Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A distinctive purpose

Labour's leadership debate could end up like a competition to be chief executive of an ailing company. But activists are intent on taking it somewhere more interesting. Laurie Penny and Hilary Wainwright did the round of post-election think-ins to find out more

June 16, 2010
4 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


  share     tweet  

In his conclusion to Parliamentary Socialism, Ralph Miliband, father of brothers David and Ed, posed a challenge that is more pertinent than ever. He argued that the alternative to becoming a genuinely socialist party would be ‘the kind of slow but sure decline which – deservedly – affects parties that have ceased to serve any distinctive purpose’.

‘Slow but sure decline’ has certainly been the trend under New Labour, with membership falling to an all-time low. However, in the week following the election, 12,000 people joined the party, as if they sensed the danger faced by the left at the end of the New Labour era.

Over the following weekend, a slew of post-election conferences from the Fabian Society to the Labour Representation Committee discussed Labour’s future with an atmosphere of optimism – bordering on outright relief – that might seem curious for a party that has just lost 90 seats and been ousted from power.

Old hands and young bloods alike are keen to break from the New Labour tradition. Former cabinet minister Jon Trickett emphasised that a revitalised movement must ‘openly say that Iraq was a mistake, and never will such a thing happen again’, advising party members to admit that Labour also ‘operated with completely the wrong economic paradigm’. Labour’s new MPs have arrived at Westminster with deeply critical perspectives on Blair and Brown’s positions on Iraq, privatisation and immigration. At the Progressive London conference, Lisa Nandy, newly elected to represent Wigan, described her relief at being able speak freely on such matters.

Nandy’s successful campaign was part of a new strand of Labour thinking that ‘keeps in touch with left-wing people who may not be Labour born and bred’. Many Wigan voters were ‘motivated by the memory of what the Tories did to the north west in the eighties and nineties, and came to work with us. They were also motivated by equality issues and the Tories’ homophobia,’ said Nandy. While David and Ed Miliband’s campaign speeches have sounded rather like bids to be chief executive of an ailing company, there is also a broader, more plural view of a labour movement opening up among the young and at the grassroots – a view that doesn’t require a party card and that is based on joint action.

‘After the election I had a socialist awakening, and I realised that the Liberals don’t have the type of grass-roots socialist politics that interest me – so I joined the Labour party,’ said Adam, 19, at the Fabian conference. ‘But the party needs a leader who can unite the left without being tainted by the New Labour brand. I’m hoping that Ed Miliband can offer that kind of leadership, but I’m not sure.’

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, stresses the need for the left to focus on the practical issues facing working people. ‘Building resistance to the cuts has to be the priority,’ he says. ‘People don’t realise how hard they are going to hit. The leadership will come from those at the front line, but I expect the Labour Party, along with the new leader, to offer support.’

The veteran Labour left-winger and leadership candidate John McDonnell agrees that Labour needs to relearn its ambition to improve the lives of ordinary people. ‘The last general election seemed to be fought in a fantasy world,’ he says. ‘None of the main three parties have any clear analysis of globalisation, and all have been co-conspirators in creating a global economic crisis and then expecting working people to pay for that crisis. There are alternatives to this, and the alternatives strike at the heart of the system itself – so it means systemic change, on an economic level, on a parliamentary level and on a party level, and a return to socialist awareness.’

After tramping around the post-election conferences, we went to Westminster to the Take Back Parliament rally for fair votes. Swathes of protesters decked in purple ribbons marched on Downing Street to turn in their petition for proportional referendum. Their desire is for a political system that is less centrist, less timid, and fairer in principle and practice to the unheard millions who have waited too long for politicians to take a stand. No mainstream party in its present state offers the radical change that this constitutional reform movement wishes to see – not even the Liberal Democrats.

If Labour could make the links between economic democracy, political democracy, workers’ rights and civil liberties, then it might regain the distinct purpose that Miliband senior insisted was a condition of reversing its decline.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power