Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not Labour in Vain

LABOUR suffered a serious defeat in the Glasgow East by-election on July 24. Although the Scottish National Party only won by 365 votes over Labour's candidate, the swing from Labour was 22 per cent - twice that which brought them down to humiliating fifth place in Henley on Thames on June 27.

Glasgow East is no genteel middle class Henley. Comprising the former Baillieston seat and parts of Shettleston, it is one of the most deprived areas in the country. The average life expectancy for males in this constituency is 68, five years less than in the rest of Scotland. In Shettleston it is 63.

These had always been Labour seats except in 1945 when Shettleston returned the left-wing ILP. The most Celtic bit is the football team. But the days have long gone when Labourites could sneer at the Nationalists as "Tartan Tories". On welfare and war, and other issues of concern to working people, New Labour's performance in government compares poorly with that of Scotland's parliament and has lost it the people's loyalty. The saltire flag is just an extra.

It is wrong to claim the Glasgow East result as a victory for David Cameron, as Tory commentators are doing. The Tory vote in this by-election was only 1,639, or 6.3 per cent of the electorate. Hardly a Tory comeback in Scotland, or sign that people are turning to Conservative values. When Baroness Thatcher said recently she would like a state funeral, the sentiment voiced by many Scots (and not them alone) was that they would pay for it if we could bury her now, without waiting for her overdue departure from natural causes.

But it is true that taking the country as a whole, New Labour's success in alienating and demoralising Labour voters, coupled with the effect of credit crunch and economic decline on middle class trust in Brown, could be leading us to a Tory victory. Labour MPs intriguing behind the scenes, along with media chatter about images and personality, are hardly going to revive interest in politics, let alone confidence in Labour. Will Gordon be replaced by Jack Straw, or the even less charismatic David Milliband, finding time from his Foreign Office stoogery to sing the praise of Maggie Thatcher? That should do Labour a lot of good. And the worrying thing is that this looming defeat could be a lasting setback for the whole Labour movement.

Trade unionists know that the Tories and employers will come back with a vengeance, and it will be no use asking them to get rid of the laws which Labour has lovingly preserved for them. The latest New Labour idea of making unemployed and even disabled people work for benefits (and what that will do to the jobs of those working for wages) is one the Tories can't wait to endorse, and claim as their own. And with the gap between rich and poor resembling Victorian or even Third World extremes, the media is encouraging the public to cheer this attack on those lower down the ladder rather than look askance at the obscenely rich above.

As for Labour's traditional voters, feeling the defeat, they will nod when you tell them that what was really needed were socialist policies, then say "but what can you do - the Tories have won". It's not just back to square one, but way behind it.

What's needed is to raise the issues, and to raise them now. What might at least revive interest in politics and conviction that it matters to us would be a new challenge to Gordon Brown that came from the Left, and was about policies. Out of sight? Well, away in the undergrowth, something stirs.

A Facebook group backing the battle of Fremantle care workers in the London Borough of Barnet to defend their pay and conditions, is not the biggest media arena, even on the Left, but you have to start small and wherever you are, and today those of us who subscribe to that group received this message from Marsha-Jane Thompson, a Labour Party member:

John McDonnell

Hello all,
Members of this group will be aware how John supports the Fremantle workers - he has invited them to parliament spoken at rallies on our behalf and laid an Early Day motion in parliament.

The only way to stop a Tory government in a few years time is for us to have a new leader of the Labour Party one that supports workers and our trade unions Comrades,

I am urging you to sign a letter calling for John McDonnell to stand when Gordon Brown stands down and for MPs to nominate him to allow a democratic debate.

Please join the group here:

Turning to the new group formed to support this call, we found Owen Jones, who worked for John McDonnell's previous campaign and set up a youth wing, inviting support for this letter:

As a range of Labour party members, supporters, councillors, NEC representatives, trade unionists, activists, community workers and campaigners, we are concerned that the Labour party currently faces a crisis from which it may not recover for a generation or more.

We believe that the current disastrous situation has been caused by the continuation of unpopular New Labour policies that have alienated millions of our supporters right across the country.

When Gordon Brown became leader of the Labour party, we were denied a democratic debate on the future direction of the party. We believe that, if a leadership contest is to take place, there must be a range of candidates representing all wings of the party. So far all the potential successors mentioned have supported the very policies that have landed the party in its current predicament – such as the Iraq war, privatisation of our public services, pay cuts for public sector workers, attacks on civil liberties, and failures to tackle a growing housing crisis and increasing inequality. We believe the current crisis is about policies, not personalities.

