Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Sad day for Labour

BOWING OUT of Labour's leadership contest, John McDonnell reminds us resistance to Tory-Lib Dem coalition is main fight.

AS my friends know, and as regular readers will have gathered, I am one of those people who have been supporting Labour MPJohn McDonnell's attempt to challenge for the Party leadership. His second attempt, because John stepped out from the ranks of fellow Left MPs to seek nomination in 2007, trying to challenge the 'coronation' of Gordon Brown.

He spoke at enthusiastic meetings of trade unionists and community campaigners at the time, his name being linked with opposition to war and privatisation, and his efforts for a trade union freedom bill. But the media seemed under an oath not to acknowledge his existence. Trade unions, however critical they had been of their treatment by Labour government, withheld support, and MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group seemed readier to mutter about McDonnell not consulting them than to muster enough nominations for him to stand.

This time, the party knows it is electing an Opposition leader, not a Prime Minister, yet it is hard to imagine the front contenders - the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls, let alone Andy Burnham - credibly opposing anything the Tories do, when they participated in a government which pursued war and privatisation and maintained Tory anti-union laws.

That's why I was delighted when I heard that John McDonnell had been persuaded to stand again. This would be one for all those who, despite New Labour's record, had voted for the Party, ennabling MPs like John to increase their majorities, and who would want a fight against the Tory cuts. John had the support of the Labour Representation Committee and many trade union activists, writing to MPs to nominate him, and this time he was able to get a showing in the media, including the Daily Mirror and Radio 4's Any Quetions, where he scored a hit with a south Wales audience, to judge from the applause.

At the same time, one could not help noticing a touch of reluctance when John's decision to stand was announced, and a tiredness and resignation in his voice, as he resumed the leadership challenge after hard campaigning against Heathrow airport expansion and to hold the Hayes and Harlington seat, when he might have been hoping to take a break with his family. Politicians, even socialists, are only human.

In 2007 a blip occurred near the time for nominations when maverick Michael Meacher suddenly announced he wanted to stand, though he soon withdrew. This time, with John McDonnell having announced he was standing, and John Cruddas MP announcing he wasn't, the Left was given an opportunity to show its talent for disunity when Diane Abbott MP threw her cap in, saying the other candidates "looked alike". Remnants of the right-on 1980s argued that the Hackney North MP was not only a left-winger in good standing, but black and a woman besides. They suggested John McDonnell stand down. Others resisted this claim on their progressive credentials, and disputed Diane Abbott's, pointing to her friendliness to Tories (disgraced former minister Jonathan Aitken gave her support!), and son at an expensive private school. Diane Abbott's TV audiences might outnumber those of us who have met John McDonnell at picket lines and public meetings, but not when it comes to the vote.

With nominations from MPs due to close, it appeared John McDonnell had 16, and Abbott 9. Even if they could be pooled - and that would be up to the nominators - they would fall short of the 33 needed to make the ballot paper. Supporters of John McDonnell were making last-minute calls to uncommitted MPs to add their nominations, and to Labour's National Executive Committee to allow all six candidates to be on the ballot. (echoing an emergency resolution from the Unite union national conference). This might not alter the final outcome, but would give ordinary Party members and members of affiliated trade unions the chance to vote for their candidate of choice, and facilitate the widest political debate.

Then this morning, the following letter was received:

Dear Comrades

I am writing to let you know that I have withdrawn from the Labour Party leadership race this morning.

I stood for the Labour leadership as the candidate of the Left and trade union movement so that there could be a proper debate about Labour’s future in which all the wings of the party were fully represented. It is now clear that I am unlikely to secure enough nominations and so I am withdrawing in the hope that we can at least secure a woman on the ballot paper.

We came into this campaign knowing that it would be really difficult to obtain sufficient nominations but we knew we had to try. The support we received from rank and file party members and from trade unionists was just overwhelming but we still could not overcome the barrier of gaining sufficient support from Labour MPs.

I appealed to the party leadership to lower the qualifying bar to allow all the candidates on the ballot paper. It was perfectly possible within the existing rules for this to be done. Reducing the bar to 5% would have allowed all the declared candidates to get on the ballot paper and the Party to have a full and open debate about its future direction. The party hierarchy refused and instead threw its weight behind one candidate.

I know that many Labour activists and trade unionists will be disappointed.

I want to thank you for all your hard work in lobbying and campaigning to secure sufficient nominations to get me on the ballot paper. You could not have worked harder.

I am urging everyone to continue the fight for democracy within the party so that in future elections rank and file members will be represented by the candidate of their choice.

We must also now throw our energies into the campaign to resist the cuts that the Coalition government is launching against our community. Providing leadership in this struggle is critically important in this coming period. We will be convening rallies and demonstrations and linking up with trade union action to resist the cuts. Let’s rise to this challenge.

Yours in solidarity,

John McDonnell MP

Last week at my union, Unite's conference in Manchester, Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman said:

"Over the next few months with our labour party members and our trade union supporters, 4 million people will have the chance to help shape Britain’s progressive future by choosing the next leader of the Labour party. This will be the biggest election - by a mile - in any political party or any organisation in this country. This is not the block vote – this is about millions of trade union members - people at work in of thousands of workplaces up and down the country – each one of them having a vote".

Harriet Harman's speech is worth reading in full as a reminder of what sort of rhetoric Labour is still capable of, now that its back in opposition, and when speaking to trades unionists, in this case members of the union for which her partner Jack Dromey, now a Labour MP, worked for so long.

Harman appealed to working class feeling, and readiness to oppose the Tories, but harking back again to those ideas about advancing disadvantaged sections of people by promoting individuals, she also expressed the view that the next shadow cabinet ought to be made up 50-50, of male and female. (Does that mean if a person who happened to be female was also well-worth including for her talents and qualifications, she could not be added if that would exceed the 50 per cent?) Harman has nominated Diane Abbott, though as with Frank Field's nomination of John McDonnell, nomination is not a guarantee that the nominee will get your vote).

It is a sad day for Labour when a genuine socialist like John McDonnell felt he had to drop out of the leadership contest. Considering the respect and support he could obtain from anti-war activists and ordinary trades unionists, I wonder, with him no longer in the running, how many of the four million cited by Harriet Harman will be actually bothering to vote? I dare say many of John's supporters will now be voting for Diane Abbott, as he is recommending, but it will be an unenthusiastic vote for second-best.

For me, the important thing is in that last sentence of John McDonnell's letter, about leadership in the struggle against the Tory cuts. Of course, I never felt confident that John McDonnell was going to be elected leader of the Labour Party. But I had hoped a substantial vote for him and his policies would signal a willingness to fight, and be a shot across the bows of the Con-LibDem government, and the New Labour leftovers alike. It might have added a boost to confidence in coming struggles, and even made our union leaders put up more of a fight.

As it is, we have been denied that opportunity, and Labour leadership voters will have to make do with second-best. But while the Labour leadership contest is not yet over, the fight back against this government has only just begun. And at least we will have the satisfaction of knowing that in John McDonnell, our struggle will continue to have one parliamentary voice.



Post a Comment

<< Home