Leaflet for Saturday’s COMPASS conference: click here for PDF
The economic crisis and the collapse of faith in Parliament have posed a significant challenge to the authority of our leaders. Not only the free market ideas which were only a few months ago the dogma of all main parties, but also the supposedly unshakable British unwritten constitution, have come under sustained criticism both in the media and a public crying out for an alternative. However, the European elections demonstrated that it is right-wing populists, and not the left, who have taken advantage of the establishment’s crises.
Why this failure to find support? Perhaps because, for all the talk at the Compass conference that there is ‘No turning back’, the current left consensus represents precisely that. Rather than using the twin economic and political crisis to point to the possibility of some better way of running society, most of the left instead hark back to the 1970s—the days of ‘responsible’ MPs and benign state intervention in the economy. Such champions of more ‘regulation’ and more power for bureaucrats are hardly likely to make much headway at a time when the BNP is winning votes by posturing as ‘anti-establishment’.
The recent article ‘No turning back’, written for the New Statesman by Neal Lawson and John Harris, epitomises the established ‘left’ way of thinking. Their answer to the economic crisis is an Old Labour-lite ‘mixed economy’, with an added touch of ‘social awareness’ via the likes of tepid middle class campaigners such as Plane Stupid and London Citizens. Of course, the central vehicle of change is supposed to be the Labour Party itself: an organisation whose activist base has collapsed as the leadership has removed the last vestiges of democratic space at local and conference level alike. It is not the will of rank-and-file of affiliated unions or CLP members that decides government policy, but rather horse-trading and personality clashes in Brown’s Cabinet.
There is minimal real debate in the Labour Party, only the smoke and mirrors used by individuals jockeying for power. Whatever their ambitions, what is it that the likes of Alan Johnson or Harriet Harman really have to say for themselves—for example, what would their plan for the economy and defending jobs be? Nothing about this Brownite and Blairite posturing and hot air is of any interest to the millions of workers who are having to tighten their belts as wages and services are cut and unemployment soars: they are disenfranchised not only because there are too many ‘corrupt’ MPs but because there is no-one in the Commons to stand up for them. Lawson and Harris are half right when they say that “to talk about equality, fairness, control of markets and environmental sustainability is to reflect not just the aspirations, but the objective interests of the political mainstream”: not that any such talk will save a single job.
Little different are the likes of John Cruddas—portrayed by the Guardian and Times as an ‘outspoken left backbencher’, Cruddas’s calls for a major policy debate are rather less enticing when we remember that after years working as Tony Blair’s fixer in the unions, the Compass-supporting MP voted for the war in Iraq (and against a public investigation), for foundation hospitals, and against openness as regards MPs’ expenses. Perhaps after Labour’s election defeat Cruddas will be crowned deputy leader: a pisspoor reward for decades of uncritical, unconditional trade union support
Working-class people have increasingly lost faith in Labour’s ability to deal with the capitalist crisis: and rightly so. The only way workers can defend our standard of living or achieve worthwhile change is to organise collectively and mount a test of strength, whether or not that means breaking the anti-union laws introduced under Thatcher and maintained by Blair and Brown.
The last week’s RMT strike, along with the recent factory occupations at the Ford-Visteon car parts plant and the oil refinery wildcats early this year all demonstrated how workers can fight back against the recession. While many liberals condemn such actions, arguing that we should passively accept the crisis and job losses as if they were some natural disaster, we applaud such initiative to defend living standards and resist ‘austerity Britain’.
These steps forward have come from below: the millions union bureaucrats pour into the Labour Party in search of ‘special relationships’ with ministers of state in fact do nothing for ordinary members’ interests. But once again, the CWU has opted to stay affiliated to that same party which in government is hacking the Royal Mail to pieces and laying off thousands of post workers.
We do not accept the long-standing idea that workers like RMT members on the London Underground should button themselves up just in case they undermine the Labour government and ‘let the Tories in’—if Labour slump to defeat, it will be their fault alone, the result of their own attacks on their traditional support base over the last decade. Why should people under threat of redundancy sit idly by in exchange for promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ from Brown, Mandelson etc., when such people have a consistent track record of disappointment?
This week the Times described Gordon Brown’s administration as ‘a government of the living dead’. This was perhaps an over-estimation of the Labour Party’s remaining life. There is no ‘left revival’ in the Labour Party, just Keynesian rhetoric by the same people who presided over a decade and more of neo-liberalised social democracy. There is no democracy in the Labour Party, just conspiracy and deal-braking. There is nothing to be gained by ploughing funds into the party: members of affiliated unions should demand that it stop.