Don’t panic: organise.

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There’s been very little to cheer this week for socialists in the Labour Party. I sense some despair, which is maybe understandable. The battle within the Labour Party is hard enough. To shift ingrained political attitudes in the country, in the context of the political flux around Brexit feels like a mountain to climb, and I think many people are wondering if we can do it.

I think most people are capable of understanding that we need a better response than despair. We also probably need to move beyond a simplistic, personalised defence of Jeremy Corbyn (which he wouldn’t want) to a better understand of what we need to do as a movement and as a left in the party.

The first stage in that is to understand what just happened, in detail, and why we are losing. My view is that it was always going to be this difficult. We massively overachieved in 2015. We hadn’t built the foundations – and that was always going to be the difficult bit. Ironically, it seems to be harder than winning the leadership.

So what just happened? The situations in Stoke and Copeland were quite different, and that reflects two problems we have, both national and local. In Copeland, we managed to get a sympathetic NEC selection panel, which chose an all women shortlist, which had the Momentum / Leadership candidate on it (I wasn’t convinced of the process that led to her becoming the chosen candidate, but that’s by-the-by). So the membership had a choice, at least.

The problem then was that the left activists, gathered around Momentum but only loosely, couldn’t get enough people to the meeting to select her. That is to do with lack of organisation. There were enough new members in the CLP, in all likelihood, but a Momentum group was only set up a few weeks before the selection: not enough time. People tried hard, but there were no real left networks to pull on. That’s an issue 20 months in, even in somewhere like Copeland.

In Stoke, the situation was almost reversed. There was a strong left network there: the most active leftwingers were based around Red Labour rather than Momentum, but definitely people have been working together well for some time, building the party left locally. Maybe realising this, the right / centre on the NEC seem to have mobilised to block a left-winger being shortlisted.

For different reasons, at least one, if not two, of the outstanding local leftwing candidates didn’t even make the longlist. In my view, that was undoubtedly deliberate. It’s quite likely that members in Stoke would have voted for a socialist, Corbyn-supporting candidate, so the longlisting stage was the point at which to take them out. In the end, the shortlist had nothing resembling that on it, and people chose Gareth Snell, even though he comes from a Labour First background, as the person most likely to take on UKIP successfully. Which he did, to be fair.

But when we analyse the failures of these by-elections, we need to understand where it went wrong, what our weaknesses are and start from there. First and foremost, it has to do with a failure to combat the influence of the right in the party structures, nationally and regionally: how can we breathe when they have such a tight hold of the machine, and what are the processes for challenging that?

Second, how can we mobilise our members when the left’s organisational structures are in disarray, unfocused and geographically limited? Many new members don’t know the basics of how the party works, what the levers are. That is not their fault, and we need to stop blaming them. Instead, we need to educate and demonstrate that to them, and caucus everywhere. That’s what the right have been doing for years, very successfully through Progress and Labour First. We can’t simply copy their methods, because they are designed for cliques, not mass movements, but we can match them in terms of organisation, based on open, inclusive, grassroots mobilisation.

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Happy Families? Sorry – but let’s talk about New Labour

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‘Why do you denigrate New Labour?’; ‘Isn’t that divisive?’; ‘Why aren’t you honest enough to celebrate Blair’s successes and achievements?’; ‘What happened to the new politics?’. These are all questions that will have become familiar to those of us on the left of the Labour Party over the last 18 months. Strangely enough, they weren’t asked so much when we were out of power, when we were having our sideshow conferences in the margins of the party, but that is because back then, we could be ignored. Now we are seen to be running the party (not really accurate, but I’ll come to that lately), so the question is asked in an ever more accusatory manner. But it’s a fair set of questions which deserve a serious answer, so I’m going to try to do just that, as succinctly as I can. 

The first thing to say is that I’m not keen on the broad brush condemnation of Blairites and everything they stood for. I’m very suspicious of the outpouring of ‘Red Tory’ vitriol and not particularly interested in the personalisation of hatred towards Blair himself. One of the most important aspects of a good political strategy (which the left of the party has conspicuously lacked for far too long) is to know what you’re up against. New Labour wasn’t Tory in its political philosophy. Yes, it borrowed from Thatcherite ideas, but what was going on was a much more complex synthesis of right-wing social democracy and anti-statist liberalism. The success of the New Labour project was that they were able to combine those elements into a coherent political narrative, and sell it to the British public.

