Liz Davies backs socialist election challenge
Why I left New Labour
LIZ DAVIES was until last year a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). This is its highest elected body. She announced on Friday of last week that she is leaving the Labour Party and lending her support to Socialist Alliance candidates at the general election. She is also supporting candidates from local left groups such as the Leeds Left Alliance at the general election. Liz Davies spoke to Socialist Worker about New Labour, the left and the prospects for socialists.
WHY HAVE YOU DECIDED TO LEAVE THE LABOUR PARTY? I JOINED the Labour Party in 1979, shortly after Thatcher was elected. The party has changed-I haven’t. My record as a Labour Party activist is extremely important to me, and if I was back in 1979 I would still have joined. What’s changed is that the Labour Party has been taken over by New Labour. After much deliberation and a great deal of thought, I have concluded that there is absolutely no possibility of bringing the Labour Party back to values of redistribution of wealth and of civil liberties. These are values that most Labour Party members believe in, but New Labour doesn’t.
WHAT HAPPENED TO BRING YOU TO THAT DECISION? I STOOD for the national executive in 1998 and 1999. I got elected by ordinary party members under one member one vote. But about a year ago I decided not to stand again. It’s been an accumulation of issues. The Asylum Act in particular is a horrendous, wicked piece of legislation. I found myself very shocked that a Labour government could put that forward.
I have been profoundly shocked by Jack Straw’s record as home secretary. There was nothing in the manifesto about abolishing the right to trial by jury. Then there is the whole economic direction of the government towards tax breaks for the rich, the widening gap between rich and poor. We have the lowest corporation tax in Europe. Big business obviously benefits from privatisation.
According to the latest available figures, 1998 and 1999, for the first time in the party’s history contributions from big business equalled contributions from the trade unions. We have seen from all the sleaze scandals that New Labour is unapologetic about that and wants to increase contributions from big business. Party members are horrified at a lot of the donors to New Labour: arms manufacturers such as BAe and Raytheon; a power company called Enron Europe, which has been the only corporation condemned by Amnesty International for human rights abuses; all the major supermarkets; and so on.
Clearly the 1997 manifesto was to a large extent New Labour, but it did contain some elements that the labour movement had been fighting for-the minimum wage, trade union recognition and a few others. They have, of course, been watered down, and New Labour has gone further in the direction of Thatcherite policies. There is no doubt that a second term New Labour government will not even feel the need to acknowledge the limited progressive policies that were there in 1997.
Sitting on the NEC and the national policy forum for two years, watching New Labour abuse, control, and try to shut down every possible expression of dissent and opinion, led me to the conclusion that there is no possibility of changing the party back. In the constituency where I live I will be voting Labour because I will be voting for Diane Abbott, and I am a very strong supporter of the few socialist Labour MPs and candidates who remain. But in general terms giving out leaflets asking for a vote for New Labour is something that I didn’t feel I could do.
THERE IS NOW A GULF BETWEEN OFFICIAL POLITICS AND PUBLIC OPINION OVER A RANGE OF ISSUES. HOW CAN THE LEFT OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE? THERE IS a huge crisis of representation. One of the things I saw on the NEC over and over again was New Labour suggesting that poor election results were not poor election results and dismissing the loss of the Labour core vote.
The loss of Sheffield council and the results in Scotland and Wales two years ago show a proportion of core Labour voters are either staying away or voting for parties that are not the Labour Party and not the Tories. New Labour refuses to address those voters’ concerns. That’s why you have this bizarre situation of a majority of public opinion in favour of renationalisation of the railways and against privatisation, but New Labour has the opposite policies.
New Labour is supposed to be the creature of focus groups and public opinion. But in reality it is very ideological and committed to Thatcherite ideas. It will keep going with that agenda. I think the Socialist Alliance is a very positive development. Of course it is very early days. But I have been impressed by a number of things. The Socialist Alliance has had some very good election results.
There is a welcome sense of unity and respect for differences within it. There is a way of working around consensus on the main points. I have been very impressed by the number of independent socialists who are not members of particular parties or groupings who are getting involved in the Socialist Alliance.
I believe it is offering a positive agenda for the disaffected core Labour voters and for socialists. It’s not the only show in town, and it is important that all the different groups locally and nationally can work together.
HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND TO LABOUR PARTY MEMBERS WHO SUPPORT THE POLICIES OF THE SOCIALIST ALLIANCE BUT SAY YOU HAVE TO STICK WITH LABOUR? YOU COULD sit here and discuss hypothetically how you should vote in particular constituencies-here is a safe Labour seat with a socialist Labour candidate and I can vote for her.
In cases where you have a Labour seat with a New Labour MP and a Socialist Alliance candidate, then I would be advocating a vote for the Socialist Alliance. This is most obvious in Hornsey and Wood Green, both because it is important to vote for Louise Christian and because it is practically a referendum on the Asylum Act in that area.
The main point, though, is that if we want a Labour government that actually feels under pressure to respond to the demands of working class people and the dispossessed then we need a substantial vote for the left. Clearly it is a daunting task to build an alternative to the Labour Party, which has been a political force for almost a century. But you have to start somewhere.
And frankly being in the Labour left now is utterly marginal. You have to ask whether there is any point being in an institution which is carrying out policies that you fundamentally oppose if there is no prospect of changing that.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GROWING ANTI-CAPITALIST MOVEMENT? I THINK Seattle was amazing, and it put the anti-capitalist movement on the map. I was struck at the time that the media started to report anti-capitalist protesters with a straight face. The movement has appealed to very many young people who were not being energised by formal politics.
It is highlighting brilliantly the stranglehold the multinationals have on our lives. That message is now gelling with popular consciousness and is not confined to the organised left. The movement is drawing links between the developed world and the developing world, and that is a basic piece of class politics.
There is a revival of the left after the bitter defeats we have suffered. I don’t think there are any blueprints as to how that will develop. To a certain extent we have to suck it and see. I am looking forward to a positive vote for the Socialist Alliance and the left. At the same time the anti-capitalist movement is drawing people in and asking a series of fundamental questions.
Socialists can be an important part of that, and can learn from some of the other forces that are involved in it as well. I have always believed in a combination of socialists standing in elections, putting themselves forward as socialists, and extra-parliamentary mobilisation. We are at a stage where that dynamic combination can again make a major impact on politics.
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