Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2102

Which way now for the left?

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
Gordon Brown has concluded that his trashing in local elections earlier this month means that Labour needs to move further to the right. Socialist Worker spoke to a range of leading figures and activists on the left to gauge their response, and to ask
Issue 2102

The collapse of the Labour vote and the resurgence of the Tories in the recent local elections sent a shiver down the spine of millions and should have sounded the death knell for New Labour.

The strategy of triangulation – copying the Tories’ right wing policies in the hope that it would rob the opposition of anything to say – first practiced by Tony Blair and then by Gordon Brown ought now to be judged a failure.

Labour’s policy of making war on its own supporters through wage cuts and changes to taxation policy should have been consigned to the dustbin.

And the continuing catastrophes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have been dealt with by an the announcement of the withdrawal of British troops.

Yet rather than seeking a new political direction, it seems that Brown and his cabinet have decided that, in order to recapture lost voters, a further shift to the right is required.

Leaflets produced for this week’s by‑election in Crewe and Nantwich mocked the Tory candidate for being a “Tory-boy toff”, but made no commitment to reducing the income inequality that has grown so steadily through 11 years of Labour government.

Instead Labour decided to play the race card, claiming its candidate will “listen and respond to people’s concerns about immigration”, while accusing the Tories of being soft on migrants because their candidate “opposes making foreign nationals carry an ID card”.

This lurch rightwards will do nothing but intensify the debate about how the left should respond to New Labour, and how we can stop the Tories at the next election.

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich

‘As a party, I think that we have lost contact with the working class. Our relations with the unions and our core supporters are at their lowest ebb and, unless we make a dramatic turn back to the class, things will not get any better.

The only way to neutralise the threat of the right is for Labour to make a sharp turn to the left.

In policy terms we are just not doing enough to help working people and their families – particularly on the issue of housing, which is what most of my constituents want to talk to me about.

We also need to think seriously about the way our party is led. Cabinet ministers need to speak out more on issues that they feel strongly about, as do backbench MPs.

But I think that it is the unions that have the key role. They are in the frontline of policies on pay and privatisation and they should be standing up.

That fightback has already started but the TUC needs to co-ordinate a wider response – and it needs to show the government that it has got teeth.

If that were to happen, I believe that it might remind the party of what it is supposed to stand for.’

George Monbiot, writer and activist

‘It seems that large numbers of people have gone into pre-emptive hiding because they are scared of a future Tory government. My response to that threat is – who cares?

This Labour government has squandered every opportunity to make Britain a more just nation. Instead we have had to suffer the most right wing administration since the Second World War.

I’m amazed to hear myself say this because it is not what I believed was going to happen just over ten years ago.

But today we have a business secretary who thinks that billionaires are our best citizens, while his deputy is a former head of the bosses’ CBI organisation. And of course the entire cabinet has been party to the war crimes that are Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is clear to me that we need a left wing alternative to New Labour. That must either emerge from a coup inside Labour, which kicks out the neoliberal impostors that currently run the party, or it will have to come from people outside of the party.

Either way the trade unions must play a central role in the process. I think we need to keep asking them why they support the government that is attacking them, and what it would take for them to break from Labour.

I know that either option will be hard – and that we’ve already had a few false dawns – but I don’t believe that staying with New Labour is an option.’

Mick McGahey, Secretary of Lothian health Unison

‘The reasons for Labour’s collapse are in the withering of its roots. To see just how far we have come I need only to look back to the 1980s when I was a miner.

The majority of our NUM union reps were active in either the Communist Party or on the Labour left. Today, of the 80 shop stewards in my Unison branch, the number of Labour activists can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The fact is that trade unionists are having exactly zero influence on the Labour Party at a national level. That means the left must have an honest and serious discussion about what we want to be the future relationship between the trade unions and Labour.

I’m not sure that we are yet at the point were we can start to discuss a new organisation, but perhaps that will come after we’ve decided on our future in the Labour Party.’

Baljeet Ghale, President of the NUT union, 2007-08

‘The policies of this New Labour government have moved so far to the right that they’ve shifted the whole political agenda.

Now the Tories are benefiting – and even the Nazi British National Party can now get elected to the London assembly.

As a result political debate has moved so far that there is little difference between the policies of New Labour and the Tories.

New Labour’s message to the population is that privatisation is always good and anything owned by the people is bad.

Government policies in education have encouraged competition between schools and made teachers and students feel like failures – buildings are falling apart and class sizes are growing.

