“Reclaiming Labour” – political necrophilia

April 18, 2009 at 11:05 pm (labour party, socialism, voltairespriest)

So Alice Mahon has become the latest in a long line of members to turn in her Labour Party card, citing the Damian McBride affair as the final straw following a long period of discontent (h/t – Stroppy). Various people appear to be sad about this, albeit that no-one’s surprised. What I do find surprising though is how on earth in this day and age, anyone with progressive left-wing politics manages to justify remaining a member of Gordon Brown’s party. And that brings me to the central topic of this post.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone who isn’t an idiot even attempting to defend the government’s record and using it as a reason for remaining in the LP. “Well you might not agree with X, but Y is a progressive policy” was the constant refrain in the early years of the Blair government, but the Iraq war finally quelled the vast majority of those voices – those that hadn’t already torn up their membership cards and walked at any rate. So that’s not your reason for staying, is it, LP socialists?

It’s not entryism either. There used to be substantial numbers on the UK left who joined the LP as a way to gain leverage for transitional demands and to argue their politics in a class-conscious political forum whereby the Marxist movement could gather political momentum. The changed structures of the party have now rendered that political position nonsensical, which is why it is adhered to these days only by the odious careerists of Socialist Action, the nostalgic Grantites of Socialist Appeal and a few random ex-members of Trot groups (sorry, I mean “Independent Socialists Who Are Very Important) whose politics are basically frozen in time from the moment that they left said entryist group. So no, it’s not entryism.

Which brings me to the two crap excuses. The first one is sometimes overtly stated, and could be called the “only game in town” position. This position holds (quite correctly) that the extra-LP left is totally atomised and has no political influence. Therefore adherents of this position argue for remaining in the LP because “it’s big”, “the Tories would be worse” or “there’s nothing else”. Of course it chooses to ignore the fact that the argument is vacuous: it could be used about any grouping anywhere, and is a totally apolitical reason for being a member of anything. For example, the Scout Association is also “big”: people who leave it are therefore no longer members of a “big” group. Furthermore, there are many things “worse” than the Scout Association. Let me put it in simple terms. The Labour Party is indeed big. Much, much bigger than any left group or coalition. It is, however, really shit. And you don’t run it. And you’re not going to. Ever. They won’t let you, and you can’t make them let you because there are no democratic mechanisms via which you could take control of it, even if there were enough of you – which there aren’t. It is a dead parrot. Forget it. I hope that spells out my objection to this argument.

Finally, I suspect, comes the real reason, which is that people have just got so far into the habit of being LP members that they’d find it a wrench to admit the truth that’s staring them in the face. It’s a lot easier to hang on to your cards, pay your subs, go to John McDonnell or Tony Benn meetings, hang about on demos and sit in pubs in liberal parts of town talking about organic markets and restaurants left wing politics of days gone by, than it is to admit that the game is up, the party’s over, and we need to start again. The trouble is, it’s the political equivalent of lusting after a corpse: it’s just a twisted reanimation of a love which has long since been lost. You can’t reclaim something that’s dead, and pretending to yourselves that you’re not living in the past just prolongs the pain. And if you really are staying just because it’s a lifestyle, well then that is just pathetic.

Time to leave, comrades. Step into the cold light of day. It’ll hurt at first but you’ll feel better for it in the end.

Update – what’s more, that man with the silly ‘tache isn’t finished with the whole rotten cabal of them, either.

Update #2 – latest polling has Labour at sub-1983 levels of support, and the Tories poised to gain a 3-figure parliamentary majority. And let’s not forget that polls usually overstate Labour’s numbers.


  1. Duncan said,

    I’m going to regret biting, I know… But I might as well. You miss out several other arguments, of course – though I’m sure you could have ridiculed it equally successfuly: that the Labour Party is still organisationally linked to the organised labour movement (and this gives a contemporary relevance to its historic claim to being the mass party of Labour); while we might argue and debate about how many genuine Socialist MPs there are in Parliament, they are there – the Labour Left is the most successful Socialist ‘party’ (in electoral terms) by a country mile; that success would be largely eradicated if it were divorced from the aforementioned mass party of Labour.

    I don’t expect you to think those arguments any better than the ones in your article (that are mostly men of straw). However, they do combine with the ‘only game in town’ argument in such a way to rather rend the ‘Scout Association’ point redundant.

