by David Broder
Today’s Daily Mail front page screams “Rats desert sinking ship”, as ministers and MPs abandon the spiraling Brown government even before likely disastrous results in Thursday’s local and European elections. This morning there was further bad news for the Prime Minister when his factional opponent Hazel Blears – recently attacked by Brown for her role in the expenses scandal , in retort to her criticisms of his YouTube appearances – cut loose from the Cabinet, promising “to return to the grassroots, to political activism, to the cut and thrust of political debate”.
Blears’ move follows yesterday’s announcements by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, Children’s Minister Beverley Hughes, former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt and Tom Watson, a Brown ally who was at the centre of the botched summer 2006 “Curry House coup” against Tony Blair. Each of these had their different motivations for leaving government or leaving Parliament – some of them without significant animosity towards the beleaguered Prime Minister – but it all adds to the sense that the government cannot stumble on much longer. Yesterday The Times – and today The Guardian – called on the Cabinet to get rid of Gordon Brown.
Sooner or later, Brown will fall, even if he does manage to cling on to power right up until May 2010, the latest date to which he can postpone the General Election. Clearly there is no serious prospect of him continuing to lead the party after such a defeat. Some on the left believe that this collapse will present new opportunities in the Labour Party, arguing that the turmoil which will follow Labour’s defeat will lead to factional “re-alignment” in the party and therefore an opening-up of debate in its ranks which we should participate in. So what signs are there of a space for the left to operate in Labour?
In tomorrow’s elections Labour could well lose control of all its councils in England and maybe even come in fourth in the European ballot behind UKIP and the Lib Dems. Since the EU count does not take place until Sunday, we are probably set for four days of unfolding bad results for Labour, the prelude to a stonking General Election defeat at some point in the next year. Although the current leadership is clearly unable to revive significantly, the inevitably of a Conservative victory in 2010 is reason enough for the likes of Alan Johnson and David Miliband not to move to unseat Brown after this week’s election. Rats desert sinking ships, they don’t fight for control of the wheel. It seems likely that the party will see most re-organisation only after a General Election defeat, amidst continuing despair and lack of motivation among the remaining members.
Soul-searching is, however, very much in evidence in some quarters, with the likes of COMPASS-supporting Labour MP John Cruddas offering soft-left criticisms of the path taken by Blair and Brown over the last twelve years. So too has Alan Johnson called for a constitutional debate, with Harriet Harman emitting populist slogans about the banking system and its power. It is notable that such people’s questioning of New Labourism did not come at the time of the Iraq War, when ‘foundation hospitals’ or top-up-fees were introduced, or indeed at the time when the government got rid of the lowest income tax bracket of 10p in the pound, but only when Labour is plunging headlong towards collapse and MPs’ seats are in danger. In opposition such politicians as these three – all of whom voted for the war and were longstanding allies of Tony Blair – are likely to rise to prominence, and perhaps we will see Johnson as leader with Cruddas as his deputy, and will no doubt be able to tack ‘left’ to criticize Prime Minister David Cameron.
Such posturing does not, however, mean that they will have changed their political stripes; that the left or labour movement activists will have more control; or that they will not revert to type when they are back in government next time. I have never heard any left-Labour MP like John McDonnell or Jeremy Corbyn make such bold claims about the likely left resurgence in a defeated Labour Party as have been made by some Trotskyist groups – McDonnell would be more likely to say, as he did at a The Commune forum soon before Christmas, “it’s fucked!” The behind-the-scenes moves to unseat Brown are themselves a secretive, cliquish and undemocratic game.
