Sleepwalking in the Labour Party

@zx_475@zy_285I know those to the left of me will snort, but I genuinely think there are plenty of good people left in the Labour Party. I’d go further than that. Many of those people sincerely believe in socialist values and a different way of organising society. Most of them were drawn to the party and joined because they believed in those values and because they wanted to turn the things they believed into action. Equally, most of them understand how illogical it is to be basing our policies on Tory spending plans and talking about “responsible capitalism” at a time when the country is in crisis because of austerity and the pillars of capitalism itself are coming tumbling down.

The problem is, however, that these good people seem to believe in magic. That could be the only explanation for the fact that people will voice these views over the dinner table, in pubs and (as Owen Jones has said repeatedly said, by shouting at the telly) and yet do precisely nothing to attempt to change the party into one they could be proud of; one that reflects their values, however imperfectly. Granted, we are slowly moving from a more deeply entrenched quietism to a more public discontent, but still people are not convinced of the need to take action, to take responsibility. What I’ve heard time and time again over what has been a magnificent few months (including the Bedroom Tax Protests, the Miners Gala and the People’s Assembly) is that people, and that includes ordinary Labour members, want a Party leadership that stands up for working people and their families with the same determination that the trade unions today (and the mining unions in the past) have stood up for their members. There is huge frustration at our party representatives who have failed in their basic duty – to represent their communities and the membership views.

Now, I understand that people are demoralised, that they have been defeated again and again by the right of our party. The right and centre of the party seem to have all the cards – the resources, the media, the patronage – while we have been patted on the head and told to smile and wave. The thing is, we’re not little children. Many of us are confident, forceful people who if they were treated like this by their employer, would fight back with a vengeance. So why do we voluntarily submit to being mere cheerleaders in a party that was supposed to be for us, that was set up with the express intention of representing us (working people, the trade unions and the wider communities they come from)?

Tony Blair cemented this idea of going above the heads of the members to appeal to the nation. It was not just anti-democratic, it was a tactic to silence the party membership. We are being served more of the same with One Nation Labour. It’s a ridiculous idea that a party formed by the unions could borrow the clothes of One Nation Toryism. It’s the old New Labour spin – but which of us were consulted? What role did the party members have in this? None at all – it was just a marketing gimmick – like a scene from the Thick of It – and now were stuck with a new branding;  a New Labour lite with a few Union Jack’s thrown in. Smile and wave, guys, smile and wave.

There has been much talk over the last decade about the alienation of the vast majority of working class people from the workings of an increasingly remote political class, operating via the machinations of professionals and with little reference to those people’s real lives. What we need to acknowledge is that this alienation, this disengagement has taken place within the Labour Party too. We have become bystanders in our own party and let the professionals take over – at a local as well as national level. For us, party politics has become a spectators sport. We’ve become too timid to criticise our representatives, because “they work very hard, you know” and “rocking the boat only helps the Tories, you know”. Where does this sort of deference, this quietism end? Well, we know don’t we, because we’ve already been there? Back with  Blair and New Labour.

I realise that I’m talking to a minority here, both in terms of the party membership and the wider left, but I just don’t think it’s an insignificant minority. We talk ourselves down, self-censor our distinct political perspective. There are good reasons for this. Our voices are drowned out on both sides. To the right of us, the right and centre of the party have tight control of the messages given out by the party. They officially tell our story. On the left, we are assailed by the righteous indignation of the outside left, who blame us for that story which we have little or no control over. This has reached its apogee in a relatively new narrative on the so called “revolutionary left” – that Labour socialists provide “left cover” for the austerity-friendly Labour. Of course, this narrative isn’t new at all – it was the tactic employed by the Communist Party during its “Class Against Class” period of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Only the rise of fascism ended this ultra leftist attitude to the Labour left. It wrongly conflates the party left with the leadership and the PLP – which are in most respects polar opposites. Nevertheless it is difficult not to sound apologetic about your membership of the party when being tarred in this way on a daily basis. However (and this is the crucial bit) we need to break out if this defeatism – unless we want to continue to live in this prison created by our political adversaries on both sides.

It’s clear that too many people on the left of the party are paper members only, cowed by defeats, beaten down by the hegemony of the right and the depoliticisation at a local party level – and finally convinced by the leadership who tell them to accept that there is no alternative. Of course, many good socialists have left and that has hit us hard, but for those of us still in the party, is it not time to question the practical usefulness of such membership? In other words, if you’re not in the party to “cause trouble” (i.e ask the questions that need to be asked and organise to win our positions in the party) – considering its trajectory for the last 15 years – what are you in it for?

Rather than moaning in public meetings and amongst comrades, we really need to take some responsibility for this party of ours. It’s time for a new kind of left in the party. One that understands the challenge of the likes of Progress and organises itself to take on those forces; one that tries to mobilise the thousands in the party who have stayed quiet in the face of the Blairite onslaught, and one that takes seriously the task of democratising the party again – even of it means upsetting a few people on the way. One that is less apologetic and more decisive. We either attempt to reclaim the party or we don’t. We either try to claim it for the members or we don’t. We’re either cheerleaders for One Nation Labour or were not, but lets not pretend we haven’t got a choice. We have, it’s just that we’ve been sleepwalking for too long.


