The death & potential resurrection of the Labour Party

#JezWeCan: a personal account of the death & potential resurrection of the British Labour Party

Marienna is a writer, campaigner and filmmaker based in London. She helped found Brick Lane Debates and This Changes Everything UK and is now producing an independent documentary on migration and the European Crisis.
Follow Marienna on twitter @MariennaPW

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“I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When I was five years old I watched my grandmother, with narrow eyes and a heavy sigh, tear Labour’s 1995 manifesto into pieces. She left them on the kitchen table and went straight to call head office and cancel her party membership, breaking generations of family tradition. At the venerable age of five all I knew about politics was that we had two choices – Labour and Tory – and Labour were ‘the good guys.’ So I asked her why she’d left.

She told me that Tony Blair had scrapped something called Clause 4: a promise to put the public in charge of the services they needed and the places where they worked. “It’s about the right of ordinary people to control their own destinies,” she explained. It was a bit poetic, perhaps an echo from a more optimistic generation, but she was absolutely right. That’s what it’s always been about and precisely what’s at stake now.

I didn’t think much about Clause 4 growing up. But what I did think a lot about was the war in Iraq. I was 12 when it started. We watched the historic anti-war march in London – the biggest march in British history – and then watched the government go to war regardless. That was when I learned that democracy in Britain was not working the way it was supposed to.

It was our first truly televised war, and I was transfixed by the coverage: endless parades of tanks, dispassionate reporters parroting official sources while people wept over their dead in ruined buildings, while our artillery boomed like the voice of an angry god. I watched the party that said it couldn’t afford to educate me, manage to finance all those long years of occupation during which time the truth about the WMDs, the civilian casualties, the military incompetence and the oil interests all spilled out into the light of day.

In their desperation for an ‘electable’ leader too many have been willing to sweep these crimes under the carpet. Some are even tapping an argument or two from the man himself, whose considered position is “even if you hate me don’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn.” I put it to anyone willing to swallow that line that they have forgotten the fundamentals of what the Labour Party is for, and how it became a political force to begin with.

The People’s Party?

Things had been going wrong for a while by the time Blair came to power. In 1976 the flows and fluctuations of our free market system cast Britain adrift in an economic crisis that forced Wilson’s Labour government into a £4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Of course there’s no such thing as a free lunch with the IMF – in exchange they forced Labour into deep spending cuts and wage controls. By 1979 the unions were going on strike just to be heard by their own party. Conceding to the IMF’s terms had put Labour on the opposite side of the fight from its core supporters.

After the Thatcher years, the 1990s dawned on a new era of personalistic, poll-based electioneering. To maintain profits in the post-war economy, corporate interests had painstakingly cultivated a new culture of individualism. Brands developed personalities and so did their products. Buying those shoes or that car became an expression of who we were, or aspired to be. You no longer had to be American to buy into the American Dream.

Psychoanalysts and focus groups were becoming an intrinsic part of doing business, and Thatcher had brought this ethos into the political establishment as well. Mandelson and the other Blairites wanted to ‘modernise’ the Labour Party accordingly. Their argument wasn’t about policy or even politics. It was a marketing strategy. After eighteen years of Tory rule they were determined to win power. It was no good banging on about exploitation, social justice and the working class, they insisted. No one was listening anymore. No one wanted to self-identify as working class, since the rise of cultural consumerism and political individualism made it a source not only of struggle, but of shame. We could all be aspirational consumers now – and if you weren’t one, you had only yourself to blame. No one could sell a socialist manifesto in a climate like that.

By 1979 the unions were going on strike just to be heard by their own party. Conceding to the IMF’s terms had put Labour on the opposite side of the fight from its core supporters.Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Of course, politicians aren’t supposed to work like that. They’re not car salesmen. They’re supposed to have real values and convictions; to put the public interest first; to respect us enough to win votes through sincere debate, not focus groups. But a bright eyed young Blair had just won the leadership election, promising to bring down taxes, benefit scroungers and young offenders. It was a manifesto pulled straight from the focus groups of suburban swing voters. Clause 4 didn’t stand a chance.

Diagnosis of a dying party

Over the past twenty years we’ve seen where this ‘New Way’ leads. Today the party’s active base is a fraction of its former self, its relationship with the unions in tatters and its relationship with my generation non-existent. There is no question about it. Whatever was achieved by his government can never mitigate the damage done to our public services, not to mention to our international standing after an illegal invasion that destabilised the Middle East and a fifteen-year long War on Terror that has divided our communities and eroded our civil rights. Under Blair, the Labour Party lost its vision: the vision that gave us the post-war welfare state and gave the party its sense of self.

Nothing showed this as clearly as the general election. Miliband was a thoroughly uninspiring leader and he ran on a thoroughly uninspiring platform of ‘austerity-lite’. The right is quick to claim it was the ‘lite’ and not the austerity part that cost him victory. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, his tokenistic leans to the left (like trading the bedroom tax for a mansion tax and freezing energy prices) were the only thing boosting popularity at all. Labour used to win elections on slogans like this:

The rich man’s power is in his purse, the poor man’s power is in his politics. Don’t surrender your power to the rich man, he already has too much.

