A long read today on the history and future of the Labour Party by Tommy Kane. Thanks Tommy!
Earlier this month the well known political commentator Peter Kellner contentiously challenged the Labour Party to ask itself ‘why it would be invented if it did not exist’. There were no such doubts about the purpose of the Labour Party when it was formed in 1900. The 129 delegates there passed Keir Hardie’s motion to establish ‘a distinct Labour group in Parliament’ and did so with the full intention of ‘promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour’. The rationale behind the creation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), that 6 years later would become the Labour Party, was clear. They were determined that the LRC would provide political representation to working people and to fight for them within – and against – a political and economic system that hitherto had exploited them and continuously wrought misery and poverty to them, their families and their communities.
As alluded to by Kellner, 115 years later that clarity of purpose is lacking, the Labour Party is facing an identity crisis and in Scotland (arguably also in England) it is facing an existential crisis. These are integrally linked challenges. Labour’s fight for survival is undoubtedly related to the aforementioned identity crisis and a vagueness and confusion over its purpose. Complicating matters further is the divergence of worldviews and ideological terms of reference that currently co-exist within the Labour Party. From Progress and Movement for Change in one corner to the Campaign for Socialism (In Scotland) and its sister organisation, the LRC (in England and Wales), on the other it often appears the much-heralded Labour broad church is stretching the metaphor way beyond its original meaning.
May’s General Election result has understandably provoked a period of introspection in the Labour Party. In Scotland the unprecedented result, which saw all but one of Labour’s MPs lose their seats and the leadership of the divisive Blairite Jim Murphy come to a shuddering halt after only 6 months, the Labour Party appears unsure how to stop the (apparent) SNP juggernaut. In England Ed Miliband, despite a decently progressive prospectus which proposed limited state intervention in the energy and housing market as well as challenging the use of zero hour contracts (though still nowhere near clear enough on Labour’s purpose, not least in the confused message over austerity) has carried the can for Labour’s electoral defeat.
The unexpected but disastrous reality of five years of a destructive and cruel Tory Government has, in apportioning blame almost exclusively in the direction of Miliband, exposed the ideological divide in the Labour Party. Centrist policies that accept austerity, and based on a discourse the Tories would be proud of, have been voiced by most Labour leadership hopefuls, while New Labour apparatchiks have emerged from under their stones with attacks on Ed Miliband for being too ‘left-wing’ (if only) (a simplistic analysis without evidence, obviously based on their own biased ideological worldview and found to be flawed by pollsters such as John Curtice). All appear to be falling over themselves to centre their vision on ‘aspiration’ – code for acceptance of inequality, individualism and greed – with recipients of social security and immigrants seen as fair game and who, following the New Labour logic, seemingly don’t aspire towards enjoying a better and more prosperous life.
Some leadership hopefuls retort ‘this is what we heard on the doorstep and we must respond to it’. This type of response since the election exposes the lack of purpose and ideological incoherence by some who reside within the 2015 Labour Party. Politics is about leadership as well as listening. It is also about having an understanding of and explaining the fundamental failings (not least the growing inequality) in and of the system and its exploitative character, for example its dependence on cheap labour enabled by the (EU) free movement of Labour and its need for a pool of unemployed.
Labour should also be about offering a vision of a fairer society which would allay the genuine concerns and fears that people have. This must include a policy programme, paid for by economic policies of redistribution that invests in housing and public services, encourages and facilitates public ownership, creates jobs and makes work fairer and better paid. Labour should also be articulating a vision that sees workers and communities empowered and given control of their lives via decision-making influence over their workplaces and in their communities. Taking such an approach would also necessitate an explanation of how recipients of benefits and immigrants are victims of the system, not the cause of problems within it. Labour should be confident enough to build a narrative around a positive vision of how they want society to be and how they will achieve it: rather than the ideologically and morally timid reaction to immigration and welfare that it peddled before, during and since the General Election.
What of ‘labour’ itself? We are told by Kellner and his ilk in the political class and commentariat that the Trade Union movement is a busted flush. If that were so, why do the right wing media and Tories spend so much time attacking them? The reason, of course, is that organised labour remains the biggest threat to the system that they benefit from, defend and propagate. But the tension between the Trade Unions and some within the Labour Party is palpable. Too many, like Murphy in Scotland, appear to see the unions as a bigger enemy than the tax avoiders and tax evaders, the market rigging spivs and wide boys of the City of London. This tension is seeing that relationship almost reach tipping point; a point that is increasingly topical in Scotland. The link must be defended and sustained if Labour is to have any chance of recovery, if broken then the Labour Party, as we know it, will also be broken.
How does Labour recover from here?
