Saturday, 12 December 2015

I Agree With Tony Blair

I started the year with Tony Blair, so there's a certain poetry that a post about him helps close the year off. His Blairness, in a fairly substantial piece takes time out to reflect on his time in government. An essay in (Maoist) self-criticism it is not, it nevertheless sets out in clear terms what the founder of Blairism thinks of Blairism. There are some major problems with his article, not least his stubborn belief that he merely did "what worked" and there was no ideology whatsoever about his government's first preference for market mechanisms and hankering for private finance, even if it ended up costing the public purse more in the end.

This post, however, is not about critiquing Tony Blair's domestic record, but what he calls "the tragedy of the Labour Party's current position" - the capture of the party by the protest as opposed to the governing tendency. And, for once, I have some sympathy for Blair. We have a situation where 71% of members would rather Labour stay out of power if it meant compromising on policies. Is he therefore right to describe the situation as a "tragedy"?

Let's deal with one charge that's often trotted out by the Tories - the idea Labour now constitutes an ineffective opposition. Your answer to this question depends on the perspective you look at it from. On a day-to-day basis, actually, Labour's record under Jeremy hasn't been too bad so far. In an about turn from the previous position of acquiescence, the party's outright opposition to tax credits cuts was a factor, perhaps the most important factor, in forcing Osborne to think again (though they haven't entirely gone away). You might suggest the abolition of court fees and rowing back on police cuts are partly down to Labour pressure also. There is also the shift in the political weather too. For once, the toxic pall immigration has emitted over the politics scene has lifted a bit. This clearing began over the summer when the media's preoccupation with Jeremy's "novelty" prevented the refugee crisis from being capitalised by the right, much to UKIP's disadvantage, and it has remained the case since. Even the usual nonsense one can expect from an Islamist outrage seems a touch muted. There has also been a softening of austerity. Osborne could have gone on a cutting spree, but the questioning of the cuts orthodoxy has opened up politics a bit and more people are not prepared to accept the "necessity" argument anymore. Hence Osborne has dug deep down the back of the sofa and found £27bn to plug some of the gap. By the measure of things done, Jeremy's Labour appears to be doing quite well. Perhaps if some MPs were prepared to sit on their criticisms, you might conclude it could do even more.

Then there is the standpoint of an opposition supposedly being a government-in-waiting. And on this measure, well, things are a lot less peachy. Unambiguously, the Oldham by-election was an excellent result that confounded expectations. The wider picture isn't as good, unfortunately. Labour hasn't led an opinion poll since before the general election, and after an unstable start at the beginning of Jeremy's tenure the gap these last couple of months has been widening. The latest by ComRes for The Mirror sees Labour closing the gap with the Tories, but they still have an 11 point lead. Who cares about polls anyway, they got the general election wrong didn't they? Yes, the polling companies did, but not by a vast amount. And, lest we forget, they were wrong because they underestimated the Tory vote. Considering what the government is doing, we really should be doing better than this.

Moving to the strength of the party itself, in one respect Labour is stronger than it has been for a long time. At the height of Blair's popularity the party had 400,000-odd members to boast about. We're currently somewhere in the region of 360-370,000; so sorry Jeremy fans, we don't have the highest membership ever, and we're still someway off from the 1970s when we were regularly posting 600,000 fully paid up members. Nevertheless, the influx of new members since the election puts the party in a more secure financial position, gives us more activists, and upsets the apple carts in a number of constituencies where the same sclerotic cliques have presided over decline and fall for too long. Yes, some people have left. I've seen 15,000 as the estimate bandied about but, anecdotally, few are what you would describe as 'core activists'. And besides, while the majority of the new ones aren't activists either the volume means the leafleters and doorknockers who've upped sticks have been replaced, and then some. It's also worth noting a tiny number of councillors, if any at all, have defected to other parties. All okay then?

No. There is a huge job of work that has to be done. The first thing is to integrate as many new members into party activity as possible. If the preoccupation with matters online (and all that entails) is a symptom of political isolation, this can be overcome by meeting and working with fellow party members. Say what you like about Momentum, but it is taking this task seriously. Moaning MPs have a stake in making this happen too, so get your finger out if you're one of them. It's also the best school for countering the idea that principled opposition is preferable to the messiness of government. Even the most awful Labour government is preferable to a Tory administration because the damage caused by the latter falls directly on our people, among whom are the poorest and the most vulnerable. When new comrades have been about the party a bit and have seen with their own eyes and spoken with the people hammered by the Tories, principles for principles' sake should, I hope, in the majority of cases give way to practical-minded socialism, and understanding that recognises how sometimes compromise is necessary, and that to win power is not a bolt-on extra.

