions of solidarity that really betray a sort of ovine blind loyalty – the sort of political abdication that allowed the neo-cons to get control in the first place.
And they’re still doing it. I referred earlier to the exchanges between Labour and Green bloggers – what struck me was the language. Blogger Raincoat Optimism talks about refusal to work in the Labour Party as the scourge of the left – my italics – in a formulation that drips with arrogance and chauvinism. We’re not talking about sectarian differences in micro-policy; speaking personally, I’m in the Green Party because, inter alia, I believe that the Iraq War was immoral and illegal, that Labour handed the state far too much power, and that Labour in government followed an economic agenda that was neo-Liberal and illusory. These are not trivial matters and, like a lot of people on the non-Labour left, I’m not prepared to be read lectures on left solidarity by members of the Party responsible for this. As R H Tawney – who once upon a time had a certain cachet in the Labour Party – put it: to kick over an idol you must first get off your knees. (Indeed, Tawney’s great 1931 essay on the choices before the Labour Party, from which that quote was taken, remains a highly relevant read today)
So, on to Ed Miliband’s recent pronouncements. I found these really depressing, because to me they indicated the lack of ambition in Ed Miliband’s leadership, in which Labour’s agenda is reactive and apparently dictated by the media. Take, for example, his comments about strikes on the Royal Wedding day – a confection of the Tory press which Miliband should have denied – and should have been briefed to deny. Instead he gave exactly the answer that the Tories wanted him to give, to create mischief between Labour leadership and the unions.
Missing the open goal
The most obvious problem is Labour’s economics. At a time when the Coalition is blowtorching public services in the name of economic reform, necessitated by the deficit. I’ve argued before that it isn’t a case that stands up, and I believe that it should be relatively straightforward to present the alternatives with credibility and passion. Instead, Miliband seems mired in what looks like an internal dialogue about whether Labour in office was sufficiently explicit about the “need” for cuts. The ongoing feud between the Blairites and the Brownites may be of great interest to a few wonks, but means nothing to those about to lose their Disability Living Allowance, or their EMA, or about to face huge debts for the crime of acquiring a university education. But it’s the good old Labour Party, head stuck firmly in fundament, more interesting in conducting a dialogue about who was responsible for what than actually dealing with the issues. The Tories are weak on the economy. Their case is poor, the effects likely to be devastating. But Labour offers the arrogance of navel-gazing, and again dances to the Tory agenda that wants to claim that the economic crisis is all Gordon Brown’s fault.
Again, look at Tawney in 1931; it might awaken some Labour loyalists to the sheer frivolity of their collective reaction to the crisis.
And all the evidence is that people want something more. People are incensed by the lie that we’re all in this together. They are furious that bankers continue to pay themselves vast bonuses while jobs and front-line services are cut. There is a dynamic out there that Labour wonks just don’t get when they read the papers. Where is Labour’s passion? Where is the anger? Where is the engagement?
Stifling the future
The saddest thing of all is that the student protests, and the growing momentum against the Coalition cuts, has seen opposition to the free market and its works becoming more inclusive, more creative, more open. Famously, Laurie Penny wrote a piece in the Guardian saying that the movement was so big to have made old structures and parties redundant. I don’t think that’s true, as I believe party structures can be both progressive and enabling, but I agree with the sentiment – this is new and different. But the reaction of some of those old structures, notably the SWP, showed how raw was the nerve that she had exposed.
This is new, it’s inclusive, and it’s much too important to be snuffed out by old-style Labour chauvinism. If Labour is to be able to reflect the opposition to the Coalition, it has to change more fundamentally than it seems to be willing to countenance.