So, what about the concrete outcome of all this? Well, we’ve all seen these long lists of New Labour’s achievements that have been shared on social media, the general thrust of which is captured in this ‘Wordle’ below:

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Here’s an actual list. Discarding the more dubious ones (Democratic Socialism? Erm, really?), there are some real achievements amongst them. Even taking into account very different economic times, there’s no doubt that in comparison to the preceding Tory governments, there were real gains for working people and their families in many of the things that New Labour did. So why aren’t we celebrating them?

There are two answers to this, in my view. The first is that, for socialists, it’s more complex than that. Broadly speaking, New Labour’s record can be split into three categories. Firstly, Good Things. Secondly, Good-Things-That-Could-Have-Been-So-Much-Better. And thirdly, Very, Very Bad Things. So we need to break that down, I’m afraid – because it matters. The second answer is that there were other factors, long term ones, which cast a shadow over any achievements and might be seen as the de facto legacy of Blair and New Labour. Most people will assume I’m talking about Iraq there. I am, but I’d argue that there are other legacies that really matter to us as democratic socialists.

So the first category – the Good – can mostly be populated with decent, old fashioned social democratic measures, based around investment in schools, child care, health services and the broader public sector. Sure Start is an obvious example. The only thing to argue about here would be the levels of investment, but overall these are good things. Of course, investment in public services is always easier when the economy is growing and financial markets are stable. There is no doubt that the early Blair government was aware of the importance of the public sector and invested in jobs. Another area where New Labour can be proud of its achievements is in equality legislation. Scrapping section 28, introducing civil partnerships and bringing in a raft of anti-discrimination legislation is not to be shoved under the carpet – these are hugely important, attitude-shifting changes.

The second category, the Good-Things-That-Could-Have-Been-So-Much-Better, kind of overwhelms the first category, however – specially in the second and third Labour governments. I can’t cover the full range of initiatives and policies where successive New Labour governments stopped short of anything radically transformative, but it’s clear that this became the modus operandi. This was partly ideological: there were places Blair didn’t want to go – such as challenging ‘right to buy’ legislation, but it was also to do with New Labour’s obsession with Middle England opinion, focus groups and media approval, which allowed tax credits, but not genuine advances on increasing taxation on high incomes and extortionate wealth. Equally, while the minimum wage is rightly trumpeted, in fact the idea had been kicking around the trade unions for many years, and it took an enormous effort to persuade New Labour ministers that this wasn’t an “anti-business” measure. When it was introduced, the level was set low, which trapped many in poverty – and enforcement was hardly resourced at all. Another example: while New Labour politicians talked a lot about the pressures of migration on communities and in workplaces, they dragged their heels for years before introducing the Agency Workers Directive. This delay affected many migrants very directly, and set worker against worker, when the focus should have been on organising migrants towards a levelling up of pay and conditions. These are just a handful of examples, but it shows why New Labour’s record can’t simply be ‘celebrated’. Especially on issues that would have challenged power and wealth, Blair, Brown and New Labour were almost bound to buckle. The financial sector was left unregulated, the richest were left to keep on accumulating and hard decisions on industrial investment were kicked into the long grass. Ultimately, that meant that inequality wasn’t tackled effectively and the establishment, class structures and entrenched political power was left untouched.

Then to the third category, the Very, Very Bad Things: firstly, the obvious one – the Iraq War. As is well known, Blair took us into an illegal war on the basis of false intelligence and a promise to the US President. It was compounded by multiple cover-ups. Hundreds of thousands died because of that decision, many innocent civilians. A curtailing of civil rights at home and abroad soon followed, with the extension of detention without trial and rendition. But there were domestic disasters too: the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which will saddle our public institutions with billions of pounds worth of debt for decades to come; the promotion of an internal market in the NHS,  which was almost inevitably going to lead us down the road of full privatisation; this was not made any better by the almost constant restructuring of the NHS, leading to few gains but an overly complex management structure; similarly, the introduction of Academies may have produced a few gleaming schools, but ultimately paved the way for private companies to see them as cash cows – the seeds of privatisation and outsourcing had been sown. Overall, the mantra of public sector outsourcing has had massive consequences for our society, none of which would have been possible without New Labour’s dogma; then there was the refusal to tackle the anti-trade union laws, which left many workers without basic rights and opened up the labour market to appalling union busting and anti-worker practices – as well as dividing our own movement; the failure to regulate the banks and the financial services industries; the farce of the 10p tax rate policy and its withdrawal; the almost complete absence of a industrial strategy, leading to a rise in McJobs and the complete dominance of the service sector, leading to low paid, insecure jobs, especially in the de-industrialised Labour heartlands. There were also other policies which left a timebomb ticking for the party: the lack of real investment in social / council housing; the failure to tackle class divisions in education, and a bottling of real, strong, targeted environmental policies to tackle climate change are all legacies which have contributed to the particular crisis we now find ourselves in.