Indeed, all of the democratic channels within the Labour Party have been closed down. Since the 2007 ‘democratic reforms’ party conference no longer accepts motions from affiliates, such as trade unions, and government policy in any case has little to do with conference decisions (which, for example, oppose council house and NHS privatization). ‘Expert’ advisers and technocrats such as Ed Balls can quickly rise to the summit on the say-so of the head of the party apparatus – by next week he will probably be Chancellor. Affiliated unions do have preferred lists of candidates, many of whom are indeed put forward to the electorate – but these are merely bureaucrats moving closer to the centre of the state machine, being rewarded by their political allies and existing representatives. What does it mean when Trotskyist groups call on the likes of union leaders Billy Hayes (CWU) or Tony Woodley (T&G/Unite) to ‘fight’, when in reality these same general secretaries actively – sincerely, ideologically – support the existing party leadership? Two years ago they mounted zero resistance to the curtailing of their own rights to play a role in deciding Labour policy – they didn’t really care. Similarly, the Labour Party’s own membership base is severely depleted, with little life to seek out in the powerless Constituency Labour Parties. It seems neither likely nor desirable that these bodies will revive when workers need to find somewhere to organise against Tory attacks in 2010 and beyond – much like you would not today suggest to a sacked Visteon worker that s/he might consider ‘joining the fight’ in Labour!
The whole operation is a stitch-up, and even to elect new Labour-left MPs has become an impossibility due to the top-down controls on the selection candidates, as Labour Representation Committee vice-chair Susan Press comments “after what has happened to me as a candidate in Keighley and Calder Valley, I honestly think left-wingers do not stand a chance of beating the machine. The selection process would have to change radically to make it a fair contest with a level playing field.” Even if they themselves tack ‘left’ (reviving Keynesian economic ideas, for example) to pose an alternative to the Tories during the economic crisis, there is no reason to hope or believe that the Johnsons, Milibands etc. – who supported the 2007 closing-down of party democracy – will voluntarily relinquish their control for the sake of encouraging discussion. Remember, these are the same technocrats who will sit on the government’s ‘National Council for Democratic Renewal’, which sounds like the fantasy of some grey Stalinist bureaucrat. The empty cynicism of Brown’s successors is shown by how they today defend him, only to throw him to the dogs tomorrow: Harman insisted yesterday that “the wheels are not coming off this government” (sinking ships don’t have wheels, Harriet).
In-fighting and factionalism among elites is not the same as real political ‘space’. There is a game of appearances, with the likes of Johnson or Cruddas willing to suggest changing everything – but they do so precisely with the goal of making sure nothing important changes. Not only is it untrue that anyone in the Cabinet has any alternative economic strategy to Gordon Brown’s: but even if they did, the collapse of Labour membership, the significant decline in working-class identification with the party, and its lack of internal democracy, mean we should not entertain any illusions that electoral defeat will offer a chance to ‘reclaim’(it was never so great anyway) the Labour Party politically. It would be better for trade unionists if they had no political funds at all than continue to have to give money to Labour, whose next leadership team their general secretaries will invariably endorse and fund with no strings attached. How many jobs will union support for Labour save, when Mandelson is telling workers at Vauxhall he won’t be lifting a finger?
As it is, large numbers of people are very angry at what is happening in the economy and with the scandals in Parliament, even if the recession now seems not to occupy much of a place on the media radar. As a response many are adopting all sorts of supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ ideas, whether that means oddball ideas for constitutional reforms (alternative voting, fixed-term Parliaments, etc.); voting for the likes of UKIP or the Greens on June 4th; or the current identification with ‘celebrity’ ‘independent’ candidates for office, such as Esther Rantzen, Terry Waite or even Joanna Lumley, touted as a prospective Mayor of London. The real tragedy is that all this really doesn’t mean what Spiked called “the implosion of the political class” – it has no meaningful emancipatory potential, since the left is weak both in numbers and in terms of its inability to present any radical alternative, as evidenced by its own lame demands for proportional representation or Socialist Worker’s call for the ‘jailing’ of the ‘corrupt’ MPs. There may be uproar in the papers, individual MPs may come and go, and this or that reform may be enacted, but the existing parties’ dominance is very unlikely to be challenged in a sustained way until there is some viable political alternative which puts parliamentary democracy itself – whether Labour is in power or making populist attacks in opposition – under attack.