Sunday 23 March 2008

Wendy Alexander: "Change Is What We Do"

New Labour is in big trouble. It is a party going nowhere, except down in the opinion polls. The green shoots of renewal aren't anywhere to be seen either. Brown's government is bereft of vision and values. Its politics is a mere continuation of what went before, namely managerialism with a dour twist. The fact only 19 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted against the government's post office closure programme illustrates how deep the neoliberal rot goes. It's unsurprising party membership is in free fall, that working class voters prefer to stay at home than support "their" party as Ken Livingstone faces the fight of his political life against Boris Johnson.

Some sections of the Labour party are alive to their predicament, if this article in the Scotland on Sunday is to be believed. Dramatically entitled 'Labour Faces Split with Left' it states a group organised around the soft left Compass grouping have been agitating for the removal of Scottish Labour's hapless leader Wendy Alexander, at the party conference later this week. Their petition states "people know they're not living in the 'good society' promised to them. The Scottish people wanted Labour to do this for them, to explain what we did wrong and address it; it failed to do so. Labour forgot or was scared to do what the Left has always tried to do; to critique capitalism and to make markets the servants of society."

In an attempt to parry these criticisms (and save her own neck), the party has released Scottish Labour: New Directions. Now, this is a document all about change. It is subtitled 'Change is What We Do' and across its 28 pages the word 'change' appears no less than 19,773 times.

So what does Alexander's pamphlet say? Its opening does not bode well. She correctly notes that if Labour are going to make a come back "we will have to work in every street, every community, and in all corners of our country to command the respect of, and win back the support of, Scotland". And how is this to be done? By emulating the examples of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown of course! She argues the SNP have learned the chief lesson of these "most gifted politicians", and that lesson is to capture the prevailing mood. The Scottish people wanted change - and found Scottish Labour wanting. This is where she gets to the meat of her argument. Labour is the party of change. Arrayed against it are the Conservatives who "wish to conserve what already exists because that is how the privileges enjoyed by them and their supporters are maintained." On the other hand "the Nationalists seek to disguise their conservatism in the language of radicalism. But at heart, they are deeply conservative. They want to turn the clock back 300 years to a past that never was in order to achieve a future that never can be." No words on some mildly progressive policies the SNP has introduced already, then.

The scene is set for laying claim to social housing, the founding of the NHS and the public ownership of utilities. Yes, these are achievements Labour party members can be proud of. However it seems Alexander is unaware that New Labour has done nothing to reverse the privatisation of utilities, and everything to undermine what is left of social housing and the NHS. Indeed, she's under the impression the latter has been enhanced by "the transfer of those [council] houses to community ownership" (code for landlords and housing associations) and the ban on smoking in public places. She continues in breathless fashion how Labour reached beyond its core constituencies and listened to all sections of Scottish society. In fact the more you read, the more convinced she is that her party's eight year administration did absolutely nothing wrong. The only thing going awry is Labour's connection to the Scottish people.

The solution is listening, to be in tune with Scotland's aspirations. Revealingly, and coming as no surprise, these are defined as "second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment." In other words, the aspirations of the middle class. I suspect these are far from the priorities of the majority of the Scottish working class.

Inevitably constitutional politics have to be dealt with. Alexander's response to the SNP's challenge is two fold. First is the resort to bourgeois economism - why be faffing about with independence when people's priorities are education, services, crime, jobs, etc? I know Labour like to treat the Tory front bench as their think tank these days, but going back to 1997 to recycle William Hague's arguments against devolution is a bit extreme. But I digress. The second plank of her argument is no "credible" opinion poll has shown a majority for independence whereas two "academic" surveys show no more than a quarter of Scots believe in separation. Sadly, no references are given to support this contention. This is backed by the fact 65% of voters supported unionist parties in 2007, and majority support exists for devolution. The argument she makes for the maintenance of the union is couched in terms of partnership, that in increasingly volatile times it's wise for the nations of the UK to stand together. It was through the "partnership" that Scotland was able to reach its full potential as an integral component of a world power. She is willing to concede the union needs to evolve, and as Labour is the party of change, it has nothing to fear overseeing necessary reforms. Her criticism of the SNP amounts to Scotland not having the resources to stand alone, and being irresponsible for inadvertently stoking up English nationalism.

