Monday, 10 May 2010

After Brown

The Tory press have finally got their heart's desire, but they should be careful what they wish for. Gordon Brown's decision to step down before party conference in the autumn was not unexpected, but it throws the coalition talks between the Tories and the LibDems into sharp relief. Whether Brown was bounced into resigning by his enemies in the media or pushed by the dark forces who mismanaged Labour's election campaign is best left to the gossip mongers. And while it's fun to see the Tories shit bricks when it emerged Clegg had also played footsie with Labour (hence their desperate announcement this evening that they would concede a referendum on the Alternative Vote system), the important issue for socialists is how to make the most of whatever configuration of political forces that emerges.

One thing is clear - Nick Clegg is between a rock and a hard place. Having spent days in negotiations with the Tories, he knows he risks a blow up with his party should he clamber into bed with Cameron and his ghoulish henchmen. The LibDems might be no different to the Conservatives in local government and have an unenviable reputation as dirty campaigners, but a large proportion of their vote self-identifies with progressive values. As
this post makes clear, 43% of LibDem voters locate themselves as on the left, and 39% perceived the party as a left/centre-left party. The equivalent figures for right identification were 9% and 5% respectively. Many LibDems I've met over the years loathe the Tories as much as any socialist and a coalition with them - even if it means ministerial positions for Clegg and St. Cable - would be like snorting razor blades. In short, Clegg's clutching a poisoned chalice. Commentators have drawn parallels with the situation Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe found himself in in 1974. An election after a period of Lib/Con coalition or a Conservative minority government with LibDem connivance could mean Clegg would get to know what it's like to have 14 seats too.

Nevertheless, I imagine some comrades are looking forward to the opportunities a Tory government can afford the left. As MarshaJane
puts it:
Labour should now go into opposition and wait for the government to fall. We can then hopefully be fighting the next election with a new leader who will be campaigning against public sector cuts now next year or in the next 5 years or indeed ever and invest in the pubic sector.
It could certainly give the labour movement a bit of an impetus. With Labour out of office union leaderships no longer have to worry about embarrassing the government (some may even rediscover their firebrand pasts) and layers of former activists might be inspired to become involved again. Labour - depending on who wins the leadership contest (which I'll no doubt write more on before the week is out) - is likely to rediscover some of the Labourist rhetoric Gordon Brown remembered in the dying days of the campaign as it positions itself to the left. And while there's little chance of returning to 1983 territory chances are policy will assume a more social democratic caste. But a period of glorious opposition would be at the price of "savage cuts" and moves by the government to eviscerate the public sector of trade union influence. Is this a price worth paying? I don't think so.

The alternative - a Lib/Lab/rainbow coalition - has its own opportunities, but comes with a more complex set of problems. In the first place the myriad links between Labour and the organised working class prevents it from launching an all-out assault on its base. This is more of a factor in a Labour-led rainbow coalition where, without a majority, a significant rebellion of backbench MPs could scupper the passing of cuts legislation and threaten to bring the government down. But also there would be massive pressure on union leaders from the Labour leadership to keep a lid on things, and as the record of the last 13 years show, most are happy to do so. Yet Labour-loyal union leaders will be faced with pressure to do something from below, which has been largely absent under the Blair/Brown administration. In other words, socialists in the unions and the Labour party are in a stronger position to derail attempts to make the working class pay for capital's crisis.

The window of opportunity for action - at least within Labour - would be short. In this country the party slumped to its lowest levels of support when wide layers of the working class (correctly) perceived the abolition of the 10p tax band as a kick in the teeth. Should a rainbow coalition be seen to unambiguously attack our class support could fall away quicker than a shower of bricks. In this scenario, the recent history of the SPD in Germany points to Labour's future.

Then of course there is the interminable struggle between the Blairites and the Brownites. I think Andy is right to say the
difference between the camps is that one wants to dilute and jettison the trade unions, while the other wants to preserve Labour and the union link as is. For the Blairites a coalition offers an opportunity to heal the historic split between the Liberal Party and Labour - a retrograde step that would further weaken working class political representation. But for all their venality the Blairites aren't daft. They know the fate that befell the SDP could happen to them. The reason why Labour and the Tories have dominated politics for so long is because they more or less express the class relationships of British society. While this has undergone some fragmentation over the last 30 years, the sociological space does not exist for a third force to assume the mantle of progressive politics, nor is it likely to do so outside of some political catastrophe. As interesting the shenanigans and permutations of coalition building are for Westminster watchers, a realignment is not on the cards. If the Blairites are tempted to do a SDP or a Ramsay MacDonald, it will be the last thing they do as a significant political trend.

