For 12 years, the top knobs in the party haven’t listened to us

3rd August, 2009 9:56 am

Conference voteBy Tim Cheetham

Most Labour folk, because we are entering the difficult ‘redefining’ phase of our existence, often get berated with a big list of reasons why we are crap – people, who never liked us anyway or (as is most common, because everyone seemed to like us in 1997) people who did but feel let down or angry about something we’ve done.

It’s something we will have to live with probably for the next 30 years or so. Like the Tories do. They don’t deserve forgiveness or understanding for some of the things they did. And I can’t imagine we’ll be treated any different.

But what I thought I’d do is examine one particular list of stuff I got this week. Just to see. I’ll take 5. Here they are:

1. Illegal war:
Well yes, we cop for that – it is the one most people start with. I could argue the silly way, about the ‘legal’ basis for the claim. Technically all wars are illegal under the charter of the United Nations. Including the Falklands, the Balkans, etc. But I won’t go down that route.

I will make a couple of points about this, though. I think the Government were wrong, I think they were pressured by the Americans into the war and I think they should have refused. I am no conspiracy theorist (except for fun) but the Americans undertook the Iraq invasion for their own reasons. Anyone who has read the Project for the new American Century papers over the last 10-12 years can see it clearly. I would remind people that this was a decision of the Government which was supported fully by the Tories. More importantly it was a decision which was not supported by the Labour party on the whole. The Party members were against the war and indicated so (in the only opportunity we were allowed) in a conference vote. Polls of members showed the overwhelming lack of support among the wider membership too. Don’t blame us for the war, blame us for not standing up to our own controlling leadership and party management.

I would add, because it matters to me personally, that the issue of WMD is also represented falsely. While dodgy dossiers and inflated claims about capability abound, I have to make an admission: I had been lobbying for action for some time. In 1988 after the poison gas attack on Halabja, I began asking why there was no global intervention against Saddam’s regime. To my mind, this was flouting all international convention and law on the use of such weapons (weapons of mass destruction) and something should have been done. So no matter how we all felt about the justification for the war, we must remember that they had both the capacity and the will to use such weapons more than once. It was not a complete fiction to presume they might do so again. Even though that seems to have been forgotten in the discussion of the Iraq war.

2. Trade Union links slashed:
I have no defence of this. It is a shameful thing that we have lost touch with the people who made us. It’s another example of how the Labour party has been taken over by a power clique and doesn’t want to be democratic anymore. It’s wrong and it should change. Sadly, in the period that has seen Labour membership drop by a half, Union membership has fallen even more drastically. We both need to redefine our relevance and position in society and, for me, we must do that together, as we always have.

3. Thatcherite economic policies:
Yes, some of them. Far too much reliance on the market. Far too much private finance. But with the levels of capitalist control on the media it was inevitable in the beginning. We would never have been elected on the old ticket. The failure to move the debate on during the last 12 years has been bad. Particularly when the majority of the country regularly call for more nationalisation (like the rail network, utilities, etc.) and state interventionism (regulation of markets, subsidies on some things punitive, taxation on others and protection for consumers, savers, employees etc.) and we haven’t moved back to the left with them yet. Bewildering. Arrogance in the ruling clique again, refusing to acknowledge the collective wisdom and the will of the people.

At the place and time we are now, with the choice and circumstances ahead of us, people need to look at our policies today. The hack and slash, new austerity, putting finance before people and the fabric of society offered by the Tories is the same old same old. It is what we had in the eighties.

And for the Trolls who will come back on ‘the fabric of society’ and this Broken Britain garbage we are constantly spoon fed, it was the eighties that saw crime at its highest ever, violent riots on the streets of major cities, no-go areas with actual walls around them and a divide across society more marked than just the career prospects of rich and poor children. (Social mobility issues are important, but, as with education, raising standards for all is the goal – not increasing the chances for some).

Our economic policy today is as socialist as it has ever been, (I’m not saying it is yet perfect, I have issues with public sector pay) and is a million miles away from Thatcherism, monetarism and Reagonomics. The priority is supporting employment against the capitalist tide of reductive markets. It is actively protecting the fragile remnants of our economic base on a wage by wage, house by house basis. Whatever blind allies we have gone down in the last twelve years (and even I cannot deny the astonishing building and infrastructure investment boom we have had in this period) the tide is turning and the lessons are being learned. We are not the party peddling the same old failed policies, we are the progressives, finding new ways to make socialism work in the capitalist controlled world of the 21st century.

4. Student fees:
Indefensible. I spoke against it at conference in 2003 before it came in. We were denied a vote on it. Denied by the party managers. Denied because once again the party was against it and they didn’t want to have to listen. There is a real theme emerging here.

The lengths the party hierarchy went to, in order to prevent a debate on this issue as a separate topic were appalling. And pointless, as at the same as conference there was a vote on the foundation hospital programme calling on the government to stop it. Despite it being passed by conference it lead to not one amendment, not one day’s delay and no policy change whatsoever. If the party can be ignored so blatantly and so often, we may as well have had the debate anyway.

5. Civil Liberties:
ID cards, SOCPA, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, human rights in general have seen some pretty awful bits of legislation under Labour. We have of course lived in ‘interesting times’. Terrorism (while still entirely less dangerous than seasonal flu, road traffic accidents, heart disease, cancer and peanut allergies, all of which kill more people every year) has been an obsessional issue for the politicians and the media who feed on them. It has always been the reason given for some of these abhorrent and often just plain silly laws.

Why has there been less attention paid to other issues and such a disproportion paid to this? Maybe, national security and all, there are things you and I don’t know. Maybe. But regardless, we had the terror of the IRA for much longer and were ultimately able to solve the problem without a “war on” something or an erosion of our freedoms. We solved it by listening and negotiating, which is, historically, the only way we ever solve anything without millions of people dying. I don’t support this stuff either and I suspect, should anyone ever care to ask the Labour party, most would feel the same way.

So there are 5. There are more and if I can be bothered, and find the time, I may try them too. Supporting Guantanamo and rendition? Threatening to kick people off disability benefits and out of their council houses? Immigration? I’m open to suggestions.

Anyhow, I guess my ‘Jerry Springer’ closing thoughts are: the gap between the Labour government and the Labour party has been the cause of many of our policy blunders. The top-knobs should take heed of this. We, the party, are much closer to what the people really want, judging by the criticism we get. Obvious really, don’t you think?

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