21 thoughts on “Sleepwalking in the Labour Party

  1. says:

    Great article Ben.I personally think the Peoples Assembly may help bring people out of their shells and challenge..


  2. Graham Thomas says:

    There is a Labour Party Socialist Campaign Group meeting in Wednesday, 24th July, at the Trade Union Centre, 119 Marton Road Middlesbrough at 7.00pm
    Ian Jeffreys (Redcar Cleveland councillor) has been trying to get a speaker to lead a discussion about Labours link with the Trade Unions – a prominent issue at the moment.

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  4. Andrew says:

    Gave out an LRC Tolpuddle special bulitian at the festival this week end on the TU link. People would pass me hear what it was about and turn around to come and get a copy it shows there is are many in the party who are not happy with its direction time they wake from their slumber or there’s wont be a LABOUR party.

  5. Pops says:

    At the Durham Miners Gala not one speaker said anything controversial whether a journalist/union leader but the media in general concentrated on the spat between the Labour Party and unions. The general point of your post was echoed by many present that there are still good people in the party and at ground level but those leading it need to take notice or be changed.

  6. @mauginog says:

    It’s all very well to tell us Socialists to wake up and take action. Easier said than done. Blair got Labour supporters well and truly tied up by banning people on the left from standing as candidates in the elections. He abolished Clause 4 with no discussion with members and the wimpish Blairite MPs surrounding him, including John Prescott giving in to that dreadful move without a murmur. His Cabinet were all “placemen” and that has continued. Ed Miliband seemed as though he was going to restore the Labour Party to some of it’s traditional values. But somewhere along the way he managed to get hijacked by the Blairite tendency. I’ve complained to him and others in the hierarchy but don’t get a reply.When I criticise the trajectory of the New Labour Party we have at present on Twitter, I get bombarded with criticism ,saying I will cause Labour to lose the next election! Who is going to lead to revolution to restore the traditional Labour Party? Individuals can’t do it. The Unions, perhaps?

    • I agree with everything you say, Maureen. Firstly, that socialists in the party (and that includes me) have been battered by nearly two decades of defeats – both in terms of policy & party democracy. Secondly that we have no lines of communication with the leadership any more – that has gone completely and despite what people’s hopes were for Ed, I think we can face the fact that those a lines aren’t going to be restored under his leadership. Thirdly, although I think people need to stand up and be counted, that has to be done collectively, not individually. The unions can help in that, certainly, but we have to get organised as party members too. That’s why some of us have set up a group called Red Labour, which is all about organising to take the party back. It’s early days and it will take some building, but first responses have been incredible. The Red Labour project has come out of a very successful Facebook group, but we have plans to meet up and down the country, giving ordinary members a voice again and discussing socialist alternatives in the party.

  7. Carole Reeves says:

    Yes, I remember ‘following the government’s spending plans’ in 1997. We should be on the front foot, not constantly reacting on the back foot. Even if the time isn’t ripe for a costed, detailed post-2015 plan, we could still be talking about our values.
    I have noticed how campaigning (whether against bedroom tax or Lansley’s awful HSCA) fills people with a vigour and optimism they haven’t had for years.

  8. @mauginog says:

    Thanks for your response,Ben.Now that Blair HAS HIJACKED our TRADITIONAL Labour Party and turned it into a true blue Neo Tory Party, I don’t see how we can wrest it back off them, without REAL Socialists as the majority of Labour MPs. We do have some excellent Socialist MPs of course.(you’ll know who they are without me naming them).but they are very much in the minority and are never given ministerial posts.I have given my support to Left Unity,but small breakaway groups are never going to gain power. I was heartened by what Len MCluskey and other Union leaders had to say and feel that the withdrawal of Union funds from Labour will bring things to a head one way or the other, which in my opinion will be a good thing. Lancing the boil!!. The Unions could do a very good service to the cause of Socialism by propaganda educating those people who are frightened by the very word “Socialist” as to what the Tony Benn style of ethical Socialism really stands for.

    Good luck with the Red Labour project. I will definitely support you all in your efforts, although being quite elderly there’s a limit to what I can do!!

    And to Caroline, You are quite right in what you say,of course and Miliband and Co are repeating the “following the government’s spending plans” as they did before. Sounds like Mandelson is in a bit of a rut!!
    What the ordinary man or woman in the street needs right now, is some expression of a determination by Labour to repair the damage done, however long it takes and some hope that ordinary people’s living standards will be restored as a priority. Otherwise, what would be the point in voting for anyone at all?

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  14. Nobody notice the Labour parties union jack they faded out the bits of the flag leaving a “One Nation English flag” it made two of my local councilors ask if the one nation was an English nation.

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