"A week is a long time in politics." Harold Wilson
The European election results were published last Monday, following on from the local election results of a few days earlier. They showed Labour behind not just the Tories, but even behind UKIP, a lunatic fringe party, on just 15% of the vote. For the first time since 1918, Labour had been beaten by the Tories in Wales. Labour was smashed in its other heartlands, where working class voters just sat at home in disgust, and was completely marginalised elsewhere in the country. Labour came 5th in the South East with just 8.2% of the vote. In Cornwall they came 6th behind the Cornish Nationalist Party, whom presumably even the local folk see as a lost cause.
As a result of the low turnout the far right British National Party got two seats in the European parliament for the first time ever. For once Alistair Darling got it right when he admitted, "People felt disillusioned with us and didn't vote for us. That's our fault. We should be able to inspire confidence", he said.
Labour’s meltdown continues, with no end in sight.
Our story starts before the polls opened on black Thursday June 4th with the departure from the Cabinet first of Jacqui Smith, then the resignation of Hazel Blears. The present public disenchantment with New Labour and with politicians generally has been encapsulated, but not caused, by the MPs’ expenses scandal. Blears had been one of the most egregious offenders. From the petty (claiming for a KitKat from a mini bar in a hotel room where she had been staying) she has plumbed the depths. MPs who live outside London can claim for a second home. They can designate where their main home is. Blears had ‘flipped’ her first residence three times in one year in order to claim home improvements from the public purse and sell on the property free of capital gains tax. This is borderline criminality.
Her sheer shamelessness when exposed reveals all that is odious about New Labour. Can anyone imagine Keir Hardie or even Clement Attlee doing such a thing? We have a new generation of careerist politicians, who have not so much lost their way in the Parliamentary thickets as have started out with not a single principle. Like Tony Blair, they begin their career by deciding what party they will ‘represent’ by tossing a coin.
So far from repenting, Blears resented the fact that Gordon Brown did not rush to embrace her. Most of us thought Blears should be in prison, not running the country. She then went through the farce of writing a cheque to pay back the tax people. Apart from the fact that the cheque could never be cashed – it was all a publicity stunt - she seemed oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of her working class constituents in Salford could never imagine handling a sum of £13,332, let alone nonchalantly parting with it without a sigh. So this was a further insult to them.
Working class people know that if they are caught shoplifting they can’t just say, “Oh I’ll just give it back then and let’s call it a day.” Why should different rules apply to MPs? Because, up till now, they’ve made their own rules on expenses. So they charge us for food. Don’t we have to pay for our own food? They charge us for dog food. Don’t we expect to pay for that if we keep a dog?
Finally, on the day before the local council elections, Blears very publicly resigned as minister for local government. This was a direct betrayal of all the hard working councillors and activists (and they still exist) who have been soldiering on despite twelve years of New Labour disappointments and outright betrayals in government.
Then came a cascade of further ministerial resignations. It has to be said that most of us have never heard of these people – Flint, Hutton, Purnell and so on - so narrow is the pool of talent available to a government whose main requirement is blind, unthinking loyalty. Six ministers have gone in less than a week. This is unprecedented.
New Labour: Crisis at the top
The resignations represent hammer blow after hammer blow to the Prime Minister. Yet still he clings on. His weakness is revealed by the fact that he refused to back Alistair Darling as Chancellor at Prime Minister’s Question Time the day before the elections. Yet Darling remains in his post. The Cabinet reshuffle over the weekend shows that Brown cannot appoint the people even he thinks the best for the job. The Cabinet is in effect a political coalition of those Brown needs for survival in the job, not a body appointed to run the country.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the further elevation of Lord Peter Mandelson to be in effect deputy prime minister. Mandelson is useful to Brown because he is unelected and has no independent power base. In fact the Prime Minister seems to despise the elective principle. After all not a soul elected him as Prime Minister. Nowhere is this lack of democracy more obvious than the ennobling of Alan Sugar and his ludicrous appointment to high office. Really this shows Brown’s lack of support in the elected Commons.
Let’s cast our mind back a couple of years. When Gordon Brown got the top job he was seen by some (not us though) as a refreshing change from the lies and spin of the Blair years – for a while. There was a ‘Brown bounce.’ But the idea that Brown was different was always a myth. Then the electorate tumbled. Brown was the co-founder with Blair and Mandelson of New Labour. Not only did he share their bankrupt ideology, their blind faith in capitalism and adoration of the rich, as a result he also shared their slimy methods. New Labour has taken the Party it parasitically invaded to the abyss. New Labour must be destroyed utterly if the principle of working class representation in politics is to be maintained.
