Discussion Forum
The Labour Party and Government

From Michael Piggott
Wednesday, 10 June 2009

I doubt the Guardian will print my letter below, so can I put it on the Hebweb? I feel so strongly about this (and I'm sure I'm not alone!)

'New Labour' destroys the Labour Party

Further to Spencer Butler's letter, I ceased to be a member of the Labour Party many years ago (and applied to rejoin recently, but received a 'Don't call us, we'll call you' reply, which they didn't - because I supported Old Labour policies? ... but that's another story). However, I have also been a Labour supporter for 50 years, joining the Young Socialists at 15, and have always voted Labour. So have my entire family: my great-grandfather was a founder-member, from the days of the Labour Representation Committee which set up the party in 1905.

We have watched the 'New Labour' government become so right-wing that George Monbiot was able to characterise it, correctly, as 'the most right-wing government since the war'. This 'New Labour' government has out-Toried the Tories! And guess what? Not a single one of our family is able to bring itself to vote Labour again. We can not bring ourselves to vote for such a reactionary, right-wing government, even with pegs on our noses, Polly Toynbee! Every one of my former Labour-voting friends feels the same way. Might this explain the electoral disaster that has decimated the Labour vote?

There has been much said in the Guardian about a new direction in politics. What about an 'old' direction: the embracing of socialist policies? For a start, we would welcome the clearing out the existing leadership rubbish and the holding to account of those responsible for destroying the party, up to and including putting on trial the war criminals who lied so blatantly to justify the invasion of Iraq. The renationalisation of the railways, and the nationalisation of the banks with minimum compensation would help win us back.

Many, many of us believe that the pathetic old excuse that 'leftwing policies frighten off the voters' no longer applies, if it ever did. On the contrary: if a socialist leadership of the Labour Party fought and argued for such policies, we believe the electorate would be won over. Meanwhile, their supposed fear of alienating the voters has done exactly that, delivering the near-certainty of an extreme right-wing Tory government with a growing fascist movement waiting in the wings.

My great-grandfather and his comrades would not have believed it possible that over a century of Labour could have brought us to this!

From Jonathan Timbers
Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Having been lukewarm about Labour's victory in 1997, and critical of Gordon Brown from the offset, I understand the feelings behind Mr Piggott's post. However, I do not share his analysis, which, in my view, is misguided both in historical and sociological terms.

Firstly, historically, Old Labour was not the paragon of virtue he suggests it was, but he is right to say that it was born out of a great deal of activity and idealism. The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) which founded the Labour party was formed on the back of over 20 years of agitational and educational activity, and community politics, the epitome of which were the Clarion cycling groups that went out each weekend to small industrial towns and leafleted workers before a public meeting. The ideas of socialism were also spread through the 'associational culture' which existed within working class communities at the time e.g. co-operatives, workers' educational association etc. The Labour movement was not the product of the Labour Party, quite the contrary, the Labour party arose as a result of a huge upsurge in progressive thinking amongst working class people, but the Labour party itself was never a socialist party and had a chequered record. For instance, at the very begiining of its history, in 1915, it renounced both its pacifism and internationalism and declared support for Britain and the Empire in the First World War.

In 1924, it was elected into government and started an ambitious housing programme. However, in 1926, the Labour leadership played a significant role in undermining the General Strike - the only time in the history of the working class in this country when a General Strike has occurred.

In 1929, another Labour government was elected but, faced with a deflationary crisis, such as the one we have now, made savage cuts in unemployment benefit and teachers' pay. Ultimately, it formed a 'National Government' with the Tories. Actually, in comparison, Gordon Brown's administration is arguably, in some ways, to the left of that government, which makes comparisons between 'Old' and 'New' Labour a little more complex than Mr Piggott asserts.

The 1945 Labour government created the NHS, of course (it is wrong to credit it with creating the welfare state - the Liberals did that in 1909 - Labour just built on the Liberal foundation adopting the policies of William Beveridge, another Liberal). It also built 'the worker's bomb', as Ernest Bevin, Labour's working class foreign secretary called it, trying to justify his aggressive support for America in the Cold War. Ultimately, this stretched to sending troops to support the USA in the Korean war.