And then, no sooner had it started it's finished. Her concluding remarks merely reiterate what's already gone before. Scotland is abuzz with entrepreneurial dynamism and confidence, etc. etc. In reality, under New Labour's watch, though the democratic reforms it made should be critically welcomed, Scotland has been as ravaged by neoliberalism as any other part of the UK. According to a study published for The Scotsman in 2006, life expectancy for Glasgow's wealthiest suburb is 87.7 years. For the poorest it's 54. And since 1992 the latter figure for the poorest third has fallen by eight weeks, whereas for the upper two thirds it has risen by two years.

Basically, Alexander's grand vision amounts to nothing. There is nothing in the document to enthuse and recharge disgruntled party activists. Even careerist hacks will be hard pressed to find anything to moon about. In short, this was a chance to show a Scottish Labour party coming to grips with the lessons of its defeat. Instead, it is the embodiment of Brown's party. It dresses banalities up as profundities, pretends excitement over a vacuous agenda and is bereft of ideas. It sums up the exhaustion of New Labour and does not begin to answer the critique of the Compassite left.

The stock mantra of New Labour to left criticism is the need for it to go beyond its traditional base. However, Blair and Brown not so much 'went beyond' their core support as abandoned it. Nor are they particularly concerned with getting it back. This has and continues to present the left with a golden opportunity, but the three-way split for the London Assembly list shows we have a lot of growing up to do if we are to fully capitalise on Labour's difficulties.


Charlie Marks said...

First thoughts on the news report on her latest wheeze: oh for fuck's sake! She goes on about "personaling" the NHS - neoliberal code for privatisation, as Frankie Luntz lets us know in his book...

Not onto a winner. In the boom times you can just about get away with the old 'aspiration" arguments - why these are all individual, I don't know, what about aspiring to have some power in your workplace, etc? But now with inflation growing and wages not keeping up even the bloody Tory papers are suggesting price controls for the energy utilities...

If I can swing this back to England, we desperately need a national focus in the labour movement and amongst socialists. Let's face it, building a new workers party in England *and* Wales is going to be a bit much since the two nations now have distinct political systems. We can't keep talking about Britain if we recognise that separate organisation takes place north of the border, can we?

Phil said...

We can still talk about Britain as long as our enemy organises as one entity across Britain and Northern Ireland. Ultimately, how socialists organise in Wales and Scotland is up to them. However I still don't think there is much of a case for organising separately from socialists in England. Take the example of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. All our branches enjoy a lot of autonomy from the centre. It sets targets around recruitment, paper sales and fighting fund based on constant dialogue with the branches. But campaigning priorities, electoral interventions and branch strategies are, in the main, set by individual branches. As far as I can tell this structure has served the SP well, and renders separate organisation between the English and Welsh components superfluous.

Another point also I'd like to raise is because of what has happened in Scotland, I very much doubt the SSP and Solidarity will be viewed as a pole of attraction by the labour movement north of the border. Should the trade unions make a move to set up a new party, I suspect it will reflect their own organisational structures, which are Britain-wide. I can't see organising separately would enhance that process.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I think there are quite big differences between Scotland and Wales - where its worthwhile supporting independence there - there certainly isn't a mass mood for it here. Not even in the north west of wales which is most anti-english and welsh language speaking - there are three main roots into wales - one across the south (the M4 corridor), one through the middle to aberystwyth and one along the north coast to bangor and anglesey. all of these are layers are tied to england to one extent or another and north wales would struggle without links to england - i'm not sure if thats as true for scotland.

Anonymous said...

To quote the Scotsman:
And in a pamphlet to be published this week, she declares: "We in the Labour party have been fortunate to live in a time when politics in the English-speaking world has been dominated by three of the most gifted politicians of the centre-left – Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown".