This unprecedented political crisis is not just about MPs on the fiddle. Their behaviour is squalid, disgusting and shameless but it is also symptomatic. The sums they have wasted pale into insignificance besides the wealth that was made away with by the bankers and hurled at the banks by the bent politicians – possibly £1 trillion according to the Financial Times. It is petty besides the wealth that is being destroyed in the crisis and the hardship that innocent working class people are undergoing on account of the recession. It is small change by comparison with the waste of capitalism.
And that is precisely the point. The political establishment is seen as useless, fiddling while Rome burns. Brown’s arrogant nonsense about “no return to boom and bust” is seen for the lie it always was. Of course there has not been a mass conversion to socialism – not yet – but the economic crisis has led to a profound questioning of the political set up, and it has been found wanting. Radicalisation will follow the anger and disgust. There is a revolutionary potential in the present mood.
Despite the constant plotting Brown staggers on, doing immense damage to Labour’s chances at the next election but apparently incapable of being removed. Let’s be clear. There is no point in getting rid of Brown if the ‘alternative’ is one of the other right wing cabinet ministers such as Johnson, Harman or Miliband who have been up to their necks in the same failed, disastrous policies over the past few years and don’t represent a clear political change.
Brown hangs on
Brown is still there. On Monday June 8th his premiership was confirmed for the time being at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The plot against him has failed to catch fire for now. Part of the reason is that the plotters are seen as Blairites, consumed with personal dislikes and grudges. Truth to tell you can’t put a cigarette paper between their politics and Brown’s.
How did Brown get away with remaining in office, despite his near-universal unpopularity? On Friday June 5th long-standing right wing Labour backbencher Barry Sheerman reported on the Today programme on Radio 4 that his constituency had been nobbled and prominent local party officials told to deselect him by the Labour whips under instruction from Brown. The evidence for all this was on his phone. His crime? He had called for a secret ballot for the post of leader of the Labour Party (and Prime Minister). Brown is incapable of solving the problems of working people, but the bullying thugs that run the whips’ office are still capable of spitting out venom and using lies and spin against opponents real and imagined within the Party.
Now Brown says he will bring forward measures to reform Parliament. He declares he has always been in favour of this! Well he’s had twelve years to open his mouth and it’s remained firmly closed up to now. He performs these magic tricks with all the aplomb of the late Tommy Cooper.
Brown’s new found reform measures include a form of proportional representation. We ask the reader: how will PR stop MPs putting their hands in the till? How will it get us out of the present crisis? Cynics among us, and there are now 60 million cynics in the country thanks to the behaviour of our ‘elected representatives,’ will suspect this is now on the agenda because it is the only way the wretched Brown could hang on to power.
This new twist is akin to his repeated request to be given more time to spell out ‘his vision.’ We have waited two years in vain for this. The obvious conclusion is that Brown has no vision apart from remaining in office for as long as he can, whatever the damage he causes to the Labour Party and the country in the process.
Brown says he needs time to deal with the crisis before there’s an election. He seems to have all the time in the world to intimidate his own backbenchers like Barry Sheerman. And he hasn’t made much of a fist of lifting us out of the slump so far. The fact of the matter is that Brown is clinging desperately on till the last moment hoping the economy will improve of its own accord or some other miracle will save his bacon.
The PLP is in a cleft stick. Brown is an unelected Prime Minister. Can they just dump him and carry on as if nothing has happened? Surely they can’t get away with a second ‘coronation’, a second unelected Prime Minister, particularly since the last one produced such a useless monarch? People would demand a general election. And Labour would be wiped out, possibly with the worst results since 1931 when they were reduced to 54 seats. But hanging on and praying for a miracle won’t make it better, not without a change in policy. So they can’t ditch Brown and they can’t let him stay. They are paralysed.
The failure of the government is political, not a matter of personal foibles. They have worshipped at the altar of capitalism. That is why they have failed the working class. They have filled their boots at the public’s expense because they think that is the way of the world. And under capitalism it is.
We don’t want bourgeois politicians who just play the game masquerading as representatives of the working class. We can see how useless they are in the face of a crisis of capitalism. The Labour Party was founded, mainly by the trade unions, to represent the working class in Parliament, and that means fighting capitalism.
It’s the trade unions that hold the key to the situation. The leaders of the TUs have just sat there while New Labour rolled back all the democratic gains of the 1970s and 1980s. At present Labour Party Conference is in effect a trade fair, while policy is discussed but not implemented on the side. This is wrong and disastrous. The trade unions and party members need to have a decisive say inside the Party in order to turn it round.
The levers are still in place for the trade unions to reclaim the Labour Party for the working class. There is an absolute majority of rank and file representatives on the National Executive Committee, the supreme policy-making body between Conferences, if we include the representatives of the trade unions and the Labour Party ranks (17 out of 33) . They can demand a real Conference, one with the right of trade unions and local parties to move resolutions and full decision-making powers, in the present emergency. We need an emergency Conference to reverse the present course. Otherwise Labour will be in opposition after twelve years of failure. That would be the real poisoned inheritance from New Labour.
