The Labour Party leadership after Blair


Since Blair has officially announced his resignation as Labour leader to the world’s media today; I have cobbled together a post on the leadership contest. My apologies in advance. I do try my best.

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” – Sidney Webb, Clause IV, November 1917, adopted by the Labour Party in 1918

The election of New Labour in 1997 threw the far left and the far right. For the left, it was no longer possible to effect any change within the Labour Party; for the right, a Labour government appeared almost indistinguishable from what had gone before. For the people who matter, the ruling class, New Labour was a blessing.

The instincts of Blair and Brown were to the right of the Tories by this point; note that the Private Finance Initiatives could not have before 1997. When the Labour leadership was no longer constrained by being in opposition and needing the support of Labour voters the true programme for power emerged. Privatisation would not be reversed, nor would the harsh union laws be repealed.

It is clear that social democracy is impossible in the current era: it emerged out of specific conditions which no longer exist. With the power of workers’ self-defence organisations, the trade unions, significantly reduced by mass unemployment and legal restrictions, the leadership of the bourgeois workers’ party found it easy to hijack the party and set it on an openly neo-liberal course. Anyone with pretensions to an alternative to privatisation and marketisation could be drowned out with assertions that they were living in the past – capitalism was triumphant after winning the Cold War, and the Labour Party had abandoned Clause Four of its constitution, which had been adopted in response to the Russian Revolution.

I’m (not) a loser, baby
Public expectations were high. New Labour had won the election, not because it was New Labour, but because it was the only alternative to the Tories. It wasn’t the abandonment of Clause Four that attracted voters; it was the Conservatives’ unpopularity after 18 long years in power combined with the crash in the housing market that they had presided over.

There is no evidence to suggest that Labour were unelectable in the 1980s; if this were true, they would have won no seats in Parliament, held no councils, and would have gone out of business. Indeed, even with the ‘longest suicide note in history’ as their manifesto, it was the Falklands Factor swung it for the Tories in 1983, not Michael Foot’s donkey jacket. Wales, Scotland and almost all of the North of England were dominated by Labour for the period of Tory rule.

This is all a matter of historical record, and is of little concern today. The back-door privatisation of the public sector, the imperialist wars in the Middle East, and the threat of climatic catastrophe posed by global warming are more relevant political issues than the Labour Party’s development.

In the leadership election of 2007, it is expected that Blair will exit and Brown will enter. The double act share more than alliterative surnames: whilst Blair will be remembered as the Prime Minister tailing the United States in going to war, Brown will be remembered as the man writing the cheques. To put it crudely: same shit, different arse.

A contest for leadership might not take place, while there are too many candidates for deputy leadership to count. The leading figures in the Parliamentary Labour Partly lack the guts to stand against the Chancellor. Brown is to be given a coronation and not subjected to a series of policy debates. For it is evident that if he was challenged on his actions, he would not win a majority within the Labour Party or the wider labour movement.

John McDonnell MP, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, threw his hat into the ring mid-2006, and has campaigned actively at the grassroots. To get on the ballot he needs 44 signatures from his parliamentary colleagues; the Socialist Campaign Group has 24 members, so he requires support outside his faction if he is to proceed into the leadership contest. His campaign has focused on the rank and file resistance to New Labour within the party, the struggles against privatisation being fought in communities, and the fight against public sector retrenchment and for workers’ rights.

Brown’s hands have been tied: as his brief is the Treasury it would be unseemly if he were to stray from economic policy and make wider policy statements. This has worked to his advantage, allowing people to believe he is in some way different from Blair and will be an improvement.

The media speculation is not about Brown facing a challenger in the leadership contest but rather “a serious challenger”. This is taken to mean a Blair loyalist such as David Miliband or John Reid. The plotting of ex-ministers, Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke, both of whom have personal rather than political differences with Brown, is not expected to result in a fresh face like Miliband running against Brown – however much they might desire it, Miliband appears too sensible to terminate his career in this way. Clarke has said he will not stand against Brown, though he claimed to have enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Despite the lengthy campaign and the support of many constituency parties and rank and file union organisations, John McDonnell is presented, if he is at all, as a frivolous candidate. How could a left-winger be successful? The assumption is that his policies would be alien to the electorate and it would be suicide for Labour to elect such a man as leader – but these are unspoken assumptions.

If there is no one else running for leadership but Brown, there will be no ballot. Labour’s National Executive has decided that if Brown is the lone candidate he will not face an ‘affirmative vote’, perhaps because they realise that a low turnout, so to speak, will look embarrassing and undermine Brown’s authority as PM.

Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, has pleaded with the party to let Brown through unchallenged, and Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, echoed this appeal. Their begging suggests that the leadership is worried about Brown’s low approval ratings and feels threatened by the McDonnell campaign.

Michael Meacher, former environment minister and a veteran of the party’s (very) soft left announced his candidacy for leader with little fanfare in February. At his leadership launch, he was alone – no MPs or trade unionists declaring in his favour.

Rumour has it that he was encouraged to stand in order to split the left and allow the Chancellor to face an easy challenge from the party’s heart, allowing Brown to win Brownie points with the ruling class by posturing as the man of big business and public sector privatisation. This conspiracy theory, one not endorsed by Meacher, is credible – Brownites have said it is their wish to see McDonnell out of the picture. Knowing Meacher though, he may well have opted to run just because he’s so full of his own self-importance and believes that even without support at the grassroots and in the unions, he alone, the Mighty Meacher, can become PM; I still think the “he’s been put up to it” theory more believable.