But there’s something else: something which also talks to the crisis we are facing, but the peculiar one in the Labour Party. To enable this to succeed, to implement these policies (good, good-so-far and very bad), Blair had to remake the Labour Party, and appeal above the heads of the party members. Neil Kinnock laid the ground work, with a shutting down of democracy far beyond the expulsion of Militant (which acted as a kind of smokescreen), but New Labour under Blair had to become a much narrower, less democratic and centralised operation if it was to succeed with its ‘revolution from above’. It couldn’t afford, and would brook no opposition, and steadily, from Blair’s election as leader onwards, dismantled the democratic structures of the party, distanced itself from the influence of the trade unions, evacuated local constituency parties, stripped conference of all powers, centralised control in the leaders office and amongst regional, handpicked bureaucracies. The small New Labour team then went on to reshape the whole party machine in their own image, securing every detail, every smallest power base for their project. Then they went to work on the selection of MPs, which became a lot easier once they had secured the party machine. This was heavily resourced through rich benefactors such as Lord Sainsbury and supported by a sympathetic liberal media, in thrall to a compliant, safe, top down party – the Labour Party of their dreams.

When people become exasperated at the conflicts which dog the the Labour Party now, these are its roots: they are deep ones, and none of us should be surprised that in 18 months, we’ve not been able to dig them up and start again. There is a deeply undemocratic, entitled culture at some many levels of the party, but most visible in the way that the party machinery (nationally and locally) and the Parliamentary Party operates: those two spaces are the power base for the New Labour project. They are not giving up their ball willingly. What we do about that, how we start to democratise the party again, how we organise and how we challenge that power, will define this leadership and our project. This isn’t Happy Families and burying our heads in the sand won’t do.

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Copeland: New Labour Caused A Crisis

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Just a few weeks ago, there was a real expectation that Labour would lose both Stoke and Copeland. It’s taken a lot of hard work by those on the ground, but in one of those by-elections, we’ve walked away with a decisive victory. People will say that Nuttall was a gift, and in many ways he was – but that open goal may not have been scored by a smaller, less grassroots oriented Labour Party (both online and offline). It seems that we are capable of seeing off UKIP, if we work collectively.

Copeland is an altogether different constituency with very specific issues. Nuclear jobs are a factor, but so is a political culture which has become insular, not recently but over many years. So, discussions about alternatives have been discouraged to the point where they are taboo. That culture has been fostered by the New Labour hierarchy and the previous MP, Jamie Reed. Perhaps more understandably, it’s been promoted by the major trade unions, who see their sole role as protecting jobs. To shift any of that debate in a few weeks was going to be an almost impossible task, but again, Labour members on the ground did at least manage to get people talking about the NHS, transport and the Tories’ decimation of our public services. I doubt if many cast their votes for the Tory Party with much enthusiasm.

So now, our opponents will focus on Copeland and try to nail Jeremy Corbyn for it. The media aren’t interested in context. Not when they scent blood. The right of the party aren’t interested in understanding the longer term causes of our decline, because for them, this has become a tabloid-like game to bury Jeremy Corbyn, and with him the project of the left in the party.

So, we’ll have to remind them where this started. Not with Corbyn, but with a New Labour project that was uninterested in working class communities outside of a south-east corner: look at Scotland, look at decreasing majorities across the north; look at the South West even. The fragility of Labour’s base began years ago, when a party lost touch with its own grassroots and the trade unions. New Labour caused a crisis, which we were never going to recover from quickly, because we’ve had a decade of abandoning our people, our heartlands and people don’t forget easily.

On top of that, there has been a targeted and systematic campaign by those Blairite MPs who still hold huge sway in Parliament, and whose only purpose has been to create chaos for the leadership. That has undoubtedly dented our support, because people see a divided party and a leadership unable to control and pacify the PLP. Not everyone understands the machinations or the underlying causes of the chaos, so often they will blame Corbyn. But the reality is, a large chunk of the blame lies with those who still won’t accept that the party has changed.

None of this is to say that we can’t improve, as a project: in terms of communication, organisation and leadership we’re on a massive learning curve. It’s frustrating that we’re not learning quick enough, because that is leaving us vulnerable. We need to be bolder, less frightened and more open to the enormous grassroots that brought us here. That’s difficult when everyone around you is telling you that it’s failing, declining, in crisis. But they – the majority of the media, the right of the party and the political establishment – were always going to say that.