But as others have argued, by adopting the Conservative line on austerity (‘cupboard is bare, credit card maxed out, fiscal responsibility for the poor’), Labour was just kicking the ball towards its own goal.

The Labour Party has been chasing power by any means necessary. It was the wrong choice in 1994, and it’s the wrong choice now. It reflects the existential crisis of a party whose leaders have forgotten it wasn’t built to seek power for its own sake; that being in government was only as good as it empowered them to empower us. So we lost faith. Call it social democracy, loony leftism, call it a cat with a hat on, it’s about social justice. We’re about social justice. And when it became clear that the Labour Party was no longer fit for that purpose, we left.

The right is quick to claim it was the ‘lite’ and not the austerity part that cost Miliband the victory. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, his tokenistic leans to the left were the only thing boosting popularity at all. Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Lifelong advocates like my grandmother left. People like me never joined. Ken Loach helped set up Left Unity. Mark Steel spent his time with the People’s Assembly, since it was representing labour values better than the party (both of them have been banned from voting in the leadership election.) The whole of Scotland broke a century of tradition and jumped ship to the Scottish National Party.

We flooded into the Green Party, into new radical organisations and humanitarian NGOs, founding and joining whatever might help fill the hole left by the quiet moral death of the party. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, many just stopped doing anything at all, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy became what the Blairites always wanted: passive consumers.

What all of us (particularly Labour’s leadership candidates) need to understand is this: even if you want to, you need more than a Labour Government In Power to realise labour values. Why? Because a Labour Government actually acting on Labour Values will necessarily go head to head with powerful vested interests: the energy companies, the landlords, the corporate media, the banks.

And to stand up and win it needs a politically engaged, self-educated and empowered electorate; strong trade unions and a mass movement ready not just to go out and vote, but to organise, demonstrate, even strike for our rights. It needs the things Corbyn’s been building outside Westminster all this time; that only he has the credibility to bring back to the party.

His straight talking sincerity, sorely lacking elsewhere, is raising the confidence of a betrayed nation.Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Open the flood gates

Blair’s way was never going to win us a better world. This year it proved it can’t even win a general election. Labour lost this time because Britain is not the same country it was twenty years ago. Twenty years ago the middle class was learning to aspire, wrapping itself in the mythology of the Self Made Man and preparing finally to put its eternal faith in the free market system. Today we are living in the smoking wreckage of that system. We had to bail out the bankers who lied for profit, and got paid our money by MPs who lied about their expenses.

We’re drowning in debt and lining up at food banks. We’ve seen the BBC harbour paedophiles and the police criminalise black kids in our cities. Things are so bad, the top half of the country wants to leave. This does not inspire confidence. Public trust in these key institutions has never been so low, and with our faith so clearly misplaced we are becoming interested, again, in what my grandmother said *it* was all about: people controlling our own destinies.

The labour movement built the Labour Party to make that possible for everyone at a time it was the privilege of wealthy white men. My whole life I was convinced that the best of the Labour Party was confined to history books and sepia photographs. But last week I joined over 100,000 others and signed up as a supporter. This huge influx has the party leadership quaking in their suits. The Blairite group Progress, described by one of its own members as “an unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire” which has in turn dominated the party for years, now stands in the shadow of a tsunami. Clearly they will stop at nothing to wreck the vote.

This leadership race is about much more than the next leader. One thing Yvette Cooper has right: it’s a battle for the soul of the Labour Party. And it’s a chance for us to correct that historic mistake I witnessed at my grandma’s kitchen table, when the party chose power over principle.

Corbyn is not unelectable, either by the party or the country. Powerful interests are being served by that illusion, but many of his core policies are enormously popular across society, hence the huge influx of so-called ‘entryists’. A vote for anyone else is a vote for austerity. He is the only candidate offering an alternative. That makes him our best defence against the rise of the already bloated far-right, because he represents a break with the establishment driven by politics of hope, not hate. His straight talking sincerity, sorely lacking elsewhere, is raising the confidence of a betrayed nation.

Despite his staunch anti-racism, he’s proving as popular with UKIP voters as with the Left. They said Syriza and the SNP weren’t credible. They said a black man in the White House wasn’t credible. But people can overcome a lot when they believe real change is imminent. If Labour could find the courage to be what it once was – anti-war, anti-austerity mass party – it could take the country by storm.

But here’s the point: even if he lost, at least we’d have the chance to build something we believed in again. So if you’re lucky enough to have a vote – and if the party let you cast it – ignore Tony Blair and vote Corbyn for all the reasons he says you shouldn’t. Do that, and rather than accepting it, we could fight back against whatever’s gone so wrong in our country, that one of Parliament’s only consistent voices for peace, democracy and social justice gets less of a hearing than the one former leader who should definitely be in prison. That’s the fight that really matters. There Is An Alternative. All this vote determines is whether the British Labour Party can be part of it again.

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