I shan't bore on about the Labour government in 1964 -1970 and 1974 - 1979. However, I can remember people saying how bitterly disappointed they were with Harold Wilson, who, before Tony Blair came on the scene, was Labour's most successful leader in electoral terms, winning the elections which took place in 1964, 1966 and (the second one) in 1974. At the end of the sixties, traditional (i.e. 'Old') Labour councils were implicated in property fraud during the rush to construct high rise council estates. The fraud was much worse than the expenses scandals which we now hear of and hurt many working-class people and their families in profound ways. Some of my first memories concern 'the Poulson affair', which some readers may remember with considerable distaste nearly 40 years on.

So much for Old Labour.

New Labour was created because of 2 important phenomena that some on the Left seem still to be either denying or coming to terms with (I count myself in the second group):

1) The crisis in Socialist economics following the collapse of the Soviet Union
2) The fragmentation of the working class combined with the decline of organised labour and its political expression.

Essentially, the Left had to face the fact (though not everyone did, of course) that state control of business organisations (often under the slogan of 'workers' control') led not just to chronic inefficiency but to the creation of a bureaucracy which stifled democracy and ultimately often systematically abused fundamental human rights. Many realised that saying that you were against Stalinism just wasn't good enough. The whole idea of 'the planned economy' was a fallacy, which could produce results at least as nasty as anything capitalism could come up with, with added rationing. This has put the Left in something of a quandry. Some on the Left now talk of market Socialism but it is unclear how this differs from the sort of social democratic capitalism practised in Sweden. Others have moved to the Green agenda, which is more heavily influenced by Anarchist thinking, and seem to believe that the way forward is through small businesses/ social enterprises, but there are problems and limitations there too. The co-operative agenda is another avenue which people have decided to explore but despite the benefits of co-operation, it has its own political and social limitations (e.g. the USA has one of the most thriving co-operative sectors in the world).

For me, the ideological bankruptcy of socialist economics was driven home by a friend in Hebden Bridge who worked in development aid in Africa. He pointed out that state solutions would not work in many countries and the way forward was through micro finance as a spur to the creation of environmentally sustainable businesses. To many people in Africa, socialism just meant the same old state criminals giving resources to their own elites at the expense of the people, and if you wanted to make a difference to those demanding change, talking about state socialism was not only not likely to produce the results that they required, it could play into the hands of the enemies of the people and democracy itself. After that, my views had to adapt.

The second problem should be clear to anyone who lives in this valley. Despite glaring wealth and cultural inequalities, such as the ones we can see every day in Hebden Bridge, there is no Labour movement, no associational culture any longer, and the term 'working class; no longer identifies people's political leanings or degree of wealth. If anything, round here, it has more to do with how local you see yourself and says something about your sense of belonging . Increasingly, people who would have been working in factories are working for themselves, or for others in small businesses, as plumbers, builders, joiners and painters and decorators.Many others are working in offices in the business and financial sector, dependent on the health of the banking system for their families' security and prosperity. The vast majority see themselves as over-taxed and under appreciated. This is not fertile ground for socialist ideas or rather for the remaining hope that a better world can be built on the basis of social and economic justice, equality and human rights, whatever that means in practice.

If you vote Labour, you should always do so without illusions, recognising that a Tory victory is always bad for most people in the long term. Since 1997, Labour has significantly cut child and pensioner poverty (so say the charities working in the field). Generally, people are not waiting 18 months for a life saving operation now either. Whilst I think that anger and frustration about the Labour party is understandable, there is no reason to suppose that it merits more anger now than it did in 1915 and probably considerably less than in 1931. It is important for people to bear in mind that much of the public expenditure that it has undertaken over the last decade has been well spent and produced excellent results - far better than the market alone could ever produce, and that, despite its international and domestic failures (nobody has mentioned private pensions yet, why not?), it has also done a great deal of good, and will continue to do so whilst in government.

If you don't believe me, go take a look at the new children's centre in Hebden Bridge, and the even better one in Todmorden.

And, by the way, the Socialist Labour Party got 1.6% of the vote in last week's Euro elections in Yorkshire and Humberside, which was a PR election. Says it all.

From Susan Press
Thursday, 11 June 2009

Jonathan's potted history of the Labour Party is useful stuff for those who may not be clued-up. But I disagree with him on several counts.

