So, the Labour Party has a new leader. And, a fair while after the event, I’ve finally got around to writing about it.
When working out what to make of Ed Miliband, one obvious response is to look at his voting record – pro-ID cards, Trident and the repression of migrants, against investigating the Iraq war, and so on. But there are serious limitations to this approach. It would be naive to expect that looking at someone’s record before they gained power will tell us how they behave when in power with a totally different set of pressures affecting them. One typical example can be seen in the behaviour of Kat Fletcher, a former student union bureaucrat who now works for Miliband, who was elected to lead the NUS running on a socialist platform and with the support of a group called the Campaign for Free Education, who she abandoned as soon as she’d gained power, but there are many more.
Another recent example of the dangers of trusting in lefty leaders comes from the 2009 postal strike, which ended in a weak sell-out deal that was endorsed by the entire Communication Workers Union executive, including Jane Loftus, a member of the Socialist Workers Party (to be fair, the SWP as an organisation condemned the sell-out deal, and Loftus left the party shortly afterward). The point of bringing this up isn’t just to condemn the SWP, or to condemn Loftus as an individual, it’s to make clear that she acted the way she did because of the situation she was in. As part of the CWU leadership, she had to deal with the other leaders every day, and so it’s no surprise that the pressure to go along with their wishes outweighed the pressure to stick up for rank-and-file post workers. It’s entirely possible I would have acted the same way in the same circumstances. The point here is that if you manage to put a decent person into a position that’s designed to make people act in shitty ways, you’re not going to fundamentally alter the nature of that structural position, you’re just going to ruin an otherwise decent person. That old line about how no matter who you vote for, the government always wins, actually has a fair degree of truth to it – whoever won in this contest, they would still have ended up being the leader of the Labour Party, and that tells you a lot about how they’re going to behave.
While we’re on the subject, a few other myths that need laying to rest. Lefties will often bleat on about the need to get back to “Old Labour”, as if this would help anyone. We need to be clear about the fact that Labour has always, always been shit. The first Labour minister gained power as part of the government overseeing the mass slaughter of the First World War. As this history of the Labour Party makes clear, the very first Labour government back in 1924 was already attacking strikers, and Ramsay MacDonald was happy to serve in the “national government”, providing left cover for attacks on unemployment benefits and public sector pay in the same way that the Lib Dems do today. In the two years Labour held power between 1929 and 1931, 4 million workers had their pay cut. This tradition of attacks on workers goes on and on throughout Labour’s history.
Of course, this is not to deny that Labour has ever done anything good ever, which would be ridiculous. But it is very important to be clear about the nature of these gains. The NHS and the welfare state were handed down from above, and control of them has always stayed in the hands of the state, not society as a whole. This is why it’s been possible for both Labour and the Tories to chip away ever larger pieces of the welfare state. If we want real, lasting improvements that we don’t have to fight constantly to defend, then they need to be under our control, which means that we need to alter the way society works as a whole. It sounds like a big, daunting task, but it’s actually no more unrealistic than the current lefty strategy of asking for limited reforms from our rulers, then acting surprised and having to wage endless defensive fights when those reforms are taken away.
Finally, there’s one more point to be made about the uselessness of continuing lefty illusions in Labour. Trotskyist groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty will still, with a straight face, call for “the reconstruction of Labour party democracy” and tell us that “a Labour Party reclaimed by the trade unions would be a vehicle for a political alternative.” What they don’t seem keen to discuss is that the project of building a socialist alternative within the Labour Party has already been pursued, with mixed results. The Militant Tendency spent decades working within the Labour Party, and eventually managed to become so influential within the Party that the National Youth Organiser and several councillors were members of Militant. Then they all got thrown out. I have yet to see any Labour-sympathising lefty give anything close to a coherent explanation of why any group attempting to do the same thing today wouldn’t just face exactly the same fate. Any takers?