When she mentions Brown she is flattering the Party leader for obvious reasons, but the rest of that statement is true.

There is much to be said for thinking about that.

Anonymous said...

And Wendy went on: "I do not believe that people have lost faith in Scottish Labour's values. But they have questioned our ability to deliver the practical policies that match those values, and to make the changes that turn those values into reality".

The only way forward for the Labour party in Scotland is to declare independence from London. Only by doing this will people believe that it is acting on behalf of Scotland.

The SNP are demonstrably working for Scotland only and take no orders from London, as a result they are riding higher and higher in the polls as the people know that they have only the people of Scotland to account to.

Go on, be brave, break free!

Foxessa said...

[ ... if Labour is going to make a come back "we will have to work in every street, every community, and in all corners of our country to command the respect of, and win back the support of, Scotland". And how is this to be done? By emulating the examples of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of course! She argues the SNP have learned the chief lesson of these "most gifted politicians", and that lesson is to capture the prevailing mood .... ]

Good grief!

It seems the entire world has gotten wised up to the political ploy of saying something is something rather than the politicians actually, you know, doing some of the heavy lifting of making something BE something.

Whoever hasn't figured this out by now will be figuring it out real soon.

Love, C.

Frank Partisan said...

What is 30 years, in terms of struggle? I would oppose building a new party. I think you should stay in Labor.

After reading what Wendy says, I acknowledge it's not easy.

Phil said...

The problem is Renegade that not only will you not convince leftists outside to join up, there are real structural barriers for doing so. For example our activists are well known to the local Labour Party. We have frequently clashed with them over the years and have taken part in struggles against the Labour-controlled local authority. I can tell you now if we were all to apply for Labour membership, most of us would be refused. And those who do get in, well, they wouldn't be inside for very long. The same is true for the rest - there is no way in a million years that Labour would welcome the SP and SWP into its ranks. It's not going to happen.

I've argued previously why what's left of the Labour left stay inside the party. I've even gone so far as to suggest there may still be some openings for the Labour left to gain some ground, which is why I think it's wrong to write Labour off completely. But it's high time the left inside recognised there's very real ideological and practical reasons why those of us who are outside stay outside.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I think you're entirely right Phil. All of the people that have got active this year in Socialist Students in Bangor wouldn't join the Labour party in the UK at all - they know it as the party of top-up fees, the war on iraq etc. - I could probably say with all certainty that I wouldn't have joined the labour party when I joined the socialist party several years ago.
But in terms of our members - many of the leading ones were expelled from the party, I don't see any of the comrades who are councillors being let in and thats before you come to the question of whether they'd let the newer layers in either.

Anonymous said...

And who wants the centre-left? Who wants my arslikhan MP Major Joyce? Who wants wee bourgeois smartarses like the Alexanders?

Anonymous said...

What the fuck would you know about Scottish politics Phil, you've never set foot in the place.
Have you ?
It's like English lefties discussing what's going on in Africa.
Leftist politics poisoned by the culture of imperialism.
"I very much doubt the SSP and Solidarity will be viewed as a pole of attraction by the labour movement north of the border."
Well take a look at the reality of mobilising people on the streets in opposition to imperialism;
Philosophers have interpreted the world.
The point is to change it.

Phil said...

You really should keep off the grumpy pills, Eddie. They do you no favours.

Nice photos. If you look around the internet you'll find hundreds more of demonstrators holding SWP placards and selling Socialist Worker. That still doesn't disprove the contention that the far left is marginalised and largely inconsequential.

I would say my grasp of Scottish politics is firmer than your grip on political realities. Look, I'm very sorry if the idea of the SSP, along with Solidarity, not being a pole of attraction offends you so much. But it happens to be true. Between you and Solidarity, you lost 80% of your previous vote, all your MSPs, a trade union affiliate, dozens of activists, one platform, and one recently elected councillor. You don't need to be pounding the streets of Scottish cities to realise this is a massive setback for independent working class politics in Britain as a whole. It may not stay this way forever, but to pretend both organisations as they presently stand are viable alternatives to Labour right now is wishful thinking.