We desperately need a candidate to stand who will promote policies supported by millions of our supporters across the country – such as fair pay for public sector workers, public ownership of our services, a progressive tax system, an emergency council housing programme and an independent foreign policy. We need someone who is not compromised by voting for the very policies that have alienated our supporters.

John McDonnell is the only potential candidate with a consistent record, who has opposed all of New Labour's unpopular policies, who has a coherent alternative policy vision, and who has widespread support across the labour movement. We therefore urge John McDonnell to stand when there is a vacancy and for MPs to nominate him in order for party members and trade unionists to have a genuine debate and choice about the future of our party.


I hope John McDonnell does take up this sword, and that those remaining Labour MPs claiming to be on the Left get behind him this time. It would also be a chance for our unions to justify the amount of money they still keep putting into Labour's coffers, with little respect to show for it.

This campaign might not win back the Labour Party from the discredited crew at the top, or restore its chances of defeating the Tories. But it could rescue something from the wreckage. More people will regain hope that, as John McDonnell said in his previous campaign "Another world is possible".

I don't think I'm "spreading illusions in Labour reformism". I think its day has gone, and a socialist alternative has to be built both inside and outside the Labour Party.
But after the way they wrecked the Socialist Alliance and the debacle of 'Respect', some of those claiming to be that alternative have got some thinking and a bit of humility to do.

At Glasgow East, two parties which between them took enough votes to beat the Lib Dems, and might conceivably have overtaken the Tories too if they had been united, were the Scottish Socialist Party, on which such hopes were placed,(it got 2.1 per cent) and Tommy Sheridan's breakaway Solidarity(2 per cent)- which split with the encouragement of the Socialist Party in England,the SWP, and the SWP's erstwhile hero George Galloway. The problem for the Left is not how do you destroy "illusions in Labour", but how do you get people to take you seriously when you say you have something better?

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At 7:36 PM, Blogger white rabbit said...

Forgive the pedantry but you say 'these had always been Labour seats except in 1945 when Shettleston returned the left-wing ILP' Shettleston was won by John Wheatley in 1922 for the ILP. John Mc Govern succeeded him as ILP MP on hs death in 1930. McGovern remained ILP MP for Shettleston until 1947 (the ILP having disaffiliated from the Labout party in 1932) until he rejoined Labour in 1947 with the other remaining ILP MPs. Classic dodgy end for McGovern: calling for a Conservative vote in 1964!

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

White Rabbit is quite right to chide me for not doing my homework on Glasgow East, particularly as I have John McGovern's book "Neither Fear Nor Favour" on my shelf, though I had not looked at it for some while.
He is quite right that the ILP held Shettleston from 1922, though at that time it was part of the coalescing Labour Party, and in 1931 when McGovern took the seat he had no Labour opposition. In 1945 however the ILP was distinctly seen on Labour's Left, and McGovern retained his seat against both Labour and Communist Party competition. My point, in the context of this article was that this working class constituency had consistently MPs who were Labour or seen as left-of-Labour until now.
And looking at New Labour in government it would not be surprising if many electors did not see the SNP as being to its Right.
Concerning McGovern's "dodgy end", incidentally, he seems to have had some dodgy dealings already during the Second World War, involving supposed "peace" feelers put out to and from Germany, with the Marqis of Tavistock(later Duke of Bedford) and Lord Beaverbrook. His book is not entirely forthcoming about these strange links. If they can be put down to his naievety, McGovern's anti-communism -fed though it was by attention to real Stalinist crimes - led him into further bad company in the 1950s, when he helped a press witch-hunt against a left-wing Labour candidate, and enlisted with the Buchmanite Moral Re-Armament movement. He supported German re-armament, had talks with Chiang Kai Shek, and urged better ideological training for Western soldiers fighting the Korean war against godless communism.
So supporting the Tories in 1964 was like icing on the cake, or marriage following a long engagement.
But there could be room for serious study into just how this old ILP man travelled this way.

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Jon Rogers said...

I think that the initiative you describe from both Owen and Marsha Jane (who jointly set up the Socialist Youth Network) is in the best traditions of the left, including the ILP. In supporting John McDonnell these comrades are supporting a socialist MP who would have been at home representing Clydeside in the days when Labour could still win elections there...


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