I’ve been struck by the lack of analysis on the Labour left as to what went wrong in the recent Labour leadership elections. This is the first attempt to provide such an analysis and I welcome it. All I’ve seen before now is the Labour left congratulating themselves on the campaign itself and then bemoaning ‘we was robbed’. All of us who want to challenge the bipartisan approach of the two major parties were robbed. But what does that mean and why did it happen?
John McDonnell ran an exemplary campaign. It reached out to the grassroots, was based on transparency and accountability, and put forward a manifesto of principled, pragmatic socialist strategies. A contest between him and Gordon Brown would have meant that trade union and Labour Party members had a real political choice – a neoliberal warmonger against a democrat and a socialist. It’s a contest that Brown would have hated and that’s why MPs were mobilised to prevent McDonnell standing.
In comparison, Jon Cruddas’s bid for deputy leader was a pale imitation. His vote reflected the fact that a certain proportion of Labour Party members (and a much higher proportion of trade union members) don’t support New Labour. But Alan Simpson is right to point to Cruddas’s poor voting record. Compass – his main base – was one of the building blocks of New Labour. Cruddas’s response when asked on Question Time which piece of legislation passed under Blair he would repeal – he couldn’t initially think of anything – showed his loyalist instincts.
I don’t believe, as Alan Simpson suggests, that the Labour left declined because of the Chesterfield conferences 20 years ago or because we were too fragmented. The Labour left lost because New Labour won, building on the right-wing shift started by Neil Kinnock. New Labour capitalised on the party’s despair after the 1992 election defeat and convinced too many party members that only New Labour would make the party electable – and that becoming electable required shutting down the party’s democratic structures (such as they were), preventing the left having a voice in the party, and promoting neoliberal values.
Many party members – and many Labour voters in 1997 – believed that this was a smokescreen to get into power. But Tony Blair was speaking the truth when he said ‘We were elected as New Labour and we shall govern as New Labour.’ Since his election as party leader in 1994, the Labour Party has become the party of privatisation, authoritarianism, war and racism. Thatcher’s greatest achievement has been to re-mould the Labour Party in her own image. Gordon Brown was as much an architect of New Labour as Blair, and the ideology of New Labour continues under his premiership.
When New Labour shut down the democratic structures, it ended any chance of socialists in the Labour Party being able to make a difference. No matter how many party members are horrified by war, privatisation, the assault on civil liberties and so on, their voices aren’t heard, and they certainly can’t change the policies. The leadership’s iron grip prevents any real challenges – just as it did with McDonnell’s bid for leadership.
It’s not surprising, then, that the party membership has changed. Jon Cruddas’s vote showed that it’s now predominantly trade union members – not Labour Party members – who are dissatisfied with the leadership. Given that McDonnell’s exemplary campaign couldn’t even get the left off the starting-block, the question must be asked: what can the Labour left possibly achieve by staying in the party?