Bans could be a doubled-edged sword
Eddie Ford argues that the balance between left and right in the Labour Party is complex and symbolised by Ed Miliband courting both the traditional working class base and the overtly pro-capitalist right
Breaking a 23-year taboo, Ed Miliband on July 14 became the first Labour leader since Neil Kinnock to speak at the Durham Miners Gala - which was first held in 1871. By boycotting the gala, a celebration of working class solidarity, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were, of course, signalling that the Labour leadership was safely pro-capitalist and “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (in the infamous words of Lord Peter Mandelson). And filthy rich people do not want to be associated with ex-miners, local government workers, pensioners, the unemployed, etc, or banners bearing the images of Kier Hardie, Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Horner, Karl Marx and slogans taken from the Communist manifesto. Just not good for business.
Last year Miliband refused to attend the event. This year, however, he put aside his ideological reservations - for the time being - hoping to gain political capital from the growing ‘anti-banker’ sentiment, especially after the latest Bob Diamond/Libor scandal. Clearly too good an opportunity to miss.
Naturally, Miliband was pilloried by the Tory right for being an old-fashioned, class-war dinosaur, etc. For instance, rather stupidly (even by her standards), Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party co-chair, claimed that his appearance meant that he was “handing his party back to Kinnock” - as if Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty did not pave the way for New Labour with his anti-left witch-hunts during the mid-1980s, most prominently the expulsion of high-profile members of the Militant Tendency. Compounding her stupidity, Warsi claimed that “Red Ed” was using the Durham Miners Gala to “cosy up to his militant, leftwing union paymasters” and was “still driving the Labour Party away from the centre ground of British politics”. Old Labour is back, red in tooth and claw.
Unfortunately, Warsi’s accusations against Miliband were baseless - just like her recent, delusional, suggestion that British society was groaning under the oppressive weight of “militant secularisation”. Perhaps almost disappointingly for the more voracious sections of the rightwing press, hoping for a easy bit of political mileage by conjuring up the spectre of the ‘red menace’, Miliband’s speech in Durham was the last word in blandness. Not a single radical or controversial utterance escaped his lips. But Miliband was never going to frighten the establishment horses.
Hence brandishing his pro-Christian credentials, despite the fact that he is a self-avowed “non-believer” from a family of Jewish immigrants, Miliband sermonised at Durham about how the miners were modern-day good Samaritans who would always help their neighbour - always “looking out for each other” and “never walking by on the other side”. Yes, just like the Jesus of the Christian imagination. For Miliband, it almost goes without saying, these charitable values are also “the values of the people of Durham” - good Labour voters. Which, in turn, are a reflection of “the values of the people of the north east” and ultimately “the values of the British people” as a whole, rich or poor, worker or capitalist. Or so we are led to presume.
He went on to praise the event as a “great north east tradition” - being “proud to be here today”. After all, he whimsically speculated, “when you see people marching past, as I did from the balcony of that hotel”, then you start to realise that the gala, and life in general, is “not just about politics”, but rather “about the strengths of these communities” - which are based on “values”, just in case you have forgotten. Warming to the theme, Miliband rejected the scandalous notion that the mass of people congregated before him are a “bunch of militants” - only someone out of touch with the common decency of the ordinary Briton could say such a thing.
Miliband declared that the next Labour government would “tax the bankers’ bonuses” and “get young people working again” and concluded by vowing to “rebuild our country” on - you guessed it - the “values” of the people of Britain: ie, “responsibility, community, fairness, equality and justice”. That is Ed Miliband’s “mission” and “task”.
Now, on one level Miliband’s Durham speech was nothing more than a revolting and disingenuous exercise in pure political spin - what with the cheap John F Kennedy impersonations and the safe repackaging of the unions as signifiers of working class charm and nostalgia, reminiscent in some ways of John Major’s warm beer and cycling old maids. Remember, three days before addressing the Durham crowds, Ed Miliband attended a glittering “champagne, canapés and celebrities”, £500-a-head Labour fundraising dinner at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium - the alternative gala. One of the “celebrities” happened to be a certain Mr Tony Blair, unveiled as the Labour leader’s new sports adviser. Miliband would more likely claim that a ‘synergy’ exists between the two gatherings and he feels equally at home at both - doubtlessly true.
On the other hand, it would be profoundly mistaken to think that Miliband’s speechifying at Durham is just Blairite/New Labour business as usual - to be totally dismissed as reactionary politics and nothing more. And the same goes for his Hyde Park speech last March at the TUC-organised ‘March for the alternative’ protest - a mass display of resistance to the politics of austerity. Could you imagine Blair or Mandelson, the New Labour apostles, turning up to either event or making such speeches? Over their dead bodies, if truth be told.
Yes, ultimately, Miliband represents the politics of capitalism within the Labour Party and the wider workers’ movement - that is obvious. Unlike New Labour though, Ed Miliband’s Blue Labour - in so far as you can call it that - represents a form of working class politics, albeit one that is thoroughly nationalistic and backward. The fact remains that Miliband’s Blue Labourite recognition - and extolling - of the existence of the working class, with its “values” and “community”, does represent a partial step to the left when compared to the naked money-worship espoused by creatures like Blair, Mandelson, etc.
Therefore, as things stand now - and whatever leftist dogmatists might say - Labour has not metamorphosed into a pure and simple bourgeois party. Rather, a complex and contradictory picture emerges.
