Saturday, August 26, 2006

Derby defection: Writing on the Wall for those who can read it

"TAKE no notice,
it's probably just some
local difficulty."

WITH less than a month to go to the Labour Party's national conference, almost 40 Labour Party members in Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett's Derby South constituency have defected to the Liberal Democrat Party in protest at the British government's refusal to oppose Israel's war on Lebanon.

"The Lebanon war has made me change my mind and made me feel I am in the wrong party, " said Mohammed Rawail Peeno, who was chairman of Derby Labour Party's Arboretum branch. "The people who are getting killed out there are innocent women and children. It's sad. For many years I have been a Labour party member but we have no choice. We can't take it any more.

‘"When Margaret Beckett refused to back a ceasefire and instead sided with George Bush it was the breaking point for us," he said. ‘"New Labour have abandoned the beliefs that led me and thousands of others to join Labour in the first place."

"We need to stop aligning ourselves to America. ", said Shayad Mahmood, 31. "We are not backing Hizbullah but we are against the killing of innocent women and children. They are dropping bombs in highly populated areas where civilians are. In this day and age, in 2006, there is no way this government can allow this to carry on."

That seems clear enough. We can sympathise with how they must have felt, when the woman and the government they helped return stood alone with Condeleeza Rice and Bush opposing an end to the Israeli onslaught, even if we don't think they made the right move in going over to the Liberals.

Reporting "what appears to be a carefully managed coup for Sir Menzies Campbell's party", the Guardian noted that the 37 defectors were predominantly Muslims of Pakistani origin. "Sir Menzies called the defections "significant". "The government's position on the Middle East and Iraq shows just how out of touch it is with many in its party and the majority of the general public."

Putting on a brave face, the Labour party called in question the motives of those leaving. A spokesman said: "We understand that there are ongoing local factors arising from a selection process last year which have led to this defection."

"It is always disappointing when any member decides to leave the Labour party. It is important that the foreign secretary and prime minister continue to work hard to achieve a sustainable ceasefire in Lebanon - something we're sure all Labour party members would unite around."

A contributor to the Labour Left Briefing online discussion list was equally sure that the defections must have some "local" explanation:
"Having spent over three decades in inner-city politics, I can advise it's far from uncommon for groups to use national issues as a cloak of convenience.
In certain inner cities (Leicester included) members have often been recruited as a block into the party in order to support a particular cause or individual. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that in this instance they may have left in the same way".

Perhaps this cynicism tells us more about the writer, and the Party to which he belongs, than about those whose motives he was questioning. People are recruited on an opportunist basis, and no one worries about their political education or beliefs so long as they serve a purpose, put their hands up in the right place, and support the leadership. Then when they do turn, recoiling in disgust from the policies they are asked to support, you question their motives, and discover - sour grapes -that you didn't really want them anyway!

Who could possibly be so upset about some foreign people being bombed and their country destroyed? "A faraway country of which we know so little" - as someone once said of another case. Well, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published last month some 63 per cent of British voters think the Labour government is too subservient to Washington. More than half the electorate think the war in Iraq has been wrong, and less than a quarter thought Israel's action in Lebanon was proportionate and justified.

Unless we're going to believe that, by coincidence, around two-thirds of the British electorate have been troubled just recently by local issues like who gets what in the local council and Labour party offices, we have to conclude that whatever the particular circumstances in Derby, those disaffected party members, Muslim or not, were reflecting the feeling of the majority of people in this country.

It is the Labour loyalists, and the little cliques engaged in backroom manouvres for privilege and office, for whom little things like wars abroad don't count, who are out of step. Instead of challenging the motives of those who left, why not ask yourself about the ones who stay? Perhaps if there'd been a serious left-wing challenge to Beckett in her constituency the defectors would have thought it worthwhile staying around.

"But what kind of political education did they have, to join the Lib Dems?" , say some Labour left-wingers, while others try to console themselves by observing that the Derby defectors did not join any of the Left-wing groups nor even George Galloway's Respect.

The chief education that people have had under this government is that a Labour government, led by a man who sang the praises of Margaret Thatcher long after even Tory voters decided they'd had enough of her, can continue where the Tories left off, with privatisation and permanent wars. That, according to Mr.Blair we now have a classless society, because we are all middle class. That, ibid, trade unions are just a special interest group who should expect no better treatment from Labour, nor think their continued backing gives them any right to a say in policy. That when the BNP or the right-wing press blame the country's ills on asylum seekers and immigrants, it is the job of Labour ministers to argue they are better than the Tories at keeping them out and deporting children.

Those sincere socialists in the Labour Party who are aghast that anyone disenchanted with New Labour should think of joining the Liberal Democrats should ask themselves, what are you going to tell these people? That the Lib Dems on such and such a local authority joined with Tories, or carried out policies that hit working people? But are they that much worse than the Labour council they replaced which kept saying it was tied by central government, carried out cuts, then enthused over policies like business-funded City Academies, and so lost people's confidence that it lost the council to the Lib Dems?

That the Lib Dems, like the Tories, are a party of big business? Well, and looking at Blair and co. sucking up to US big business and offering honours to billionaire backers, how do you persuade people Labour is still "the People's party"? It's no good appealing to history, when the Labour Party that people see is the one they joined, not one that exists in theory. Since they don't want to take a leap into the dark by entrusting their concerns to some little left-wing group or a novelty like Respect, they decide they might as well switch to another mainstream party which appears at least better on a major moral issue like war.

At a time when, as Tony Benn has remarked, the majority of the people in this country are to the left of the Labour government on many things, even without realising it, it is currently the Tories who are leading in the opinion polls. Confused? Then it is up to those who consider themselves politically aware and conscious on the Left to find ways of clearing away the confusion.

Instead of dismissing this defection as insignificant or politically incorrect, those who are struggling inside the Labour Party should use it to strengthen their case that a change in leadership and policy is urgent, if Labour is not just to fall apart amid shattered hopes and disillusionment. All socialists, whether inside the Labour Party or out of it, should recognise that big issues like war and global privatisation concern everyone, and it is up to us not to be satisfied with internal discussion among the "politically educated" but to make our socialism relevant to everybody.



At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probabley because they were allways Lib Dems and not true Labour members


At 3:24 PM, Blogger Mike said...

The 41 ex-Derby Labour Party members who defected to the Liberal Democrats had been Labour members. They had Labour membership numbers they had Labour membership cards. The General Secretary of the Labour Party has now even written to them and invited them to rejoin Labour.

He would hardly have done that if they hadn't been Labour party members.

Face reality Labour made itself unpopular over Iraq and the Lebanon. And locally in Derby Labour has made itself unpopular by going into an alliance with the Tories, and cutting a number of local services, sports centres home care services for the elderly and disabled etc.

That is why people are leaving Derby Labour Party in droves. Instead of pretending that people who were Labour Party members were never Labour Party members. It would be better to consider why so many people want to leave Derby Labour Party.


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