Previously published on the LRC website: http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/copeland-New-Labour-Caused-Crisis/

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Tax and the ‘R’word. Why aren’t we talking about redistribution?

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There’s undoubtedly a queasiness about talking about redistributive taxation in this country, even amongst the left. We are all comfortable talking about ending tax avoidance. Clawing back tax from avoidance schemes and loopholes is like motherhood and apple pie, though, isn’t it? Who could disagree with that? Even the Tories give it airspace. But it’s incredibly complex and difficult to close tax loopholes. Whole financial industries are based on it. Which is not to say it can’t be done – but it’s very, very long term. If we are going to shift the conversation about how we tackle inequality, poverty and economic injustice in this country, we’re going to have to bite the bullet and talk about redistributive taxation. It isn’t a technical question alone – it’s about changing the narrative, explaining to people how tax works and that a progressive, redistributive system works in the interests of the vast majority of the population. Have we got the guts? 

Tony Benn was fond of saying that, in a civilised society, no-one should earn more than ten times more than anyone else. It might seem like a rather abstract idea, posed (as was Tony’s habit) in moral terms. But what if we genuinely took that as a principle for the economic organisation of our society? It would imply, and give justification for a much, much more aggressive tax take from the rich in our society and possibly some form of maximum income. We’re a long away from any of this, but the fact that it seems such an oddity to even discuss a maximum income or a genuine redistributive taxation system shows how far the debate has hurtled towards the right in the last three decades.

So let’s just take a moment to reflect on where that rightward shift has got us. In 2000, the average pay (including share options and bonuses) of the FTSE 100 directors was 47 times the average salary. In 2014, it was 120 times. In 2015, it rose to £5.98m, the equivalent of 144 times the average salary. Obscene levels of pay are commonplace (for instance, in the media, marketing and telecoms sector, average remuneration for FTSE 100 directors was £6.98m in 2014 – this in a sector where many workers don’t even receive the living wage).

Because of the way the super rich are “rewarded”, the recouping of this money is complicated, for sure – as is the restructuring of our economy along more social democratic lines, but we can make a start by talking about limits on high pay as well as safety nets for the poorest in our society. In fact, the two things go hand in hand. We’re an awful long way from a 10:1 ratio, but by extending the welcome debate about tax avoidance into one about inequality, high pay and general taxation policy, we can take a few steps down that road.

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The Labour Party and our movement has a duty of care for it’s members

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I don’t think it’s an outrageous suggestion that the Labour Party and other institutions of the Labour movement have some kind of a ‘duty of care’ for it’s members. I’m also going to suggest that, as a movement, we have a moral duty to protect, defend and support those who are picked off, bullied and witch-hunted, irrespective of the finer details of any disagreements we might have with them. Recently, one of the members of our Red Labour group has had their suspension rescinded, without an apology or explanation. We’ve seen the Labour members in Wallasey exonerated and countless examples of members who have had no information on their exclusions and suspensions, who have spent months in limbo. Some have even become notorious by their suspensions. I’m thinking of friends who have been abused in the street, shouted and spat at, have had lies told about them in the local and national press. But if they are ‘pardoned’, if things are swept under the carpet, is that all ok? Is it ‘natural justice’ to be defamed, to have been caused mental and even physical distress? Is that a situation we can tolerate and a party we can be proud of? I think not.

You see, much of this vile treatment has a political root: huge parts of it are caused by nasty, vindictive and bitter people within the party machine and local officials and “representatives” with a sense of entitlement which means that they think it’s ok to screw anyone over to preserve their power. All this is done with impunity in “our” Labour Party, yet it has done untold damage to people’s reputation and people’s mental health. And while the blame lies firmly with these bitterites, whose goal it is to punish those responsible for taking their ball away, there’s something else going on: for what has “our side” of the party done about it? Mostly kept quiet, with some going even further – actively helping the people who are doing this to our comrades. Is this, in turn, acceptable? No, of course it isn’t – but some people, supposedly socialists, have made a Faustian pact to rid them of a temporary problem. Sod the long-term damage, there’s a scrap to win. I can’t think of a more disastrous strategy. That ‘duty of care’ extends to everyone who has taken part in this ‘revolution’. It’s not “owned” by one, privileged group. It’s all of ours – and it’s not anyone’s to throw away.

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