So where else does Labour go from here? Nationally, Jeremy Corbyn, the first properly socialist candidate since 1988, with a clear anti-austerity and redistributive message, has got on the ballot paper for the leadership with an agenda that is clearly about challenging, not safely managing, capitalism and neo-liberal orthodoxy and for the benefit of ordinary people, both those in work and others dependent on social insurance. Corbyn offers a politics that recognises the fundamental inequality in our society, and that accepting it should never be the purpose of the Labour Party. If Labour does accept this brand of politics and austerity then Kellner is right. After all why would you need to create another party to manage the system, and oversee its reconstruction in favour of the wealth and powerful as is happening at the moment, when there is a political party already in existence that has proven fairly adept at it over the past century or two?
Nevertheless, whether he wins or not (and OMOV makes it less predictable than some are suggesting) Corbyn’s candidature illustrates, just as Neil Findlay’s leadership bid did in Scotland, the enduring strength and ideas of the left in the Labour Party, despite proclamations otherwise by the various left factions currently doing the rounds in Scotland. Albeit, it also exposes the tensions and differences that co-exist within the Party. If Jeremy Corbyn was to win (despite being a non-believer I’m almost seeking divine intervention to help make it happen) one can only imagine how the Progress wing will react? Conversely, if some of the others win, particularly Liz Kendall with her strong Blairite message, it’s safe to assume that a significant proportion of the membership and affiliates will feel doomsday has finally happened.
In Scotland the SNP finds itself in an unprecedented position of power and Labour is unsure how to react. Agreed amongst all is the need for a root and branch review of internal organisation, campaigning, policy and politics. Only with such a review, intent on clarifying Labour’s purpose can there be a base for recovery. Unfortunately, many are focused on debates over internal structures, most prominently the outgoing leader Jim Murphy who had the temerity to think he could direct the future rules of the party despite knowing he was soon to depart as leader. A ridiculous situation, akin to a football manager sacked after relegation deciding what new players the new manager would buy for the following season.
A structure that Labour in Scotland must change is its relationship with the wider UK party. Scottish Labour must, for practical as well as political reasons, make its own policies and take its own positions, perhaps a federal structure in an increasingly federal UK? New powers coming to Holyrood necessitate an autonomous Scottish Labour in some shape or form. Similarly, if Labour takes a rightward drift down south, then Labour in Scotland must be able to distance itself from that agenda. Only then can Scottish Labour take on the opportunist SNP who give an appearance of progressiveness but in essence are no such thing. That said, measures towards autonomy will only be as politically effective as Scottish Labour’s willingness to break with small c-conservativism and make distinct Scottish Labour arguments that clearly challenge the SNP’s claims to represent a unified set of interests, between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the disempowered, in Scotland.
How Labour takes on the SNP and reacts to them is one strategic decision that Labour and its new leadership team must make immediately. It is right that where appropriate Labour should confront the SNP’s phoney socialism/social democracy (which is just another vehicle for them to achieve their ‘raison d’être’) and their regular construction of contrived grievance based on nation not class, and the division and the divisiveness that it brings. Labour should also hold the SNP Scottish Government to account, something which of course is the opposition’s job to do so, and which it’s compelled to do given the 8 years of failure in various policy areas that the SNP have presided over.
However, while the current nationalist dominance has resulted in a nasty and intolerant strain of nationalist sentiment the reality, which many in Labour must start to acknowledge, is that most SNP supporters are not part of that particular strain. They are voters who instead have ran out of patience with a Labour Party that has, over time, disappointed and failed to inspire them. The more Scottish Labour bases its activity almost solely on having a go at the SNP and, by extension, the voters who voted for them, the more damaging it will be for the Labour Party.
To restore trust and to renew itself Labour in Scotland must also clarify its purpose with a positive vision of transformative change based on genuinely socialist policies. Labour must understand both the current and forthcoming powers coming to the Scottish Parliament and work out how best to use them to tackle the scandal that is health and wealth inequality that continues to shame Scotland. They could/should introduce emblematic policies rejecting Trident, rejecting austerity, promoting redistribution through progressive taxation, building social housing to solve the housing crisis, keeping public services public and buying back the highly questionable PFI schemes, as well as offering a vision for local government that strengthens and re-democratises it while reforming its funding arrangements. Labour must also become again a campaigning party that works hard and remains rooted in the communities it serves.
If all of this is informed and inspired by a broad understanding of the need to challenge inequality in power and wealth Labour will signal that it intends to sort itself out rather than focus on what the SNP are doing or not doing. This will send a message to the Scottish people that the Labour Party is again the party of working people as intended by Keir Hardie and his 128 comrades back in 1900. By situating itself in that historic corner, Labour will not only survive: there is no reason for it not to once again thrive in Scotland. If it doesn’t……..