    So what would we lose by making the sort of break you recommend?
    – Socialist representation in parliament
    – An organisational link between the trade union movement and the Socialist movement (other than through semi-detached ‘broad lefts’, etc.)
    – The Labour Party (a Socialist retreat would mean that there was no mainstream left-of-centre or social democratic party in the UK – or even one with the potential to be so)

    What would we gain?
    – We’ll feel better in the end?

    I can’t see any other suggested gain in your article. You rightly point out that the extra-Labour left is totally atomised and holds no political influence. It is also of a nature that would not accept a newly-detached Labour left to assume its leadership and, as such, even taking a very long-duree view is unlikely to become less atomised or to hold more political influence. Furthermore I think it entirely impossible that the Labour Left would detach in an organised way – I fear a slow drip – an Alice Mahon here, a junior LRC-er there: nothing that would strengthen the extra-Labour left (I can’t see Alice Mahon joining AWL or the Socialist Party) but consistently and constantly weakening the Labour Left. In the end, the Labour Left could be so weakened by such activity that it would no longer be any use to the extra-Labour left anyway. And I really don’t see what anybody will have gained from that.

  2. voltairespriest said,

    The organised labour movement gives money to the Labour Party, in return for absolutely sweet FA. The link is meaningless since the powers of conference were destroyed, even if you accept that it meant anything much for a while before that. Again, you’re talking about a Labour Party which no longer exists (and which wasn’t as great as you imagine, when it did).

    There are socialists in parliament as constituency MPs, but not many. Further they are utterly marginal within the Parliamentary Labour Party. What is more, your idea is essentially that socialists can only be elected to Westminster on the coat-tails of parties which are more right wing than they are (ie a McDonnell can only be elected if he’s a candidate for Gordon Brown’s party). I don’t buy that. However if you do accept it then you’re accepting that the public will never vote for socialist politics in their own right – on that basis you might as well pack up and go home.

    My point about the extra-Labour left was not meant to encourage you to believe that your view is correct, so much as to acknowledge that there is no easy answer here. Again I would reiterate that you need a reason to be in the Labour Party, a reason which has to come from the merits of being in that party taken on their own basis. And I have yet to hear one. Whether Alice Mahon joins any group outside of Labour or not, is entirely irrelevant to that point.

    There is no “Labour Party” in the UK, in the sense of a party which exists to represent working people. There is a party called “Labour” which exists to govern contrary to the interests of those people. There are good people, individual members who still happen to have party cards. But all that the “Labour Left” as a body does these days is provide that thoroughly reprehensible party with socialist cover that it does not deserve, and help persuade labour movement activists to preserve links to that party which actually do them no good at all. In that sense the “Labour Left” is worse than useless – it’s actually counterproductive to progressive politics.

  3. Duncan said,

    Okay – you’ve given one other potential benefit that might be accrued from the Left leaving Labour – it would lose its socialist ‘cover’.

    Your other points, I would suggest, are not especially strong: it is not that socialists can only be elected on the coat-tails of parties that are more right-wing than they are (though to a certain extent, by dint of their very leftness they are likely to be on the left of an electable coalition – that isn’t to say that electable coalition need go anywhere near as right as it currently does, nor that the right-wing part of it need lead it, nor set the tone of the policy) – they need to be part of a broad party. Even if there were a change of voting system so that parties representing minority or marginal views were able to get the occasional MP, I don’t really see that they would have any improved potential for influence than the current Labour Left MPs.

    I hate to disagree – but there is a Labour Party in the UK. It is a dreadfully imperfect one – as it always was (and if you think I imagine it was once very great, then you misunderstand my position). The fact that the organised labour movement is currently very ill-served by the Labour Party is not actually all that instructive – a) there isn’t actually the slightest evidence to suggest that they would be better served by throwing their lot in with some other, yet-to-exist group – primarily because they would be unlikely to do so in any sort of combined and organised way, and the resulting fragmentation would be counter-productive to the whole concepted of a movement of organised labour – and b) the extent to which they are ill-served is, to a great extent, self-inflicted; the debates within the unions have been allowed to turn into ones where the political aim is either to support one or other New Labour faction (often with some faux-leftish posturing when internal elections come along) or disaffiliation: the ‘LRC’ case for refounding has been ill-served by parts of the organised left in the Trade Unions.

