Never mind the ballots, here’s the Prime Minister!

[Tuesday]

Good news from John McDonnell’s campaign for Labour leadership: yesterday his colleague Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, withdrew his candidacy, gracefully observing an agreement between the two that the left-wing candidate with the most nominations from MPs would stand unopposed.

It has been clear all along that McDonnell has much greater support, both within the Party and the wider labour movement, and it was noble of Meacher to stand down and endorse John’s campaign. Hopefully, his supporters in the Parliamentary Labour Party will nominate McDonnell, allowing a challenge to Gordon Brown’s bid for party leadership and a chance for a public debate on Labour’s neo-liberal decade.

At the moment, the focus is on getting McDonnell onto the ballot paper. Current estimations, that the leadership will be a cakewalk for Brown, are based on the assumption that he will face no challenge for the position. If McDonnell gets on the ballot, he will get strong support from activists and affiliated members of the Labour Party in the unions.

The media response to McDonnell’s campaign was initially to ignore it and regard Brown as the PM-in-waiting. Since Blair announced his resignation and the procedure to replace him as Labour leader started, both state and corporate media have begun to take McDonnell more seriously.

Race relations
A three-way debate between Brown, McDonnell, and Meacher, took place on Sunday and parts of the debate were screened on the rolling news channels. The coverage of the event sought to portray it as chance for Brown to display his skills as a debater in a battle between Old and New Labour. It was an exercise in dismissing both left-wing candidates and again crowning Brown; as is typical of media coverage of politics, there was little debate about policy.

The media’s attitude to the internal democracy of the Labour Party is revealing. The prospect of the governing party in a supposed democracy having a coronation rather than a contest for leader was not regarded as negative or undemocratic. The lack of concern for democratic accountability within the Fourth Estate should not surprise anyone.

A case in point is an event that occurred a few years ago at the Liberal Democrats’ party conference. The party was lambasted in the press when the leadership lost key votes on privatisation; the then leader, Charles Kennedy, was referred to as a chairman rather than a party leader and it was thought to be a sign of weakness that the leadership could not dictate party policy to the membership. Party activists and members, the people who work for and fund the party, had won a vote to support the public ownership of the postal service as against privatisation. This was an affront for two reasons: firstly, the leadership had been defeated on a key issue, and secondly that issue was on public ownership.

Resolutions passed at the Labour Party conference have long been ignored by the leadership; the abolition of inner democracy is one of New Labour’s great achievements, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie. The switch from the politics of conviction to consumer politics was welcomed by the ruling class; it enabled a stable two-party system of government, unencumbered by mass participation beyond elections every four years.

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts
In the past, Labour had represented a threat to the bourgeoisie, though not from its leadership or its programme. Labour’s base within the working class, its connections to organised labour, and the belief shared by most of the population that the party represented the interests of workers were all problems for the ruling class.

In the early years, the fear was that a parliamentary majority for Labour would result in a socialist revolution. Then later, when it had become apparent that Labour was a bourgeois workers’ party with the accent on bourgeois, the worst fears were that a weakened Labour government would fall back on its support in the unions and begin to intrude upon the rights of capital. This was certainly a belief dominant in sections of the secret state and armed forces in the 1970s, when coup plotting took place at the highest levels and there was talk of Prince Philip being made head of a military dictatorship.

As laughable as it all sounds, its all true. These worries remained even up to the 1997 landslide election victory for Labour. At the launch for his leadership campaign last week, Gordon Brown was asked by journalists if he would fall back on support from the left of the party and the trade unions. Needless to say, he claimed he would govern in the interests of all, though this is not possible and in the end he will continue to act for the capitalist class.

Brown comes out?
As if to allay fears that he is a secret socialist, Brown has praised Thatcher’s home-ownership “revolution” in the 1980s. Despite the fact its legacy has been an ever-shrinking social housing stock, Brown supports home-ownership because it is a way for the ruling class to make money out of people and tie them to the capitalist system at the same time, as mortgaged workers unable to strike for sustained periods of time.