Look at the June 20 elections to the Labour NEC - that certainly did not see a victory for New Labour’s apparatchiks and clones. Essentially, there were two main slates - one from the centre-left, organised by the Grassroots Alliance, and one from the right, organised jointly by Labour First and Progress, plus some ‘independents’. In the end, five out of six of the NEC members were re-elected and the only incumbent who did not was London councillor and blogger Luke Akehurst - who was replaced by another rightwinger, Peter Wheeler. Meaning that the political balance of the NEC remains the same - with the GA on three, Progress/LF on two and one ‘independent’.
OK, hardly earth-shattering - but no rightwing clean sweep either. Blair certainly would not approve, that is for sure. The highest scoring candidate in the elections, hardly astonishingly, was Ken Livingstone - securing 31,682 votes, just ahead of long-standing NEC member Ann Black on 30,240. By most people’s understanding, Livingstone - who also topped the poll the last time elections were held in 2010 - can broadly be classified as leftwing. As for the others, the Conservative Home blog disapprovingly notes that Black has been a trade union member since 1979 and “with policies to match the era” - hence she is “sceptical” about Trident and has a “list of unaffordable, unrealistic and out of touch policies”.
Conservative Home also mentions that the Progress-backed Ellie Reeves recently attended a “very lively Karl Marx pub crawl” and that the former leader of Tower Hamlets Labour group, Christine Shawcroft (22,236 votes) earlier this month described herself as being “on the extreme left of the Labour Party” - before going on to quote her more fully: “It would have been an occasion for much mirth if the various Trot groups that were around in the 80s had been told that I would end up on the extreme left of the Labour Party. That I have done tells you a lot more about how far the party has travelled to the right than it does about me. I certainly don’t feel the need to be constantly burnishing my ideological purity. I’m much more interested in trying to connect with the party’s rank and file.”
Of course, having said that, the NEC elections do not give a full account of the current balance of forces within the Labour Party - perhaps regrettably. Plainly, the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party - carefully selected by the New Labour machine - are out-and-out careerists, who did not vote for Miliband because they regarded him as too leftwing. Nor is it the case, however much we would want it to be, that the relative influx of young people into the party over the last year or so is a uniformly progressive phenomenon. Many of them are aspiring to become councillors as the first glorious step to becoming an MP.
The idea, sometimes mooted by John McDonnell, that these people - the PLP and new young entrants - are ‘blank slates’ that can have all sorts of progressive ideas written on them if the movement is sufficiently militant, is illusory. Careerists, by definition, are not empty vessels - they want to climb up that greasy pole as quickly as possible and therefore will uncritically accept bourgeois ideology as a given. Being identified as a ‘leftwinger’, let alone a militant, will well and truly scupper their career prospects. The practical conclusion being that Labour is a necessary site of struggle, but the parliamentary party is not about to radically move to the left.
Which brings us back to the admittedly unpleasant topic of Progress, the openly Blairite/rightwing faction - and journal - founded in 1996 by Lord Mandelson and backed by Lord Sainsbury of Turville (not to mention the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer) to the tune of £260,000 a year. Lord Adonis, a former transport secretary and adviser to Tony Blair, was appointed chair of Progress in January 2012 and a number of MPs elected in 2010 are vice-chairs - including shadow cabinet member Liz Kendall. Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg is the honorary president of the group. Progress, naturally, holds its own annual conference and provides comprehensive training sessions, etc, for eager careerists and the like.
Progress is obviously a reactionary nest and thus the left has every reason to want such an alien presence driven out of the Labour Party - we should make no bones about that. But this should be done first and foremost through an open political fight for the correct political ideas in front of the whole class. Therefore left-wingers, including communists, are quite right to express deep reservations, to put it mildly, concerning the apparent attempt by the GMB union to “outlaw” Progress, basically on the grounds that it is a rightwing version of the old Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party in England and Wales).
To this end, or so it seems, a motion passed at the union’s June 11-14 congress denounced “prominent Progress members” for briefing against Ed Miliband and claimed that the organisation was responsible for persuading Labour’s front bench to “support cuts and wage restraint”. It went on to state: “Congress notes that Progress advances the strategy of accepting the Tory arguments for public spending cuts. Congress believes that such factional campaigns to undermine Labour candidates, and to soften opposition to Tory policies, endanger the unity of the party and the movement in our fight against the coalition government.”
This motion, which commits the GMB to “monitor the factional activity of Progress”, is a mixture of the supportable and the downright dangerous. Accusations of “factional campaigns” that “endanger the unity of the party” are reminiscent of the anti-Militant witch-hunt. Communists certainly think that Labour should be a federal party: that is, it should permit and welcome the existence of different groups, tendencies and factions within it - with, if they wish, their own conferences, journals, discipline, etc. If that makes them ‘parties within a party’, so be it. We want the open clash of competing and contending ideas - that should be no crime. Quite the opposite: it should be positively encouraged. How else is the working class to learn politics and self-confidence?
However, we are obviously talking about working class ideas, not those that openly propagate those of the bourgeoisie. So, yes, we look forward to the day when pro-capitalist ideas are considered beyond the pale within the Labour Party. But for that to happen will require a long, hard struggle, and years of patient work to build up the strength of the left, which at present still constitutes a minority.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny announced that the union will be putting a rule amendment to this year’s Labour conference “which, effectively, will outlaw Progress as part of the Labour Party - and long overdue it is”. If this is to be done on the grounds that Progress is engaged in “factional activity” and operates as “a party within a party”, then it is an obvious doubled-edged sword.