More pro-capitalist than ever
Jim Moody comments on Gordon Brown's 'ministry of all the talents'
Within a couple of days following his coronation as leader Gordon Brown showed that he is determined to follow the path to the right taken by the last string of Labour leaders: Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair. He appointed a handful of carefully chosen non-Labour Party ministers, including Digby Jones, former head of the Confederation of British Industry. And in another move that has caused consternation on the Labour left he announced plans to further curb trade union influence in the Labour Party's internal workings.
David Cameron and the Tories have known Brown was coming for a long time now. But they have found themselves badly outmanoeuvred. Labour is once again ahead in the polls and there is talk of an early general election.
Showing the great advantage of holding the strings of power and patronage, Brown made a complete mockery of Tory attempt to dress him in the clothes of old Labour. Far from being the 'tribal politician' (code for Labour's working class constituency), Brown now has in place his 'government of all the talents' (excluding any 'talent' on the left, naturally).
Brown has been putting out feelers to the likes of Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, offering him the cabinet post of Northern Ireland secretary. Even though Lord Ashdown would not be wooed, Brown has achieved the impression he has sought. Unsurprisingly, he has a number of Lib Dems among his squad of advisers from the establishment and even the military. In the eyes of much of the press and media this is the act of a 'statesman'.
David Cameron's Tories will come a cropper if they stick with the zany idea that they, not Brown, are the true heirs of Blair. It is akin to the folly of Dan Quayle, who ridiculously compared himself to Jack Kennedy. It invites hubris. Blair can all too easily get up at any time and pull the rug from under such claims. Adding to Cameron's woes, Quentin Davies, elected as Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford, joined the Labour benches on the day of the prime ministerial handover.
Brown seems determined to downgrade trade union involvement at the annual conference - another move that will earn plaudits from the media. Though conference is already powerless, he is proposing to remove even the chance that it might embarrass a Labour government. Brown is pressing, via Labour's national executive, for toothless debates on general issues. Boring but safe.
Brown's intention is to bring in a 'one member, one vote' system to replace what has until now been a system which gives some considerable weight to the trade unions (and their general secretaries). This is, of course, merely the latest whittling away of conference's status. There is some speculation that the proposals to reduce union influence have been brought forward thanks to the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union. Brown does not want to see TV pictures of Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley casting two million votes at conference. Indeed, it is probably the case that the trade union bureaucracy would actually prefer backroom deals to having to cast huge block votes one way or the other. Their role is to act as intermediaries first and foremost.
None of this is new or should be a surprise, of course. It is fully within the tradition of rightwing Labour. After all, the first two Labour governments (1923 and 1929) both included Liberals. And Labour has always been a party of the two poles - workers' and bourgeois - sometimes closer to one and sometimes to the other. Brown merely continues the push towards the bourgeois pole.
In all his endeavours the weakness of the Labour left, which at best is sulking in the wings, must be a great comfort to him. To the extent that is exists at the moment it is deeply divided. There are those in the orbit of Ken Livingstone who have already been throwing bric-a-bracs. However, those close to John McDonnell talk as if there is nothing wrong. Yet the John for Leader campaign did not even manage to get him on the ballot paper. And that was despite the help coming from the camp of former war cabinet member Michael Meacher. Only 29 MPs were willing to put their names to John's nomination.
Yes, it was right to stand and in our view it was right to organise meetings up and down the country. That was the only way to push MPs and trade union leaders. But honesty is needed. Not more silly hype.
It would be wrong to put the failure of the McDonnell campaign simply down to the unwillingness of all but a few trade union leaders to come out in support. But clearly the reluctance of the union barons to endorse John was fully in accord with the way they do business: sucking up to government, backstairs deals and all the rest. This may be in their nature, but it will not necessarily do them much good. Brown seems intent on keeping down pay deals and it is even possible that the non-party element of his government could be a prelude for something like Ramsay MacDonald's 1931 national government - especially if the economy collapses in a couple of years, as some are predicting. Simpson and Woodley would have even less influence with Downing Street under those circumstances.
With or without the help of the union big guns, the plain fact of the matter is that popular imagination was not captured by the McDonnell campaign. There was certainly no rush to, or inspirational movement around, McDonnell. Of course, things began at a low ebb, but they did not end up much higher. At the close of the campaign, the national rally in the Shaw Theatre was indeed packed, but it is a small venue, holding only around 400. At his other meetings up and down the country audiences of a few dozen were typical; Hackney, one of the best, hosted about 80.
Nevertheless, there have been comforting claims about how 'bonded' and 'strong' the left now feels in terms of principle - but not 'strong' enough to be included in Brown's new team, much to the disappointment of some leftwingers (Jon Cruddas, if he counts as a leftwinger, did turn down a job offer). But why on earth would someone like McDonnell aspire to be part of this warmongering, openly capitalist Labour government? Surely the left, the genuine left inside and outside parliament, should be in open rebellion against it.
We are still nonetheless firmly of the opinion that the Labour Party is a vital site for intervention and will surely remain so for some time. After all, nothing qualitative has changed to alter the status of Labour as a bourgeois workers' party, to use Lenin's deliberately oxymoronic phrase. It is just that Brown, continuing Blair's work, continues to push toward the bourgeois side.