    I don’t think the Labour Party – in terms of its leadership, in terms of its policy agenda – was ever truly great. And yet I do think it an astonishing historical achievement, I do think it has been great – still is great – in terms of the sheer effort at socialist and labour politics by an organised mass of people, and I think it was great – still is great – in terms of its potential for ‘doing good’ (if I can use such a bourgeois phrase!) If I were to judge the party by its leadership at any point in its history, then I might argue that there was never a case for joining the Labour Party (let alone bothering to find a case for staying) – apart from maybe for a few years in the early 20th century. Yet if people hadn’t seen the point of joining, who’s to say we would have any sort of welfare system for the current bunch to be destroying? Who’s to say there would be more than cursory health care available to those who can’t afford private insurance? Who’s to say there’d be even the negligible trade union rights we have today? Who’s to say there would be legal restrictions on low pay and long hours?

    We would not have given anti-Socialists – like MacDonald, like Gaitskell, like Callaghan – ‘Socialist cover’; we would no doubt have felt better about ourselves; I don’t doubt that, by now, we might have found some way of getting some ‘independent socialist’ representation in parliament (although perhaps not under a majoritarian voting system) – but I’m not quite sure what price is worth paying for such ‘achievements’.

  4. Duncan said,

    Someone on Labourhome raised the issue of whether there is an essential change happening in Labour now that would suggest its socialist members were now being ‘had’. And this was my reply (I thought it also relevant to this discussion):

    I think New Labour metamophosized into that something else in the mid-90s. And I think we all knew it then, but took the decision to maintain the Labour Party to exist in parallel to New Labour. And I would argue that, despite the best efforts of this imploding New Labour shower, the Labour Party – in all its imperfections and all its potential – exists today as it did then. In that much I think we have been moderately successful, though it is not going to be a comfortable experience casting off the wolf’s clothing!
    The problem I think, is for those who think the emerging sheep will be an ideologically pure, Socialist party. The Labour Party never was that, and any refounded party will be a broad church coalition, but one which has socialists in it and one where socialist politicians and socialist policies can flourish. Some will muse on that and despair, others will see the potential therein. But that’s tomorrow’s battle: New Labour is essentially dead; if we all ‘do an Alice’ then the Labour Party will die with it and, some time in the future some manner of Christian Democrat Centre Party might emerge from the wreckage – but that is far from inevitable. There is an alternative.

  5. voltairespriest said,

    Sorry, but you can’t use legislation passed in the late 1940s (my parents had barely been born) to justify being a member of a political party in 2009. It’s precisely that sort of sentimental nostalgia to which I refer in my original article. The party which brought the NHS into being and nationalised the mines does not exist anymore.

    This government has passed absolutely nothing to compare with the NHS or the welfare state, and even such relatively pygmy progressive legislation as it has managed, looks rather distant in the past. I was still at university when the minimum wage became law, and that was quite some time ago. The reality is that you’re getting nothing from this government, other than authoritarian law-and-order legislation of a magnitude which the Tories would not have dared attempt in the 1990s. Where on earth do you see this “potential for doing good” coming from – it’s a meaningless abstraction unless you have a concrete means for putting ideas into party policies, and thence into legislation. The problem that the LP left has, is that such a process does not exist in any meaningful form.

    There is no mechanism for organised labour to directly write and pass policy: the annual conference is now a party convention for middle-class networkers to get pissed and shag each other at. There is no more or less to it – it is a shell.

    It’s not “contrary to the concept of a movement of organised labour” for the labour movement to drop a “political vehicle” which has spent the past decade kicking it in the teeth and then running back begging for money at election time. It is also not contrary to that concept for the labour movement to seek other means of gaining political traction. Better that, than simply carrying on pretending that this is any kind of progressive political vehicle at all when it clearly is nothing of the kind.

    As to it being the unions’ “own fault” that the LP has kicked them around, on the one level you are of course referring to Labour Party members who are in unions, and who spend most of their time frantically arguing to “keep the link”, albeit that there are no serious reasons in the here and now for doing so. You are also referring to bureaucrats who spend their time arguing to “keep the link” because it furnishes their careers to do so. And you are still missing the point about structures – there is no way at all for a union to force the LP to pass genuinely progressive legislation. Ergo, my union and others are throwing money after old rope when they give money to the LP. And sorry to say it, but you are doing the same when you pay your subs.

  6. Duncan said,

    Well we’re not going to change each other’s minds. I haven’t sat through the New Labour era only to give up the fight just as that era comes crashing to a sorry end. Where do I see the potential? In most branch meetings I go to. Even at policy forums and regional conferences. Ordinary people do not join the Labour Party in order to get some career traction or make money out of it; nor do they join (in any significant numbers) in order to dismantle the welfare state, impose illiberal legislation and wage war on third world countries. Sadly – but understandably – less join today because they strongly oppose those things than once they did. But the truth is, that the potential for a broad church, Labour Party that is broadly progressive and can – at times – be persuaded to be socialist is as evident as it has been at any point during my membership. More optimistically – the entryist entity that sought – with much success – to make Labour an actively anti-Socialist, neo-liberal, anti-progressive party is in its final death throes.

