This piece was inspired by the recent essay on the death of Social Democracy by Neal Lawson
I find it impossible to envisage a time that I am not a member of the Labour Party. My feelings for the Party and it’s overarching mission are as strong as they have ever been. I love this Party with a tribal fierceness born of it’s relation to my upbringing, my values and my yearning to make this a better country. For me, the Party is family, faith and flag. I will be buried with my Party card. Proudly.
But what is terrifying me at the moment is that I can see a time when the Labour Party ceases to exist. Or ceases to exist as a potent electoral force capable of delivering the changes we need. What do I do then? What happens if we become not the Party I love, but a label stuck on the administration of another vehicle altogether. Something that calls itself Labour, but something smaller, something meaner, something made up of the few not fighting for the many.
I know for some this has been how they have felt about Labour for a long time – throughout the New Labour years. And as I hope I will explain, I do think some of the seeds of the problem were sown then. Weeds that are proving really, really hard to kill.
But New Labour is not solely to blame. And it’s too easy to do so. Labour members, supporters and voters of all stripes were largely willing to make the deal that Blair and Brown offered us. Power, and the potential to do good by stealth (and we did real good) traded for an attempt to win elections and arguments with a more forceful social democratic argument. That was the deal we struck, and when I look at the country New Labour inherited and the state of the public services we took on and those we left behind, it is not hard to understand why so many of us – with varying degrees of reluctance – accepted it.
New Labour limited our imaginations and our ambitions. They also changed how we work as a party in ways that have proved much more destructive over the long term. What started out as understandable fears following election defeat after election defeat have become granite strong truisms that haunt any attempt to move the party and the political conversation on. The question of how to win from a left of centre position became an unquestioned and unquestionable belief that this cannot be done. So it hasn’t been attempted for nearly twenty years.
One of the reasons the right of the Party are so furious with Miliband is that he is trying just this. (one of the reasons the left is so furious with him is that he intends to do so slowly and incrementally). But not in the traditional and paternalistic model that we are used to. Miliband comprehends that capitalism’s strength is not the dominance of money, but the hoarding of power by the wealthy.
The outcry by a bunch of silly and spoilt individuals against the very popular Mansion Tax is a demonstrable example of this. The outrage is not simply that some people will have to pay more of their fair share. It is shock that anyone feels they have the temerity that they ask them to do so. This is a class that have been largely ignored and have become our feral overclass – wild and biting and spitting at anyone who tried to curtail their damaging Laissez Faire approach to life.
That some of this outcry has come from Labour representatives (not all of whom are New Labour) demonstrates the damage our unwillingness to make these arguments in public for so long has done. There is no strong sense – as a party – that we understand Social Democracy any more. Or that we believe it has the strength behind its arguments to win. Or that it is a coherent way to govern and manage capitalism.
The other area where our Party has seen real damage done over the last twenty years has been in the culture of the Party itself. Again this comes back to a paternalistic sense from a small group at the centre that they know best and that there is only one way to “do” politics. Command and control was the most obvious manifestation of this and has still not been properly eradicated as it should in a modern post-internet party. Not just because it is stupid and disrespectful to the intelligence of our candidates and activists, but because it doesn’t work as it once was supposed to. It doesn’t even do the job it’s adherents so passionately believe it should.
We know that our Party has been truly hollowed out in places that were once true strongholds. And for a long time not enough people worried about this. The loss of members and activists was glossed over as the inevitable price of power and their votes still taken for granted. We are now reaping that complacency in Scotland where the SNP have hoovered up those voters and across England where UKIP threaten to do the same.
In his essay Neal Lawson speaks of three changes that Labour needs to make. For me his focus on internationalism is right but equally misses the local dimension. Yes, we need to regulate multinational companies on an international footing but it is often at the local level where resistance can be strongest and most challenging to the ravishes of rapacious capitalism.
But on the other hand I completely agree that Social Democrats need to let go more. We in the Labour Party speak well of this. And for a time it looked like we were starting to practise what we preach. The great work of Arnie Graf and others in empowering activists to run their own campaigns – beyond Party endorsed leaflets – was inspiring, but seems to have been so fiercely resisted from some within our own ranks it has fizzled to almost nothing. This must change. Arnie should come back, but he is just one man – it is the whole party that must become more outward facing, more imaginative and more community action focused.
I have been a member of the Labour Party for 25 years. It is a vital and important part of my identity. Which is why I fight so hard to make the Labour Party better. It is my belief that we can do that. From opposition and from Government. For the sake of the country and the Party we must try.