In 1970 the Front Page of Red Mole, associated with the International Marxist Group (IMG), read: “Let It Bleed”. It showed Barbara Castle being decapitated. Robin Blackburn argued in the paper that both Labour and Tory campaigns in the forthcoming elections should be disrupted. Despite Pat Jordan’s efforts on the part of the official IMG to advocate support for the Labour Party, this headline has remained in left folklore as the epitome of ultra-leftist idiocy; see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Marxist_Group.
This episode came to mind when hearing and reading about Labour’s present difficulties. Since the 27th of June Henley by-election, where its candidate dropped to fifth place, and the disaster in Glasgow East, which saw the SNP grab a Labour heartland seat, we have heard, if we are interested, endless commentaries about Labour’s looming melt-down. Part of me says: who bloody cares?
The furore around David Miliband’s will-he-or-won’t-he challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party is the story of the moment. Miliband claims to address the “future”. He observes that, “Every member of the Labour party carries with them a simple guiding mission on the membership card: to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few. When debating public service reform, tax policies or constitutional changes, we apply those values to the latest challenges.” (Guardian. 30.7.08) Apparently “we need the imagination to distribute more power and control to citizens over the education, healthcare and social services they receive.” In plain language, Miliband wants to continue ‘modernisation’. The rest is mere words.
As David Osler says, “Labour’s difficulty is not so much that the nuances of its policies are misunderstood, but rather that the main thrust is understood all too well and is deeply unpopular with the electorate”. There are two main factors. Firstly Labour has lost loyalty from its core electorate, trade union activists, the liberal middle class, and the working or not-working poor, by its failure to revive manufacturing, privatisation, and cosseting of the wealthy. For the low paid, tax credits annoyed those caught up in their labyrinth complicity. The 10 pence tax rate fiasco pissed off many more. New Labour’s obligations on welfare claimants, and moral reform, have produced a resentful pool of the excluded. There is a growth in absolute poverty amongst those ‘exited’ from benefits. Even ‘creative’ types are under threat from the globalisation of their trade. Secondly, New Labour’s targeted constituency, the ‘aspirational’ working class’, ‘hard’ self-reliant men and women, have been alienated by tightened credit, mortgage restrictions, and, as is customary, the tax ‘burden’ (which the Conservatives have always played on).
Everyone is alarmed by the spectacular rise in food and fuel prices. Few admire public sector ‘reform’ when outsourced firms deliver absurdly poor results. Plundering the Public Sector , (David Craig with Richard Brooks, 2006) supplies ample detail about how and why incompetent money-grubbing companies have grown rich on the public purse. Nothing on this score is recognised by anyone in New Labour.
This emerging ‘market state’ (ensuring equality of opportunity, but not the welfare of all of its citizens), has backing in the very wealthy (whose allegiance is dependent on their tax and other privileges) and those directly benefiting from contracted-out public services. The system’s reliance on the flourishing of finance capital is analysed brilliantly by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson in The Gods That Failed (2008). The Olympian super-wealthy running the show may now drag us all down as the financial sector tumbles. Debt, the motor of present prosperity, is now snarling the machine up. Elliott and Atkinson’s alternative is to restrain finance, and a new reforming social democracy. Unfortunately, they rue, the left does not think in their way. It has lost its bond to the working class and such bread-and-butter means. Some are absorbed into a layer of New Functionaries, whose job is to correct people’s attitudes, shape them into good, diversity accepting, citizens and defend the ‘identities’ of a myriad collection of groups. The ‘opportunity’ society, in short, is not an equal one.
With this in mind (before even broaching foreign policy) it is indeed tempting to say of Brown and New Labour: Bleed Away.
Tempting. When the National Policy Forum voted recently to back Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, James Purnell’s plans for workfare – making the unemployed do ‘community service’ like convicted criminals – I felt I could not vote for such a party. Does this mean abandoning any fight? Those promoting John McDonnell as a potential leadership candidate must surely realise they have no chance, against a slick Miliband or even a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary like Purnell. But they promote the decent democratic socialist politics the majority of the left holds to. Unlike, say George Galloway’s self-promotion and abject worship of popular fronts with businessmen at home and reactionary “anti imperialism” overseas. Or the absurd pretensions of the grinning skull that is the SWP and its Left List. MacDonnell’s would-be backers have the merit of engaging in real politics. It is to be hoped that calls for ‘unity’ at the forthcoming Manchester Convention of the Left will not include these two cults. Many of us have barely escaped from the shadows of their Upas trees, and have no desire to be poisoned again.
For the moment like many I shall wait and see what happens. Two things are certain though: the Tories are on the up, and New Labour is paralysed.