New Labour was not borne out of the collapse of the Soviet Union or a fragmented working-class. It was the result of many years of Tory Government and sheer desperation that Labour would never win office again. So many (myself included) were prepared to conpromise. In Tony Blair we (rightly) assumed we had an electable Leader who could win over a broad coalition of support. That broad coalition has now fallen apart and in its desire to keep Middle England sweet, Labour has lost much of its core support. Including that of the working-class which as far as I'm concerned is very much alive and extremely angry.

No-one disputes the achievements which Jonathan mentions. But in 2003 Tony Blair took us into an illegal and immoral war in Iraq which for many was the tipping-point out of the Labour Party. We have yet to recover from that.

When Gordon Brown became Leader many also hoped for a change in direction but it has not happened. Far from it. New Labour continues on its road of unnecessary and unpopular privatisations, ie Royal Mail, presides over a society in which the gap between rich and poor has widened, not lessened, and we have a tax system which remains beneficial to the rich. People actually paid more tax under Thatcher.

In 1997, we said we would re-nationalise the railways and not introduce tuition fees. We reneged on the promise re the railways and did what we said we would not do on top-up fees.
We continue to allow the rich to get away with billions in tax avoidance.

Tax credits have helped many people but welfare benefits are derisory. According to the TUC, Jobseekers Allowance should be about £100 a week just to keep pace with inflation. It is about £60.00.

Yet we have committed billions to a new generation of nuclear weapons. At a time when four million people are on waiting-lists for council homes.

So it's not enough to say the Tories would be worse. The fact is many simply don't believe that. What to do? New Labour's status quo is not an option.

Labour backbenchers and trade unionists need to put pressure on the Government to put into place the policies which would win back support. Old state nationalisation might not be the answer but there are many models of social enterprise and alternatives to the iniquities of global capitalism - currently in meltdown.

We need to call for:

  • A fairer tax system
  • Millions more investment in social housing
  • More accountability for the banks we have bailed out.
  • Scrapping ID cards and Trident
  • The return of the private utilities into public ownership (doesn't have to be a State monolith) to end the profiteering which is leading many millions into fuel poverty.

One final point: I have no truck with the minority parties like the SLP or No2EU. But it doesn't "say it all" that they got such a derisory vote. It says far more that Labour's vote collapsed and we got a BNP Euro MP. If people in the Labour Government are not prepared to listen to that message, then we really are doomed to have a Tory Government.

From Rev Tony Buglass
Thursday, 11 June 2009

"..his aggressive support for America in the Cold War. ... stretched to sending troops to support the USA in the Korean war."

I wouldn't like to quibble with the first bit, although it could certainly be argued that the opposite was the case: that America supported Europe during the Cold War. However, the Korean War was not the UK supporting the US. It was a war conducted by the UN against the communist invasion of South Korea. The US inevitably provided the bulk of the forces, but the UK and Australia were also involved. Your analysis suggests that you are viewing the Korean War through the filter of Gulf War 2, but it was a very different situation.

From Jonathan Timbers
Sunday, 21 June 2009

Tony Bugloss is right when he says that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx. However, it was not just the confidence that preaching gave to working class trade unionists, co-operators and community activists, but the notions of both mission and service which religious commitment gave to many socialist pioneers that enabled them to create such a huge current for socialism, whose waves can still be felt today.

Naturally, Methodism wasn’t the only inspiration for early socialists: Unitarianism also played a strong part, and no doubt other sects of Christianity as well. This ethical vision animated the politics of Keir Hardie, who founded the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Contrary to received opinion, it was not the Trade Unions which founded the Labour Party. It was initiated by the ILP, which managed to convince the Trade Unions, the Fabian Society, some radical Liberals and independent socialists to come along with it and as a result the Labour Representative Committee (LRC) was born. This went on the form the Labour Party and fielded non socialist candidates as well as socialist ones.

Personally, I love Hardie’s anti-doctrinaire socialism and I’ve dug out some quotes from him:

‘Socialism makes war upon a system, and not a class’

‘No revolution can succeed which has not public opinion behind it and when that opinion ripens it ... breaks down even the walls of self-interest’

‘Socialism means fraternity founded on Justice, and the fact that in order to secure this it is necessary to transfer land and capital from private to public ownership is a mere incident in the crusade ... my protest is against this being considered the whole of Socialism or even the vital part of it’.

