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It was founded in 1900, but does the Labour Party have a future? (Photo: Wkimedia Commons.)

More than 100 years after it was founded, the Labour Party’s future as a progressive force is up for debate (photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

Forget Labour – it’s time to move on

Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise since he entered Labour’s leadership contest has got the world in a tizzy – suppose he actually wins?! Would that make Labour unelectable or a force for radical change? HOT asked two local activists, Rachel Lever and Clive Gross, to write for and against the following proposition: Is it realistic to suppose that the Labour Party, which in the general election endorsed the Tories’ austerity policy and now appears to have difficulty seeing itself as the opposition, can lead the struggle for a society based on a fair distribution of wealth and resources and sustainable environmental policies? Below is Clive’s argument against; see Rachel’s argument in favour here.

Corbyn is just a distraction – for progressives it’s time to move on from Labour.

It is hard to beat Frankie Boyle’s recent assessment in The Guardian, where he described Labour as “so passive it might as well be led by an out-of-office email,” to conclude that the Labour Party is incapable of leading the struggle for a society based on a fair distribution of wealth and resources and sustainable environmental policies.

However I do not believe that this is just due to its conversion to the ‘free market’ over the past three decades. Rather it is the fact that it has always been – aside from a few short years after the trauma of World War II or when moved by the threat of popular revolution in the late 1960’s – a conservative organisation, created as it was by a trades union movement whose obsession with class has done more to reinforce rigid social hierarchies and inequalities than break them down.

Instead of asking the big questions about how to organise a fair and just society while ensuring people have the personal freedom and choice to live creative and fulfilling lives, unions and their political wing were focused on getting a bigger slice of the capitalist cake using the power of mass labour controlled through the use of rigid, deeply undemocratic and conservative power structures.

For instance, on equal pay, despite Labour in 1959 proposing a charter of rights including “the right to equal pay for equal work” and the Trades Union Congress resolving “its support for the principles of equality of treatment” in 1965, it took the 1968 Ford sewing machinists strike – lead by female workers and initially opposed by their union –to trigger events that eventually led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

On the environment, even after having the country held to ransom in the 1970s by the Opec oil crisis and national miners’ strikes, the Labour governments of this period failed to embark on a national programme of energy efficiency which could have reduced our reliance on fossil fuels and their turbulent markets. Remarkably, early environmental and public health legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1956 came about largely through pressure from backbench Conservative MPs rather than Labour.

Here on our own doorstep, reading Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it is clear to me that he had deep reservations about the early manifestations of what would become the Labour Party and highlighted just how easily working men could be persuaded to continue to prop up the economic system that oppressed them – just as later generations were by the offer of buying their council house on the cheap under Margaret Thatcher.

Ed Miliband - "out-of-his-depth policy wonk (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Ed Miliband – “out-of-his-depth policy wonk (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

The spectre of ‘Thatcherism’ is still one that haunts the modern Labour Party today, and partly explains its inexorable drift from its core values as the Conservatives have relentlessly dragged the ‘centre ground’ of British politics further and further right. Since Thatcher, it appears the Labour Party believes the only way to win power again is to be the Conservative Lite Party and has been prepared to sacrifice almost all of its principles to achieve this.

The legacy of 13 years of the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown is now clear for everyone to see. For every piece of legislation such as the introduction of the minimum wage, there was ever lighter-touch regulation of the financial sector and a complete failure to tackle offshore and onshore tax avoidance. For every school, hospital or Sure Start Centre built, there was a dodgy Private Finance Initiative deal guaranteeing 25-30 years of profits to the private companies that built them.

Personally, I do not believe Labour lost the 2015 election because they were too ‘left-wing’ but that the electorate looked at Ed Miliband and his team and saw a hopelessly out-of-his-depth policy wonk desperately attempting to patch together enough votes to lead a minority government, while the Conservatives at least appeared to have a plan.

Since their defeat in May, the Labour Party has again been thrown into a period of turmoil as they attempt to work out what to do next, while George Osborne gets on with the job of further dismantling the foundations of the accepted post-war settlement that the Attlee Labour government of 1945 achieved.

Here in Hastings, the defeat of Labour in a seat they clearly expected to win has left the local party standing at the bottom of the A21 waving their fists at the government in Westminster and bemoaning the loss of the huge swathes of regeneration funding they seem to believe Hastings is entitled to, while they themselves have failed during all their years of leading our local authority to create a robust and sustainable alternative local economy.

It is hardly surprising that so many local Labour supporters are getting excited by the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn winning the forthcoming leadership election. Our local Labour Party looks more like those that I remember from Lambeth and the rest of inner London in the 1980s – when Corbyn himself was first elected – than it does of any contemporary forward-looking progressive political organisation.

Hundreds of thousands opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the Blair-dominated Labour Party backed it.

There was mass opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to Tony Blair’s Labour Party for supporting it (photo: Guy Smallman).

Labour under Corbyn would certainly be interesting. There is no doubt that Corbyn represents about the only option on the ballot paper to elect a leader who has some clear principles and beliefs – it is just unfortunate that these hark back over three decades to a time when Labour could still just about claim to represent a sizeable number of the working and voting population.

The problem with the Labour Party is not simply that it is a busted flush in terms of being a vehicle to deliver social justice and a sustainable economy and environment, but that it no longer represents anything tangible or any identifiable sector of society. Society has left the Labour Party behind, and it has institutionally failed to grasp how to create a strong progressive political movement to offer a real alternative to Conservatism rather than being its Mini Me. Labour has proved it is incapable of delivering – it’s time to move on.


A longer version of this article, reflecting on a new way forward for progressive politics, can be found on Clive’s blog.

Posted 21:37 Thursday, Aug 6, 2015 In: Politics

1 Comment

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  1. DAR

    A pretty good analysis, Clive, but “move on” to where? See my other comments on Rachel’s contribution.

    Comment by DAR — Thursday, Aug 13, 2015 @ 14:30

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