If McDonnell was not an embarrassing left-winger, the Brownites would have to create one: Meacher voted for the invasion of Iraq but now opposes it, owns a multi-million pound property portfolio whilst professing socialist beliefs, and comes across as a whining hypocrite, a disgruntled former minister who is really seeking a place in Brown’s cabinet. He is everything they could wish for: they insist that opposition to neo-liberalism comes out of a desire to turn back the clock, and here is an unpopular old man with an inflated sense of self-importance.

In his defence, Meacher has claimed that McDonnell did not consult his colleagues before launching his candidacy. This has not been verified, but even if true, what difference does it make? He may have consulted his colleagues, but unlike McDonnell he did not get their support.

As for his platform, it is unimpressive. Meacher’s socialism is welfare capitalism – a market economy with high taxes to fund social programmes – he does not call for greater public intervention in the economy and fails to tackle the question of ownership. This is perhaps unsurprising for a millionaire.

All4John and John4All?
Those on the revolutionary left who are still loyal to Labour are pinning their hopes on John McDonnell’s campaign for leadership to revive the struggle for socialism. McDonnell is certainly radical for a member of the Labour Party: vocally supportive rather than fearful or dismissive of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, he favours planning and social ownership instead of market forces and privatisation.

From the perspective of the non-entrist left, the majority now part of Respect, an electoral formation created to replace the traditional Labour Party, McDonnell’s campaign is to be welcomed, but not too heartily endorsed. Respect has been built on the disillusionment of those who would otherwise be Labour voters: if the illusion returns, Respect will lose out. McDonnell wants the labour movement to continue backing – and funding – the Labour Party. Respect could be the main beneficiary of a permanent divorce between the unions and Labour; a revival of the role of the labour movement within the Labour Party would cost Respect the support and funding of disaffiliated unions who would return to a real Labour Party.

McDonnell’s campaign is a good ten years too late. When the Labour Party ditched Clause Four, the revolutionary left sought to organise an electoral alternative closer to the Labour Party of old. There is no prospect of the advanced strata of the proletariat returning to the Labour Party to support McDonnell’s campaign, not after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the general dishonesty, corruption and arrogance associated with Blair. Labour is tarnished in the eyes of millions of working people. Besides that, there’s now the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity in Scotland, and Respect in England and Wales. Still, if he gets on the leadership ballot, he might do well in the activist and trade unionist votes.

When McDonnell’s campaign is over, those involved will ask, what next? There is a danger that a Brown government would have a loyal opposition in the big unions, who have thus far refused to lend support to McDonnell, and that public opposition to Labour is split by the arrival of a new leader. Gordon Brown will no doubt have made promises to the big unions and made plans to resolve the issue of the British role in the occupation of Iraq, and although these promises and plans might not work out as intended, there will be an expectation by McDonnell’s supporters that the resistance to New Labour will dissipate.

In short, unless McDonnell has thought ahead, he will not be able to lead his campaign beyond the leadership election. It is unlikely that he will break from Labour – the parliamentary faction which he leads is not filled with people likely to put politics before their career. In any event, where would he go? Forming a new party would be sectarian, something he is keen to avoid. Perhaps he could coax the Socialist Party and the SWP to merge their electoral front projects? Note that before he launched his bid for leadership, McDonnell attended a meeting of the Campaign for a New Worker’s Party, a front of the Socialist Party of England and Wales.

The end of Labourism?
Even if McDonnell could build a base in the social movements and depart from the Labour Party, it is not certain he can transcend Labourism. The material and social basis for social democracy and reformism no longer exist but this does not dispel the belief in gradual, legal and parliamentary reform as the sole means of achieving socialism. The Socialist Party, which as the Militant Tendency practised entrism into the Labour Party until the late eighties, still retains a Labourite outlook – seeing, for example, the ushering in of socialism through legislation in parliament – despite being Trotskyist. The Socialist Worker Party appears pleased with Respect, which is not even a full-blooded socialist entity. Even if McDonnell could encourage a unity of sects, it would not resolve the underlying issue: the split in the working-class caused by imperialism.

On the question of the labour aristocracy, one wonders at the counterrevolutionary or non-revolutionary nature of this stratum at this time. Is the labour aristocracy being squeezed? I would say, yes. Brown is going to double the taxes of the poorest workers and is not going to be good for affluent workers, either, because he is keen to see a wage freeze at a time of increasing inflation.

I doubt that McDonnell could win a leadership contest against Brown because the Chancellor has a higher profile. Brown will get the publicity even though he lacks popularity. There will be continuity under Brown; there will be no lurch to the left because he is not a secret socialist.

Opposition to Brown’s premiership will come from the grassroots of the Labour Party and the wider labour movement: trade unionists will not want to back Brown if he’s acting against their interests, and already there is pressure on union leaders to back a left-wing challenge for the Labour leadership. The leadership of the big unions might be content to go for beer and prawn sandwiches with Brown at Number 10, but for how much longer will they be able to keep a lid on workers’ anger?


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