There seem to be three different Labour parties this week.
There’s one at the grassroots which consists of tens of thousands of ordinary members burning shoe leather to make further council gains in May or to get Ken elected as London Mayor or to defend Glasgow City Council from the SNP. As a local activist and an NEC member I keep meeting this lay Party and the more I see of it the more I like. Solid, decent, loyal people. Serious people going about the business of getting another Labour government or running their council, or preparing to run it. Motivated by public service and a passion for social justice. The members I met in Twickenham last week who had been standing in the cold on 3rd January leafleting tube stations. The members from across Kent I met in Maidstone who were carefully working out an education manifesto for the 2013 County elections. The members clocking up record amounts of canvassing across the country – many multiples of what happened at this point in the last electoral cycle.
Then there’s the one at the top level in Westminster, Victoria Street and the union HQs. After months where Labour’s line on the economy was not being stated clearly enough to the public so we were being accused of a fantasy approach to the deficit, we’ve finally had a co-ordinated series of announcements and speeches that spell it out. Murphy, Byrne, Twigg and Balls. And Ed Miliband himself last week. All making it clear that whilst we rightly fight the speed and depth of the cuts now, and would have a different economic strategy now if we had won in 2010, based on growth and jobs, we cannot make lazy, hollow promises now about reversing cuts in 2015. I do not understand why this has surprised some people. Ed’s conference speech was all about the same theme: that we will have to govern in a period of continuing lack of cash and find other policy tools than increased public spending to advance our values of fairness and social justice.
To my mind the clarification of our position on cuts is a statement of the absolutely obvious. Some of the cuts, if not stopped now, are physically impossible to reverse, e.g. kit that has taken years to procure, design and build is sold or scrapped, skilled staff teams disappear to new jobs. We won’t be able to magically expand in one go a budget that has been cut severely to 2010 levels without economic chaos if we did somehow get elected with such a policy – there are markets and an IMF that take an interest in this, as well as taxes that would need to be levied or loans to be obtained to do it. And if we did have such a policy it would be unpopular with the majority of electors who, all the recent polls show, think cuts are necessary, and probably seen as a lie or election bribe that proved we were not serious about governing by most of the rest.
We’ve had a policy on the economy that chimes with where the electorate are for a long time – that the cuts are too far and too
fast but we are serious about deficit reduction. Now at last we are articulating it loudly enough that voters might hear us and not
believe the lie that we are economic fantasists who think we can spend imaginary money.
The task of making sure voters hear that message has been helped by the entry from stage left of non-Labour Party members Mark Serwotka (a former member of Trotsyist faction Socialist Organiser, and later a Respect supporter) and former member of the Stalinist CPB Bob Crow, and Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey (who is a Labour Party Party member), crying betrayal. This comic opera chorus of cartoon stereotypes of everything the public don’t like about trade unionism have helpfully reminded the media and the party that both Eds are firmly part of the party’s moderate mainstream. They reinforce my view that one of the crucial challenges facing Labour moderates is to stop the proposed Unite and PCS merger and retake Unite for the tradition of Sir Ken Jackson and Ernie Bevin. We can’t allow Len and his ilk to lead Labour’s largest affiliate, and with it the union link, to destruction with the kind of boneheaded interventions he made today. It’s not the two Eds who would disenfranchise Labour’s core vote, its Len and his “no cuts” sloganising which is a Socialist Worker headline and a transitional demand (a deliberate Leninist political line, designed to whip people up behind a policy that sounds good but is unattainable under capitalism and democracy), not a economic policy or an election-winning campaign stance. I write this as a proud Unite member who voted for Len and organised people to participate in the march on March 26th. The General Secretary of my union needs to listen to all his members, not just the Trot fringe.
Speaking of the fringe, there’s a third Labour Party on Twitter. In a medium where anyone with something controversial to say can make a name for themselves you would think that the choice facing Labour members was between the ultra-leftism of Owen Jones (a bright and entertaining writer who needs to grow out of the tendency to cry “betrayal” at the slightest compromise with reality by a Labour politician), and the ultra-“Blairism” of Dan Hodges. I’ve put inverted commas around “Blairism” as it bears no relation to the Blairism actually practiced by Blair or any of us who supported him in office and defend his record now. Indeed Dan was actually attacking Blair in 2006 when he most needed support, and other online “Blairites” turn out to be youths so callow they were not party members when Blair was leader, or not even Labour members now.
There’s a similarity with those “Thatcherites” who want to leave the EU even though the lady herself led the UK into the Single European Act and the ERM. In the absence of new pronouncements from the lost leader they extrapolate a trend line from the direction of travel when power was lost, and assume their hero would have pursued it – presumably by 2100 self-proclaimed “Blairites” will face a confusing choice over whether the by then late Blair would have wanted them to invade the USA or privatise the Armed Forces.
The hysterical hypercharged frenzy of Twitter and its mob mentality – like a student union meeting on steroids – reached its peak on Monday with the online defection of Luke Bozier, (a big name online but relatively obscure in the “real world” of meetings and door-knocking) to the Tories. This was not entirely surprising as my namesake had been trolling i.e. winding-up Labour people by being deliberately provocative, for months, and seemed to have only a tenuous grasp of what the Labour Party actually stands for. I had assumed he was based in the USA as his knowledge of British centre-left politics seemed so shaky. His political confusion , and the Twitter debate’s disconnection from political reality was encapsulated by his defection on the grounds Labour was too leftwing at exactly the moment that Ed Balls clarified that it wasn’t at all.
Oh well, at least after the last few days we are a bit clearer about the paradigm we are in – the usual, or historic, one where moderate Labour leaders have to take on and beat the fruitloops in their own ranks in order to get the party back to an electable state. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt at NOLS Conference in 1996. Still wearing it and always will be. Hasta la victoria siempre – until the eternal victory, as Che might have said if he was a Labour moderate.