Working-class home-ownership has benefited banks at the expense of buyers, with people taking out mortgages many times their salary and the threat of homelessness if repayments are not maintained. For many, home-ownership is precarious, a tight-rope walked for the promise of prosperity. Some have fallen and gone from paying rent to the council, to paying a mortgage to a bank, to paying a higher level of rent to a new owner – back where they started, but much worse off.

Doubtless, Brown will seek to make home ownership more viable by further privatising social housing. Any new builds in the public sector will act as a subsidy to the housing market, as they will be part-privatised from the get-go.

The absurd belief that Brown will lurch to the left stems from a comment made by Roy Hattersley seven years ago, and has been kept alive by naïve liberals and the Blairite cabal. The myth has been dispelled, but may still persist. I remember reading an interview in the NME years ago with the young lead singer of a punk band who was a declared socialist. He was under the impression that Brown as PM would be more amenable to the interests of the working class; I sincerely hope that his view of the Chancellor has changed in the intervening years.

Don’t hold him back
Now that Brown has the support of Blair and his fan club, he will surely get more support in ruling class. Certainly, in a leadership contest there’s no question of any newspaper coming out for McDonnell – not including the Morning Star!

Brown’s campaign has benefited from the lack of a rival, say mainstream media commentators. In truth, any boost in support for Labour in the opinion polls is entirely down to Blair’s departure. The post-Blair bounce does not suggest Brown is winning over the elusive “Middle England” vote, but rather that Labour has won back some support in expectation of a change.

Ah, but expectation of what? The few percent that have caused this bounce in the opinion polls might not be voters in favour of privatisation and war, but voters opposed to privatisation and war. In which case, Brown is in even more trouble.

Time may change me
This concern with opinion polls is misleading. What matters at the moment is opinion within the party and the affiliated unions. Hundreds of Labour councillors who lost their seats in the May 3rd election, along with some similarly sacked MSPs and AMs, are now free to swim against the tide and campaign against New Labour policies.

The argument that any change of course would damage Labour’s electoral prospects is ridiculous. After the disastrous council elections in which the party came third nationally and the loss of hegemony in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, no-one can claim Labour is on course to win a fourth term in office. A drastic policy change would lose Labour support amongst the ruling class, and would receive much bad publicity as a result, might just salvage what’s left of the party.

McDonnell is onto something when he says majority public opinion is to the left of New Labour. There are no street protests calling upon the government to speed-up public sector “reform” – in other words, further privatise healthcare and education – or “stay the course” in Iraq and invade Iran. There will be no mass demonstrations for Trident or for the EU constitution, either.

That a man such as US president George W. Bush, even more unpopular here than in America where he trailing in the opinion polls and fast losing the support of his base, has given his backing to Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign should make people pause for thought.

Brown will not want to talk about these things, nor defend his past record. He is notorious for ducking responsibility and refusing to face the flak. Whenever a statement to parliament from the Treasury has to be given over some failing or error, Brown gets one of his junior ministers to face the music. But we cannot expect him to face as tough a grilling from journalists as John McDonnell if he gets on the ballot…

Ready, steady, uh…
Though he would prefer to keep the concentration on policy, McDonnell is much more at ease with himself than Brown. He is, after all, a man of conviction: whereas Brown has misgivings about Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but chose not to back the war to further his career, McDonnell has consistently opposed the war and the subsequent occupation of Iraq.

Brown dyes his hair and pays vast sums of money to get his teeth fixed for his put-on grin; he harps on about the rugby injury in his teens which nearly cost him his sight and the tragic death of his first child and the illness of his second. Though he has eschewed celebrity culture and personality politics, he is nevertheless willing to use his own personal life to further his career.

McDonnell has no experience in government beyond his time with Ken Livingstone at in the Labour-dominated GLC back in the eighties, but evidence suggests he would be more likely to govern by consent and listen to all opinions than Brown the “control freak” and centraliser.

Not that we haven’t seen conviction politics from New Labour: Blair justified his premiership by saying he did what he thought was right. Problem was this usually was at the expense of majority opinion.

