Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What the Labour Party has become

I remember how exhilarated I felt when I joined the Labour Party Young Socialists in 1981. And weekly proximity to the branch secretary - a heart-stoppingly gorgeous Trotskyist paper-selling punkette from beyond my wildest dreams - was only the half of it.

Finally I was in the same party as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. The majority of the membership at branch level believed in radical change to bring about a more just and equal society. Some even referred to that as revolution.

And as the bloke from the Militant patiently explained, all the rank and file needed to do was get rid of a few rightwingers at the top, and within a decade there would be no monopoly left un-nationalised.

Things didn’t quite pan out like that. Instead, it turned out that I had signed up at the precise moment Labour had travelled as far to the left as it was ever going to go. The 25 years since have been one continuous Mao-style long march to the right.

True, there is still just that little bit further to travel. Even today, you can still make the case that the residual union link leaves New Labour a different party from the Tories. But any difference is now largely nominal.

New Labour has been ideologically neoliberal for over a decade. As the ‘loans for lordships’ affair underlines, it is also institutionally corrupt. Labour today stands utterly transformed from the party I joined and so supported strongly for 14 years.

How did I get involved in the first place? My upbringing was classic tribal Labour, I suppose. My earliest political memory is probably the 1970 general election.

The family was watching the news on a black and white telly in a terraced house in Wellingborough, Northants. So I asked my dad what the difference was between Labour and the Tories.

Johnny Osler - an activist in the National Union of Railwaymen - replied that the Tories were the party for people with money. Labour were for people that worked for a living. Even to a nine-year-old mind, it was instantly obvious there was only one possible choice.

Fast forward to my late teens. Youth unemployment had risen sharply under Thatcher, and like many of my friends, I had been on the dole for some time. A Labour party political broadcast promised that if Labour was returned to office, it would end youth unemployment.

I vividly recall how inspirational I found that policy. Already having been politicised by Youth CND and Rock Against Racism, joining the Labour Party seemed a logical step.

As a result, I spend far too many twentysomething evenings sitting in meetings of this and that liaison sub-committee, and most weekends on demos and at political conferences.

Being a zealous young Bennite wasn’t as boring as it sounds. The demonstrations were usually big. The meetings were often lively and there was wide-ranging debate on substantive political issues, from the local to the international.

Yet almost as soon as I joined, things began to change slowly. Benn narrowly failed to win the deputy leadership. The following year, Michael Foot supported Thatcher over the Falklands War. The rightwing won back control of the National Executive Committee. In those days, the NEC actually mattered.

By 1983, Kinnock was leader of the party, and the process accelerated. Ordinary Labour Party members did everything they could to ensure the victory of the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Kinnock’s response? Attack the strikers.

By this point, I’d read enough Marxist literature not to be surprised at any of this. History teaches us that such is the class nature of social democracy, comrades.

And yet, and yet. Labour was still the mass party of the working class, the political wing of the labour movement, the place where socialists had to fight and win the battle of ideas.

My commitment waxed and waned. I quit the party briefly, but soon rejoined. The second time around, I wasn’t an activist. But then the activist culture of the early eighties was anyway disappearing fast.

John Smith’s brief time in the top job at least provided some hope. But by the time of the Blair takeover and the decision to ditch Clause Four, it was game over for Labour as I had come to understand it. I guess that explains the ‘New’ bit in New Labour. In 1995, I didn’t renew my card.

One way and another, I got to know a fair few leading Labour politicians over the years. Several of my contemporaries in the National Organisation of Labour Students have become MPs, even ministers. I was once on first name terms with some of the current cabinet, thanks to writing for Tribune in the early nineties.

Unless they have all had personality transplants, the problem is not that they are bad people. When I knew them, at any rate, they were motivated by the right ideals. But I suppose a well-paid career in politics demands certain sacrifices.

I sort of half recall a song they used to sing Labour Party conferences. It had this line in it. Something to do with cringing before the rich man's frown or something. If any of my old friends can remember the lyrics, they are welcome to drop me an email. On second thoughts, never mind.

This is an unedited version of an article that is set to appear in next month's Red Pepper.

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