    But – good luck with whatever you’re attempting anyway (insofar as it doesn’t clash with what I’m attempting) – and no doubt we’ll continue to be on the same side on most of the issues.

  7. Laban Tall said,

    Just come here via your Normblog profile, where you list conspiracy theorists as a bete noir. I always find Mr Cock-up or Mr Unintended Consequence is a more likely villain than Mr Conspiracy, too.

    But you write above about the Labour Party “you don’t run it. And you’re not going to. Ever. They won’t let you, and you can’t make them let you”

    Who are ‘ they’ ?

  8. voltairespriest said,

    Hi Laban;

    The profile was of Jim, not me (and I rather suspect he disagrees with what I’ve written in the article).

    I was referring to the right wing who control. and have transformed, the Labour Party.

  9. Laban Tall said,

    Hi – thanks for the reply. I assumed that Jim Denham WAS Voltaire’s Priest.

    I can think of plenty of reasons why those who find themselves at the top of the PLP find it impossible to cut adrift from capital – that’s been an issue ever since MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas sat waiting in 1931 to hear from Wall St. whether sterling could survive on the Gold Standard.

    But WHY is it impossible to get rid of the people who’ve transformed (or ‘Accenturised’ as someone said in the Obs today) the party ? After all, they got rid of their predecessors.

  10. voltairespriest said,

    The problem basically is that they used democratic mechanisms to cement full control, which they’ve since subverted. It’s a classic case of pulling the ladder up after oneself. The decline of the conference is the most overt example but there are many other things on a more subtle level – look at the whole Erith and Thamestead fiasco for the latest example of central interference in the few remaining democratic processes.

    You see, it’s never been so much about who is at the top of the party (after all, Attlee was not of the Labour left), but influence that can be brought to bear upon the party via its structures and via class/public pressure. Those means do not exist any more, at least not in any meaningful fashion which sets Labour apart from the Lib Dems or the Greens.

  11. Jim Denham said,

    For the record, I don’t fully agree with the Priest on this issue.

    Btw: does anyone know what Charlie Whelan’s role in the McBride/ Draper scandal was? I suspect he palyed a far more important role than has so far been revealed. Where doesthis leave Whelan as Simpson’s right-hand man in Unite?

  12. voltairespriest said,

    I thought you might not fully agree Mr Denham, but please elucidate…

  13. entdinglichung said,

    one of the problems of all the entryists in the LP was, that they often influenced their comrades in other country to join the respective social democratic parties or adopting their analysis on the LP and applicating it on parties without an organic link to trade unions or a strong left wing like the SPD or the PS

  14. Mark P said,

    Good article, VP. Unfortunately it won’t have much resonance – pretty much anyone still knocking around in the Labour Party is likely to be far beyond reason at this point.

    Another point which should be mentioned in this discussion is the terrible state of the Labour left, not just strategically but in terms of numbers and organisation. There really isn’t much of a Labour left, left. Their attempts to launch a youth organisation, for instance, produced less in the way of committed young activists than the youth fronts of even the runts of the Trot group litter (like say Workers Power, let alone the AWL) can manage. The open conferences of the Campaign Group or the LRC attract a small fraction of the attendance of the comparable events of the extra-Labour left. And that’s not a boast about the strength of the left outside the Labour Party!

    This is a movement that once had tens of thousands of activists. It used to be the case that you couldn’t go on a major demonstration without seeing dozens upon dozens of Labour Party banners, local branches and committees, the LPYS, whatever. Now that’s all gone. There are still a dwindling few MPs, who are mostly getting on in years and who are replaced with more identikit New Labourites when they retire.

    By the way, even Socialist Appeal, the last sincere group of entryists left, don’t actually do anything much inside the Labour Party. Even that fossilised group of a few dozen middle aged and elderly men has just about enough sense left to carry out the little activity it actually does outside of LP structures because there just isn’t anyone to talk to in ward and CLP meetings.

    But no amount of reasoning will change the minds of the last bewildered, lost Labour leftists. They are like survivors of some apocaplypse, standing around in a wasteland and blinking in confusion.

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