In Sunday’s debate, Brown the Brain claimed to have calculated McDonnell’s programme would cost £48 billion in additional government spending. Not if you withdraw from Iraq, cancel Trident, scrap ID cards, halt the Private Finance Initiative, and close tax loopholes that the rich jump through. These five simple measures would raise revenue and raise Labour’s popularity.

Brown and the state-corporate media will play the Old Labour card against McDonnell. Brown couldn’t resist jibes about “failed policies of the past”, without being specific. He knows the only way to erode support for his rival’s platform of popular policies is to engage the discourse of derision that is always used against the labour movement by the capitalist class.

This might not work to Brown’s advantage; he needs the support of the unions, and he needs their members’ money. McDonnell has the support of all the broad lefts within the labour movement, and the disaffiliated unions would probably re-affiliate if he wins.

A worst-case scenario?
And there’s the big if. It is the best- and worst- case scenario. A win by McDonnell would probably be slim, and if he entered Number 10 there would be pressure to call a snap election. Pressure in this instance does not mean editorials in the tabloid newspapers; it means capital flight, a massive drop in the FTSE 100 share index, and so on.

The snap election under McDonnell would result in a hung parliament at best, which would allow the Opposition parties to block progressive legislation, and at worst a Tory victory. If he failed to hold a snap election, the pressure would increase. I’m sure you’ve if you’ve read A Very British Coup you’ll know the score.

A McDonnell leadership victory is unlikely, but not impossible; I think the best outcome would be a reasonable show in support for McDonnell (ideally a near victory) which would be enough to hinder the neo-liberal agenda. My worry is that McDonnell would not break from Labour at this point, but rather remain as a loyal opponent to Brown.

Unless McDonnell wins, I see no hope of “reclaiming” Labour: firstly, because it has negative brand recognition, especially amongst the proletariat, and secondly, because it would again be a bourgeois workers’ party. An independent workers’ party, united but pluralist, is worth building; a declining electoral outfit with a penchant for imperialism, is not.

The best outcome of this whole process will be a more confident working class movement. The limitations are clear: leaders of the largest unions will not back McDonnell over Brown, even though the former backs the Trade Union Freedom Bill and the latter does not. Brown’s victory will be met with a “wait and see” approach from the union bureaucracy that will have to be countered. You’ll forgive me for seeing no hope in sight, but I am trying to assess things realistically.

It might just be that McDonnell will fall short of the 45 MPs needed to get on the ballot. In which case I’ll probably write a post about how this is a good thing in the end because workers have no illusions in Brown as PM and the undemocratic nature of his accession will illustrate the true nature of bourgeois democracy. Sigh.

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4 Responses to “Never mind the ballots, here’s the Prime Minister!”

  1. Red Squirrel Says:

    I never understood the concept of “reclaiming” the Labour party. When was it “lost” and to whom? Was it ever a revolutionary party of the proletariat?

    Even the very popular amongst proponents of Labour reconquest Attlee administration was very happy to continue Churchill’s policy of supporting death squads and Nazi collaborators in Greece against the massively supported (70%+) communists.

    Reconquer what?

  2. charliemarks Says:

    Precisely. There is nothing to reclaim. Labour has always been a bourgeois workers’ party; it has always been pro-imperialist. Not much of a legacy to defend!

    If my support for the McDonnell campaign appears at odds with my revolutionary socialism, I can only say that the chance to open the debate on socialism in the 21st century is too great to miss.

    It looks as if McDonnell will not make the ballot. So, no re-heated illusions. But also, no wider debate — but hey, was there ever going to be a debate?

  3. Red Squirrel Says:

    Well. It looks like we’ll just have to wait and see.

  4. charliemarks Says:

    It’s now obvious Brown will stand unopposed. The PLP is not committed to democratic organisation. What next? I don’t see a way forward as an internal opposition for the McDonnell campaign, but he will not break from Labour. Perhaps Brown will be forced to call a snap election? Even if there is no imminent general election, it is unlikely Labour will retain hegemony in the Westminster parlaiment in 2009.


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