Regular readers know my politics but what may not be so obvious is that I am a fan of the Labour party—not today’s Labour party but the one that John Maclean founded, that spread through the streets and slums where underpaid workers supported the imperial state of 100 years ago.
My admiration stretches easily on to Atlee and Bevan and their visions. But, since my first political memory is of John P Macintosh giving Tory toff Anstruther-Grey a local fright in 1966, the former has recently been a rarity—a Labour politician of vision and humanity who reached out across party boundaries, espousing a rooted inclusiveness that originally lay at Labour’s heart.
How the likes of Derry Irvine and Peter Mandelson ever got into the party remains a mystery to me but what is more relevant is a) the total absence of a politician of real stature in the Scottish Labour of today and b) an embalmed echo of the in-with-the-bricks community strength of the original party. This, more than anything, explains its recent demise. But there is a third, overarching factor, which is that the UK party has lost its soul. Blair may have started that process but others continue it.
Much though I may oppose Labour these days, I still accept the need in Scotland for a party along the lines that Maclean would recognise and embrace. But, since there seems to be little hope of that happening locally, I am encouraged that several blogs and writers dare to put their heads above the parapet in discussion on such things. Local Labour man Neil Foy was on LabourHame decrying cyberbullying from all sides. And today was one of the most insightful and honest letters diagnosing what is at the heart of Labour’s problem and published, with no small amount of courage on both sides, on LabourList.
FEBRUARY 17, 2012
I do wonder how often you receive letters from party members and whether they all start by saying how long they have been party members. In my case it is 21 years. As a 15-year-old I was going to be part of a tidal wave sweeping Neil Kinnock to power. I was optimistic in those days.
Since then I have been a parliamentary candidate twice, a school governor and a councillor – generally what you would call an activist. I grew up in the party; my parents were councillors, my mother was a parliamentary candidate three times, my grandfather was a party agent and my great grandfather was the chair of Poplar Labour Party. I’m saying that this party is in my DNA.
All of this makes my current concerns very hard to resolve; mainly that I no longer have any faith that the Labour Party will make a better society – or even wants to do so. This is a feeling that I have been trying to ignore for some time, but I think it is time to raise it with you.
Firstly, the party’s attitude to democracy is pitiful. Internally, it’s a joke and the people and factions competing for power seem to despise party members. I had hoped your review led by Peter Hain would tackle this problem but what came out of that was not a meaningful change from the current state.
It might be forgivable if this rejection of democracy were just an internal thing, but the party’s approach to democracy for the public is just as qualified. After the expenses scandal, Gordon Brown let a lot of basically dirty MPs off the hook and then offered the weakest possible reform to parliamentary accountability (AV) as a sop to the electoral reform movement.
After the election, all it would have taken to have shown some vision and understanding would be for one of the putative leaders to say how ridiculous AV is and have proposed an amendment to the Bill to allow for a third option of STV. But no candidate was willing to upset one third of the electoral college – the MPs – by suggesting there was anything wrong in principle with safe seats.
Your election as Leader also upset me because the party was so desperate to elect someone who would recant the sins of New Labour that they refused to consider whether you actually meant it or whether you would be any good at the job of leading. It shocked me that anyone believed your proclaimed principles when at no time in your career had you espoused them before standing for the leadership. It shocked me that party members, unions and MPs would back you regardless of the fact that you were so clearly not up to the job, have no vision for Britain and can’t communicate very well. That said, I hoped I would be proved wrong once you had won.
Your leadership has shown me how lacking in vision you and Ed Balls are in particular but your team is in general. You talk nonsense about good companies and bad companies as though companies can have ethics. It’s not about companies, it’s the people who make decisions who are, or are not, ethically driven. And your confusing position on austerity is simply small minded.
Austerity may be a necessity but our party, with our values, ought to be standing up for people. And if that means “embracing” austerity, that should be conditional on an outright mission to attack the cost of living for the people who will have to pay for austerity. You know that the major cost of living is housing and that’s driven by a perverse, ever-inflating housing market. But you won’t push for real, meaningful policies that would reduce this overweight cost because any such policy would take the heat out of the housing market and lead to house price deflation. You won’t countenance policies to help the many if the few who will pay are Daily Mail reading swing voters in marginal seats.
This is the core of your problem. Because you believe in power over principle, you can’t tell the difference between vision and triangulation. You think you can keep the left just enough on side through pointless attacks on individual bankers’ bonuses or honours and that you can win the centre ground by attacking the unions and embracing austerity. This ridiculous lack of vision means that I have to wait to see what your latest quote is to know whether – this week – the party’s left wing or right.
While I don’t believe you are any more left wing than Blair or Brown, I don’t particularly care if you’re left or right wing. Leaders have to take a direction and it’s reasonable to ask party members to support the vision – the destination – even if the course isn’t the one those members would prefer.
My problem is that you are not a leader. You are not articulating a vision or a destination, you’re not clearly identifying a course and no-one’s following you. You’re simply coming out with unintelligible guff in response to the latest headlines and seemingly hoping that we’ll think its impenetrability is down to our lack of understanding rather than your lack of coherence. The nonsense you say isn’t even well crafted and your “something for something” speech at conference was simply embarrassing.
I have come to fear that you might actually win the next general election. Your absolute lack of a vision for Britain or any leadership qualities, and in particular your willingness to dissemble about your beliefs to win the Labour leadership makes me fear what you would do if you had any actual power. I don’t believe you know what you would do with power and I fear what you would do to keep it. It’s a formula that would lead to a government with a similar inertia to that of Gordon Brown. Except that you don’t have Gordon Brown’s talents.
People try to tell me that it would be a problem replacing you, but if we excluded the outright mad or bad MPs there’s at least a hundred Labour MPs who couldn’t do a worse job than you.
It is all about talent. I’d love us to have a leader with the articulacy of Emily Thornberry, the intelligence of Stella Creasy, the easy charm of John Woodcock or the tangible decency of Hilary Benn. But somehow the Labour Party seems to drain the talent from its people.
Our shared history and values imply that we will stand for the people who need us most. Right now that’s more than half of the population of this country. But it’s disproportionately people who don’t vote and it’s not swing voters in marginal seats. So we don’t stand for them. Nearly any Labour MP you speak to wants to stand for them but collectively we are incapable of doing so.
The Labour party stands for its leader and his interests first. Then it stands for its MPs and securing their jobs as best as possible. It stands for the union general secretaries (but not their members) just enough to keep them affiliated. After that it stands for swing voters in marginal seats and the media proprietors who can influence them. After that, if we’re lucky, we get to do something for the people for whom the party was created.
And it’s not that we’re any worse than the other parties, who operate just the same. We’re just supposed to be better than them and so our failure is more disappointing. Whether you think we’re a democratic socialist party or a social democrat party, you’re wrong. We’re an illiberal elitist capitalist party with no taste for democracy and a misplaced belief that the masses are better off in our care than that of other parties.
I’m not sure whether your departure would really make a difference to this. Would the next leadership election deliver us a leader or just another functionary fearful of his or her vulnerability and incapable of inspiring?
For all his faults, Blair had a real vision of a Britain that was better and fairer than the nation he inherited. And he had the leadership skills to keep the party together even when we didn’t like the details.
So what am I asking you to do? To prove me wrong maybe? To resign? To be honest I don’t particularly care anymore. I’d like it if you were honest and told us who the Labour Party’s going to help, and how, and set your policy direction consistently with that declaration. And then if we didn’t agree with you, we could just leave rather than persisting with vain optimism.