Our overworked teachers aren’t paid enough to deal with rising living costs and crap housing.

We need to stop the Tories getting into government – but the last thing we should do is line up behind Gordon Brown.

We should vote Labour if its policies are right but the idea we should back it unconditionally is absurd.’

John Rees, National secretary Respect/The Left List

‘After more than a decade in power New Labour is facing a serious crisis. Its failure to deliver for its core working class supporters – who are threatened more than ever by the recession – is the direct cause of the Tory revival.

Previous Labour governments in the late 1960s and late 1970s reached similar points of exhaustion. Such crises always produce two broad reactions on the left.

One is to batten down the hatches and attempt to suppress all criticism of the government on the basis that the Tories will be worse.

The problem with this approach is that it demobilises the very people upon whom a Labour government must depend for its support – trade unionists, anti-war campaigners, anti-racists and the tens of thousands who are fighting to defend the welfare state.

Rather than rescue the government this strategy further undermines it and makes the situation worse.

The second approach is to insist that Labour can help to save itself if it begins to defend those who elected it.

Even now Gordon Brown can reverse Labour’s decline by making three announcements – that the troops will come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, privatisation will end and a programme of council house building will begin.

The left, however, cannot just wait and hope that New Labour will abandon its almost religious faith in the market.

We must act now to gather around us the widest possible coalition of those who want to keep fighting for an alternative to New Labour.

We need to co-operate together to build opposition on all fronts where we are faced with the threat of neoliberal economic policy and neoconservative foreign policy.

And we need to continue the patient work of constructing a genuine political alternative to the establishment-big business consensus.’

Sally Hull, GP in east London

‘I think that since 1997 Labour has implemented some positive policies in the NHS. There has been an increase in the amount of money spent, and some significant moves to end the “postcode lottery”.

Nevertheless there is a growing scepticism among the public about the way the government is presenting the issues.

Firstly, we have seen an attempt to scapegoat health professionals – and GPs in particular – for the failings of the system.

This hits a lot of Labour-supporting health workers who are based in deprived areas. They are practicing there rather than in some leafy suburb because they believe in the NHS, not because they are it for the money.

Secondly, we can see real cynicism in the way that Labour is promoting its agenda, and polyclincs are a prime example. The government says that the move towards these clinics – which will replace many local GP surgeries, be difficult for the most vulnerable people to access, and will invariably be run by private companies – has massive popular support. That is simply not true.

The consultation that they base their statements on was a sham, and the fact that the government keeps using it creates the feeling that ministers are deliberately manipulating public opinion for their own ends.

Thirdly, there is the question of privatisation. Personally I’m not completely opposed to the free market but this government has such a blinkered view – that the market has become the only mechanism to deliver services.

By awarding multinational firms contracts to run GP surgeries we see the department of health ignoring all evidence based policy research.

I’m not sure what Labour can do if it wants to win the next election.

Perhaps it needs a spell in opposition as an opportunity to regenerate. Certainly it could use that time to rid itself of the implicit Thatcherism that dominates it today.’

Prem Sikka, Tribune and Guardian columnist

‘At the moment we have the best democracy that money can buy. As long as we allow the rich to fund our Labour Party, we will have policies that only benefit big business.

You can see the process at work in the way that ministers talk only to a closed circle of company bosses, and the government then fails to implement any real reforms.

Take the issue of price fixing. Lots of former public utilities and big supermarkets are guilty of it and millions of consumers are being forced to pay extortionate prices for their food, gas and electricity as a result.

If bosses who are guilty of price fixing went to jail for five years we might see an end to the practice. But under this government no such policy is going to be brought forward because of the influence of big business.

It’s time that MPs and citizens started putting real pressure on the government over issues like this.’

Paul Cox, CWU union rep, Nine Elms mail centre, London

‘I was gutted when the Tories won in London – not just because of what they represent, but also because many workers at my mail centre had told me they were voting for Boris Johnson.

That was a direct result of the way the government treated us during last year’s post strike.

Most of those people were very pleased at measures like the minimum wage, but now they look at inflation, and they ask, why is the government holding our wages down at a time like this?

For that reason it is vital that trade unions stand their ground on issues like pay and pensions. If they don’t even more people will desert Labour – and maybe even vote for the right.

Right now the government is on its knees and we should seize the moment. I want the leaders of my union to meet with Gordon Brown and say, if you want our continuing support then you had better stop the attacks on our pensions and on public services.’

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