‘The working class is not a class. It is a nation’.

The ILP retained its distinct identity and ran candidates along with Labour in the way the Co-operative Party still does today. However, in 1931, the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party, which it thought had betrayed socialism, and stood against it. Over time, it was destroyed and this nation lost its only non doctrinaire democratic socialist party (although it still exists as a publications group to this day). Mark Piggott and others should have regard to that history when considering an alternative socialist party to Labour.

Along the way, the ILP created ‘the Living Wage’ campaign and foresaw Keynesiasm in its economic policies of the 1930’s (one of the best books on this period is the entertaining biography of the ILP leader Jimmy Maxton, written by Gordon Brown before he became so leaden-footed). It defied Stalinism in Spain (George Orwell was a member and his commitment to truth was nurtured by the ILP. See ‘Homage to Catalonia’) and in the 1960’s helped to set up CND in the English regions .

In some ways, the ILP, which pioneered healthy school meals in Bradford, seems to foreshadow the Green Party, which is running its own highly credible Living Wage campaign. However, the ILP’s concerns and social base was much wider.

Of course, in 1900, things were very different. The majority of working class people were poor. Nowadays, Oxfam says 1 out of 5 people are poor (still an unacceptable figure in my opinion, though not one due entirely to class – other causes are as important such as disability, caring responsibilities, ethnicity etc). However, its revolutionary intentions, respect for the truth and search for credible policies (rather than promotion of vacuous wish lists) means that it still has much to teach us. So does the attitude of its activists who were forever campaigning in the community about issues which affected people in their daily lives.

The fact that nothing like the ILP exists these days is because of a series of social and historical reasons, to do with changing times, demographic changes and the legacy of doctrinaire socialism and failed social democracy. However, I am sure the search for social justice will continue and Tony Bugloss’s thoughts about Trident – which are much the same as my own - show that there are many people, prepared to admit to doubt and complexity, who are still struggling to realise the same ethical vision which Hardie possessed, even, as in my case, they may do so inadequately and with much uncertainty.

One observation I have (so probably questionable) is that the modern Labour Party is very like the Liberal Party of old: a pro Capitalist party with a tendency to spend money on public services, which attracts support because it is anti-Tory rather than because it offers an alternative way forward. Unfortunately, there is no alternative radical party rising on the basis of a huge mass movement, as there was in the 1900’s, however admirable the Green Party is in some ways.

So it looks like a rejuvenated Labour Party, pushed towards radicalism by an active mass base of support, remains the only likely way that fundamental change will be enacted. In the mean time, there is lots to do ....

From Susan Press
Thursday, 25 June 2009

At the risk of stating the obvious the problem is not the proud traditions of Keir Hardie and co put forward so eloquently by Jonathan , it is the present day generation of Labour politicians, many of whom who put pragmatic self-interest before fraternity, claim every single penny they can lay their hands on as long as it's "within the rules" , then have the gall to lecture the rest of us on belt-tightening.

How can any MP on £67,000, which is what backbenchers get, justify claiming an additional £400 for food every month. Former Minister James Purnell, architect of the Welfare Reform Bill, earning double that, claimed the food allowance and expects the jobless to exist on an allowance of £64 a week. Not only that, he expects them to work for it at a pro rata rate of about £1.83 an hour. No wonder people are turned off politicians.

Indeed we need a rejuvenated Labour Party with a mass activist base. Quite how we achieve that when members are leaving in droves appalled by the Party's national policies and lack of internal democracy and accountability is anyone's guess.

From Richard W
Saturday, 27 June 2009

Any chance you lot could discuss all this stuff somewhere else?

From Tom Standfield
Saturday, 27 June 2009

Richard, you don't have to follow this thread if you don't wish to. I think it is sometimes good to go a little deeper into the topics. I thoroughly agree with the gist of Michael Piggot's opening message here. And the discussion might just lead on to why we have a Labour Party which can allow a weak candidate, who is not embraced by many party members, to be selected to fight the Calder Valley constituency which is such a key marginal. And whether it is now too late to find someone who can unify and inspire the left and green voters in our area.