When politics is in flux strange things can happen, such as people like me agreeing with Tony Blair. In many ways, the party is having the best of times. It's changing the political weather, it's continuing to grow, there hasn't be an outpouring of ideas and debate like this for decades. And it's also having the worst of times - the victory of Jeremy has consolidated a disparate strand of left wing opinion, but has not spread radical politics to the wider electorate, and that is placing us in a weak position in relation to it. I wouldn't describe the situation as a tragedy. It's certainly one pregnant with awful possibilities, but it is something we can fix by all of us mucking in.


Phil said...

Penultimate paragraph pretty much nails it. Momentum hasn't transformed the party and probably isn't going to - let alone the larger group of new members who haven't even got it together to join Momentum (ahem). But those people could be very good for the party, as I think the Oldham West result demonstrates. The party just needs to welcome them (us).

As for people leaving the party, I suspect their numbers are made up for by ex-members rejoining. There are a lot of people who would spontaneously identify as Labour but for whom the party has just become a lot more congenial than it ever was under Blair or Brown, or even under Ed.

Anonymous said...

Just to point out that LP membership was never *really* 600k plus back in the 1970s. This was the "official" figure because the party then held to the fiction every CLP had at least 1,000 members. In many - most - cases it was considerably less.

IIRC this pretence was ended in the early 80s, thus leading to the numbers being halved at a stroke - but they didn't all join the SDP, not really ;)

Speedy said...

"Even the most awful Labour government is preferable to a Tory administration because the damage caused by the latter falls directly on our people, among whom are the poorest and the most vulnerable."

I share this view, however it isn't, as you point out, shared by most members, who presumably are not in a position in which the decisions of the Tory government will truly impact on their lives.

Labour is simply no longer Labour - it should rebrand itself "the Left" because it certainly no longer represents in any meaningful form the interests of "our people", as you say, but the opinions of assorted bourgeois who prefer moral purity to the messy business of actual helping people get on in their lives.

George Hallam said...

71% of members would rather Labour stay out of power if it meant compromising on policies


I think ‘office’ this is the word you were looking for.

The labour party has been in office a number of times in its history, but it has never been in power.

It is this distinction that explains the frustration of many ordinary people with the leadership.

julian1649 said...

I was one of the people sampled for YouGov's poll. IIRC, we were offered a straight choice between 'principles' and 'electability' (or 'don't know'), with no other nuanced position possible. Faced with that I opted for'principles' knowing that it didn't accurately reflect my position. Of course compromises are going to be necessary. But the leadership of John and Jeremy gives us the prospect of a programme that may not be perfect but gives us something worth fighting for.

Igor Belanov said...

The membership at the height of Blair's 'popularity' was swelled by the £1 annual membership fee at the time. Bargain basement politics indeed.

Unknown said...

Take first the sticking to policies point. If we look at a current example. That of the Syria debate. There was in the space of a few days a 12% swing towards Labours position. Indeed making this the majority position.

What must be borne in mind is that a high number of things are not concrete. For instance if a reconsideration of the top tax rate was done it would not equate to a position if a general approach to redistribution/equality/fairness is maintained.

Therefore I would be wary of assuming an extremist/intransigence by these numbers. Indeed I think it is laudable. A shift in the political spectrum should indeed be a primary aim.

The article then proceeds to claim Labours done good things but they should be doing better. Quoting the Oldham by election. Considering the media hammering he has had (This is not mentioned in the entire piece) I am not so sure.

He then talks of membership. Surely a key message here should be the loss of members since the numbers stated under Blair. Also the reduction in electoral turnout that happened from 1997-2001 and the ongoing trend is perhaps noteworthy. Though I am unsure if there is a consanguineous relationship between the two.

Polls and divisions are then looked at.

Firstly the polls. Now from the link that this issue goes to suggests these numbers are from a purely quantitative poll. I think the polling is linked to divisions and/or perceptions of divisions rather than electoral support. And of course especially relevant here is the ‘Elephant in the room’ that is ignored through the whole piece. That of media bias and its influence on peoples perceptions and judgement of future events, both in light of their awareness of the bias and from the bias.

The question of divisions is an interesting one. I think personally this is primarily the parliamentary Labour Party being largely at odds with the membership AND the electorate. The piece on ‘Polly Toynbee, Jeremy Corbyn and the acceptable limits of acceptable politics’ implies this. I shall post it shortly.

It also very effectively challenges what is mainstream, popular, left and right. I have many thoughts on this but think I will leave it here for now.