At the moment it's difficult to see which way mainstream politics are going to turn, but we can be sure Con/Lib and Lib/Lab/Rainbow presents the labour movement different challenges.


andy newman said...

I think that Gordon Brown has played his hand well.

This is what is missed by those hoping for a defiant spell in opposition, becuase the wrenching gut instinct of the heartlands labour vote is to keep the bastard Tories out at any cost.

If Gordon Brown manages to prevent David cameron crossing the thresgold of Number ten, whatever the cost, then people will be grateful to him; and the Tories will implode.

Anonymous said...

I just don't really see this whole Brownite vs. Blairite thing. It's hardly Healey vs. Benn is it? What exactly has this Brownite pro-union 'wing' done since Blair handed over the reigns. Repealed trade union laws? Supported the post office workers? The BA cabin crew? The rail workers? Jarvis? Lindsey? Visteon? Oh no, I forgot they allowed the courts to prevent democratic strike action, encouraged people to cross picket lines and threatened injunctions against those planning industrial action in the education sector.

I don't think anyone in the hierarchy wants to jettison the unions as the Labour Party would go bankrupt overnight.

james said...

Anonymous - you misunderstand, Phil is refering to the constitutional links that the Labour Party has to trade union affiliates.

Those who favour jettisoning the unions would not turn down the funding, but want no role for organised labour in policymaking.

Michael Moran said...

Great post. I joined the LP partly on the strength of your reasoning for doing so. This post confirms that analysis and perspective.

MarshaJane has a good point to make. The reality of having a baby on the way and precarious employment make it harder for me to conclude that a dose of the Tories will be good for workers and progressives in the future, however correct in the abstract.

Phil said...

Anonymous - what James said. You don't have to enthusiastically cheerlead the unions to be quite comfortable with the role they currently play as the financial bedrock of the Labour party. I've met plenty of right wing Labourites like this.

In policy terms there isn't much difference between the Blairites and Brownites, but one would like to see the liquidation of Labour as is (which is extremely doubtful) while the other is quite comfortable soaking up the union readies.

James Bloodworth said...

Now let’s not allow the media to foist upon us a Blairite as leader: we’re already being told it’s David Milliband before any contest has even begun; not, as you might think, because he’s “media savvy” – as if the right-wing press cared about OUR leaders being that! – but because he is safe; the bailouts have cleared, and they wish to go back to talk about “free-markets” and “non-interference”.

How about some real change?, for a change.

K said...

It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Brown. It is likely that the new leader will be from the next generation, which will mean an almost total generational shift in leadership in Britain, with baby Boomers out and Generation Jones (the formerly “lost” generation between the Boomers and Xers) taking over in Parliament and party leadership (Cameron and Clegg also come from this generation). This has also been happening abroad and has promoted a lot of media interest, particularly in the U.S. Here’s an interesting piece from last week’s Independent about the significance this transition to Generation Jones:
Also, I thought this was a pretty decent overview about GenJones in the UK:
Finally for some light, post-election relief see this clip about Generation Jones on Jonathan Ross:

Phil said...

The mood in Labour ranks is for a proper leadership contest - a repeat coronation would be disastrous. The Blairites and Brownites know neither can simply ascend to the leader's chair and enjoy the (grudging) acceptance of the other.

Anonymous said...

I notice the bookies are tipping David Miliband so heavily thety think he is a cert.

Another evil Blarite bastard in charge, agreeing with 95% of the Tory agenda. If I tak,e your argunments to abandon the left of Labour seriously, this outcome leads me to just abandon politics altogether.


Phil said...

It would be a mistake for anyone to think all Miliband has to do is waltz into the leader's chair. He might be the front runner, but the unions aren't convinced. And under the conditions of a proper contest - like the one the Tories had in 2005 - strange things can happen.

Anonymous said...

1/100 for Tristram Hunt on Ladbrookes.

Interesting times indeed.

Mike said...

Why does someone keep posting that Generation Jones crap on every thread on the internet?

james said...

I think people are being a bit simplistic about Miliband.

Bear in mind the material conditions which existed when New Labour was created - ideological disarray following the Collapse of "actually existing" socialism, several election defeats, the strength of finance capital, etc.