In the face of a hard-right Johnson premiership, Duncan Bowie underlines the urgency of Labour getting its house in order
Given the recent dramatic political events, the Labour party and the wider labour movement needs to have a serious rethink about its direction if it is to avoid marginalisation and further disintegration. With the appointment of Boris Johnson as prime minister and a right-wing pro-Brexit administration, Labour faces perhaps the greatest challenge since 1931. Yet despite its increased membership, popular support in the wider electorate is at its lowest for decades.
Although we now have the most amoral and unprincipled prime minister in our country’s history, Labour – with its internal divisions and with the controversy over antisemitism – has lost the moral high ground and the basis for putting socialist values of fairness and decency against a Tory party which, after Theresa May’s brief dalliance with one-nation Toryism, has reverted not just to its Thatcherite neoliberal tradition, but to a more blatant advocacy of personal power and greed.
The fact that Johnson and his Faragist allies have no plan whatsoever for a response to the real challenges the country faces – both in terms of its relationship with Europe, the US and the rest of the world or in relation to the increasing economic divisions, both social and spatial, within the UK – presents a unique opportunity for the Labour Party to present to the electorate its alternative vision. This has been lost as the Labour Party is both seen as even more divided than the Tories and unable to present a coherent alternative. This is not just because of the leadership’s ‘constructive’ ambivalence on Brexit, a position which only led to us losing the support of both Remainers and Leavers, but because any alternative policy propositions on domestic issues are completely lost in the internal faction fight between supporters and critics of Jeremy Corbyn. Not only is the shadow cabinet failing to function effectively, but so is the party at all levels.
We are now the ‘nasty party’ with a complete lack of pluralism and tolerance of different views. Within the party, the dominance of factionalism between pro-Corbyn and anti-Corbyn slates has made it almost impossible to have a sensible discussion on alternative policy options. The extent of offensive behaviour and abuse within the party, both at meetings and online, has increased dramatically over the last couple of years, to the extent that many party members, both new and old, feel completely alienated. At national level, any policy statement tends to be immediately contradicted or fudged, normally by one of Corbyn’s advisors, to the extent that party activists really don’t know what to argue for on the doorstep. The election material from the Euro election featuring a photograph of Nigel Farage without stating our position on the EU must be an all-time nadir. The leadership clique regards any criticism as treason, with the consequence that key elements of the party structure, whether in terms of paid staff or representatives in the Commons or the Lords (inevitably a bastion of previous generations of Labour politicians and trade unionists – both old pre -Blair Labour and Blairite New Labour) are now seen as the enemy.
The Party needs to focus on external challenges not on internal disputes. We need to fight Brexit and the causes of Brexit. We all know that the referendum result had little to do with the European Union. There was a fear, largely unfounded, that immigration was bad for the ‘indigenous’ working class in terms of driving down pay (even if this was true, it would be little to do with the EU). Decades of neoliberal economic policies, combined with the impact of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, meant that in large parts of the country working people were much worse off – their quality of life had declined both in terms of income and in terms of the public services available to them – with the wealth all being seen as going to London – not that all Londoners benefited from this.
What Labour should be advocating is a strategy of both investment in public services, to rebuild both the welfare state and the country’s infrastructure, and for regional rebalancing, moving wealth and employment opportunities away from London. We achieved this in the 1930’s and to some extent in the 1940’s, and even in the Wilson era 1960’s and mid 1970’s, so why can’t we recognise that this is important now if we are to at least mitigate the spatial and social division created by the last 40 years of government policy and globalised capitalism, whose very nature is to seek the most profitable spaces for exploitation.
Re-funding the welfare state also means re-financing local government. This is not just about devolving responsibility but increasing public sector resources as well as redistributing them. This means significant changes in the tax system. This must both raise more public revenue and do this in a progressive manner. This means more progressive income tax, increased corporate taxes, wealth taxes, inheritance tax, property tax and a more progressive council tax system. Without these changes, any statements by Labour politicians that we can reverse austerity or create a more equal society are no more than rhetoric.
This failure of decades of government – whether Labour, Coalition or Conservative – has led to an understandable resentment and alienation, a growth of mistrust and in some cases explicit hatred of all politicians, especially those at Westminster. As government has failed to respond to these real challenges, we have seen a growth in anti-politics: the belief that representative democracy has failed, and a perspective, encouraged by the far left as well as the far right, that the politics of protest and threat is likely to be more effective. It is one thing to argue that direct democracy should supplement representative democracy – another that it should replace it.
This trend is not just limited to the UK. It is reflected across Europe as well as in the US. We are witnessing a new authoritarianism not just in Eastern Europe but also in Russia, India and Brazil. Yet the British Labour Party under the current leadership appears to be locked into an isolationist protectionist position, with its reversion to a Bennite ‘alternative economic strategy’ of socialism in one state, seeking to isolate the British economy from the impact of globalised capitalism. This is not only naïve but represents a betrayal of our socialist comrades in other countries. Protection of workers’ rights and limiting the negative impacts of global capitalism can only be achieved through international collaboration, as was recognised in the recent international social forum organised by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, and despite its limitations, the EU should be viewed as a potential mechanism – though by no means the only one – for positive change rather than part of the problem.
The Labour Party is in no fit state to convince the UK electorate that we have both vision and programmes which are better for our country than the Johnson/Faragist agenda, never mind make a more positive contribution to Europe and the wider world beyond the UK. We need to start both at the bottom and at the top of our party. The fact that the democratic socialist project – which has been fundamental to the Labour Party through most of our history (the Blairite years being an anomaly) – is now seen as ‘the Corbyn project’ is now a negative factor. The socialist project is never dependent on a single individual.
The Labour left has to be more than a Corbyn fan club. We need to progress to a more collaborative leadership. Our parliamentary Labour Party, whom we after all put there, has a wide range of talents. Our shadow cabinet members need to be allowed to do their jobs, without fear of assault from Corbyn and his so-called advisors – a group which includes individuals with Stalinist or vanguardist perspectives who have no place in a democratic socialist political party. Personal loyalty to the leader may the basis of political power in North Korea – it should not be the case in the British labour movement. Boris Johnson has shown us the danger of a cabinet based on personal loyalty rather than competence or principle. Jeremy Corbyn has made a positive contribution to the party, through attracting an increased membership and generating new energy. But his positive contribution is now over. The achievement of socialism has never depended on a single individual. Jeremy should retire while he can still do so gracefully and pass on the leadership to a younger generation, with a shadow cabinet and government-in-waiting that includes a wider range of talent and experience.
We need to stop all this factionalism and accept that there are different views on how we deliver socialism. This means changing our party at a local level. We need to choose our officers and delegates on the basis of their competence, commitment and behaviour, not just on the basis of whether or not they are on the correct factional slate. We need to stop trying to pack every meeting with our factional allies and to suppress views with which we may disagree. We need to stop the shouting, the abuse, heckling and intimidation. We also need to acknowledge that being a party activist means working in our local communities, not just going to our own meetings and waving banners at demonstrations in central London. We are a pluralist party and if we are to have frank and honest discussion as to how we move forward, we need to be far more tolerant of each other. For if we cannot work with each other within our party, how on earth are we to convince the wider electorate that we can work with them?