by David Broder
American conservatives’ televised attacks on the National Health Service erupted onto the British political scene in August, with the great and good of the Labour Party leaping to the defence of the system which this government is itself undermining with its privatisation campaign. Gordon (and Sarah) Brown joined the “#welovethenhs” Twitter campaign, as did Health Secretary Andy Burnham, who also took time away from tweeting to criticise Tory MEP Daniel Hannan as “unpatriotic” for taking part in the American right-wing crusade. Here the Labour Party was very much fighting on its traditional home turf: but is it turning to the left?
With such a revival of enthusiasm for national healthcare, countering David Cameron’s incredible claim that the Tories are now “the party of the NHS”, and with Royal Mail privatisation plans stalled for now, some in the labour movement believe that the government is shifting leftwards. Given Brown’s attempts to expose the fact that the Tories are going to make harsh cuts, such people have wasted much ink on grand predictions that recent Keynesian measures to shore up the economy show that the Labour Party is opening up clear red water between itself and the Conservatives, and indeed that when it loses the next General Election, the party will become a fulcrum of resistance to Cameron.Clearly Brown himself is highly unlikely to hang onto the leadership of his party beyond a General Election defeat, and already leading figures in the party are positioning themselves for the fallout of the current Prime Minister’s downfall. Already last July David Miliband wrote a Guardian piece outlining his vision of a renewed Labour Party, making the vacuous conclusion that “the modernisation of the Labour party means pursuing traditional goals in a modern way”. This attempt to define a new direction for Labour was widely characterised as putting out feelers for a potential coup against Brown: and indeed others who see themselves in future leadership roles, such as Harriet Harman, John Cruddas, and now James Purnell, have been making all sorts of “left” noises in a bid to gain support from the party rank-and-file and affiliated unions.
The case of James Purnell, who resigned from Cabinet in June as part of the latest botched effort to unseat the Prime Minister, demonstrates particularly well the emptiness of such posturing. Recently named director of “OpenLeft”, a project launched by think-tank Demos, one of the most aggressively right-wing members of the government now wants a wide debate on “strategy for the Left”.
Before abandoning his Department for Work and Pensions on the grounds that Gordon Brown was heading for disaster in the European elections, Purnell authored and promoted the Welfare Reform Bill, a package of swingeing cuts in benefits, particularly damaging for single parents and the disabled but also looking to force hundreds of thousands of unemployed people to work for less than the minimum wage.
No doubt such feelings were far from the mind of the new James Purnell when he posted an interview on the OpenLeft website with a reader of his who railed against “the horrible inequality and the malice which is directed at those who are struggling most” and defended “the common person on the street who demands to be respected and fulfilled rather than maligned, ignored and confined”. Purnell himself declares that the mission of the left is to “convince working class voters that the state can protect them”.
Purnell is now not only an advocate of “market socialism” but is moreover keen to encourage “an open debate” about the Labour Party’s political priorities and strategy for re-entering government in future. Some see this as evidence that the chaos engulfing the party may see it open up, in contrast to the recent hacking away at party democracy such as the 2007 ‘Bournemouth decision’, which removed conference’s power to initiate policy and slashed trade union control. They say the unions should stay affiliated to Labour, continuing to fund it and trying to reform the party.
Tony Benn, the great champion of “my-party-right-or-wrong”, welcomed Purnell’s OpenLeft project with an article on the Guardian website featuring a denunciation of “sectarianism” (i.e., any criticism of Purnell) and managing to avoid any reference to Purnell’s actual politics. What this reflects is not really openness of debate at all—rather, the debate is entirely closed, because, exhausted at the end of Labour’s rule, none of the participants have anything to say except to agree on the defence of the unity of the Labour Party itself, hardly a sign that they will loosen their control.
Indeed, the now-existing relationship of the trade unions to the Labour Party is one of structural subordination, with the union leaders’ desire to tread the corridors of power and fetish of keeping Labour in government seeing millions of pounds’ worth of members money poured down the drain with nothing in return.
Moreover, it is not the case that the Labour rank-and-file is challenging the leadership’s absolute control of party structures and thus forcing concessions: merely that different factions among elite circles are posturing to try and undermine one another. It is ministers who we already know and loathe who will be taking charge when Brown goes.
Not only is there little resistance forthcoming from the existing membership—those who have stayed are mostly unmoved even by electoral disaster, never mind the government’s actual policies—but there is no reason to believe that other activists who want to fight the Cameron government would see the Labour Party as a worthwhile means of resistance. There is still less reason why the radical left should copy the prattle of union bureaucrats who encourage false hopes in the party and defend affiliation.
After all, the test of value of affiliation is not whether Labour MPs start dropping the word ‘socialism’ into blog posts or talk about ‘openness’, or agree to a policy debate once they are in opposition. The test is what they do in the here and now, when in power and presiding over the capitalist crisis. With massive government attacks on benefits even as unemployment soars, the verdict for the unions is clear.