Workers' MPs on a worker wage!
Labour activists feel stunned and betrayed. They feel powerless to make the changes necessary. They will join a movement of renovation as it develops and give it added strength. The union members are in a much stronger position. They must be asking themselves, why are we giving money to these wasters when we get nothing in return? They are the best people to get stuck in.
As for the self-serving careerists who represent too many of the working class constituencies solely in order to feather their own nests, they should be swept aside in a mandatory reselection process. Gordon Brown has put in place a Court of Star Chamber that tries MPs who it thinks have brought the Party into disrepute. The procedure is completely arbitrary. We need a clean sweep. People who stand for Labour should have clean hands. Is that too much to ask?
At bottom it’s all about politics. These Labour MPs are bent because they accept capitalism as the only system possible. Capitalism bends politicians to its will because, under capitalism, big business and not Parliament takes all the important decisions. We need Labour MPs who really represent the working class and are prepared to fight in their interests, against the dominant power of the capitalist system. They will need to be armed with a clear vision of a socialist alternative. Since they represent the working class, they will live among the working class, talk to the working class and share their ambitions and hardships. They will live on a worker’s wage.
Danger! Tories about.
Tory leader Cameron has played a blinder on this one. His bunch of MPs have been shown to have their snouts in the trough as deep as anyone else, yet Cameron has come across as whiter than the driven snow. Partly this is cynical calculation. Cameron and his circle are quite ready to throw the Tory grandees with their hands in the till to the wolves. They are known as bedblockers to the new generation of Tory politicians. Cameron has been able to score points and win support without spelling out his programme. Ironically, people have been more keen to punish Labour rather than the Tories not only because Labour are the party in power but also because people have always assumed that the Tories are on the fiddle whereas higher standards were to be expected from people who are meant to represent our class.
A Tory victory at the next general election is now overwhelmingly the most likely perspective. It is not inevitable, as long as the labour movement rearms in time. That is the only way a shattering defeat can be avoided.
The Tories are not up and away. The Euro elections showed them are on 27%, though the UKIP vote will mainly come back to them in a general election. UKIP supporters are mainly right wing Tories by instinct.
The key is to get those working class abstainers out to vote. Less than 40% of the eligible population voted in the European elections. And getting the vote out means giving them a reason to walk down to the polling booths.
There is a real, massive crisis out there. According to Martin Wolf in the Financial Times (04.06.09) “This financial year the UK government is forecast to spend £4 for every £3 it raises.” The result of this, as Micawber in Pickwick Papers would have realised, is misery for British capitalism. What the ruling class needs is an attack on public services and working class living standards on a scale unprecedented since the 1930s. Wolf goes on, “The debate on how to curb public spending is, quite simply, the central issue in UK politics.” (Note the question is how to cut it, not whether to.) Wolf and the ruling class have given up on the Labour government. They need a vicious right wing Tory government to implement the cuts they feel are necessary. But the scattergun attack on MPs’ expenses begun by the Tory Daily Telegraph, though intended as an attack on Labour, will also weaken and undermine the Tories. The ruling class needs a strong Tory government to take on the working class. Shadow Chancellor Osborne has admitted to business friends, “After three months in power we will be the most unpopular government since the War.” He is ready to be the Attila the Hun of public services. He knows what he has to do.
Time to change course
It should be made clear. The disastrous result for Labour last week was not solely because of the expenses scandal – as some in the party have been spinning – but mainly because of 12 years of retreat and counter-reform on the part of New Labour in power. The scandal was just the icing on a very bad stale cake. Indeed Labour has been shedding votes at election after election after election from almost the day after Blair walked into Number 10 in 1997. Had the expenses scandal never come to light then these election results will still have been pretty bad. Only the unpopularity of the Tory alternative in 2001 and 2005 kept Labour in at Westminster with a large majority. That can no longer be relied upon. The facts are clear. The current PLP have shown that they will not be changing course and abandoning the creed of New Labour. Although no election is ever 100% predictable we must expect the worse, fought as it will be by the defenders of reaction and betrayal. We will need to look ahead to the post election period with a right wing Tory government in power ready to cut public services like mad to restore profits for the City – and a badly beaten Labour opposition. The task will then fall to the trade unions to take the lead and start the process of clearing out the wreckage of New Labour and turning Labour towards a socialist programme to fight the Tories and the bosses. This will be the only way back for Labour and the organised working class.
The question is – is the Labour movement ready to rearm on the lines we advocate? The alternative is destruction. This really is our last chance to keep the Tories out.