Monday, 8 June 2009

Where Left?

If you glance the Guardian over the next few days, you'll see the same mouldy old opinion piece again and again - this election was not the victory of Conservative, hyper-Conservative and Nazi ideology, it says. Instead, it's just that there's a lack of je ne sais quoi about the incumbent party, the clear fault of boring Mr. Brown.

Other columns have this redundant thesis - that there is a natural cycle, established by Thatcher and then Blair, in which centre-left and centre-right take turns to move the country forward a decade at a time. Labour are unpopular because the very forces of nature decree it, and we'll have our turn again in 2020.

Many left bloggers shout for a spontaneous eruption of feeling, either within the Labour Party or outside it, which will throw out the bad leaders and supplant BNP voters' false consciousness with a genuinely popular party, winning elections from the grassroots. Now these rats are hurling themselves suicidally off their sinking ship, but we still see no changes.

All these people are wrong. Not just wrong, but their pleasingly sewn-up conclusions are reinforcing the very apathy at the core of the problem. Our party needs radical surgery to survive, but it is much easier to take a placebo and pray.

What would this radical surgery consist of? I can't say exactly - but I can give a broad overview - the party needs to become accountable to its members in a way that makes party membership worth participating in. The party needs to become as radically liberal as the public mood, and throw off its hard-won reputation for being curmudgeonly and authoritarian by restoring a shedload of lost rights and finding a way to capture the national imagination by going further.

There is an enormous paradox hanging over our recovery in that it depends both on a grassroots resurgence and on being backed by the big money necessary to fight modern campaigns. Handled well, this can become a virtuous cycle, of election victories and populism of the sort that Obama courted. Handled badly, electors will smell the sleaze oozing from the heart of an abandoned party.

A view from Yorkshire (reposted from Labourhome)

For the first time in my life I feel a bit ashamed to be from Yorkshire.

We were the first to send a British fascist to Brussels.

I think back to the 90s when I was a strong advocate of devolution to Yorkshire, after 18 years of a Tory government we didn’t support, Thatcher’s war on the Yorkshire miners (followed by Heseltine’s Cold War on the miners); Thatcherite bankers declaring that recession in the north was a price worth paying for growth in the south.

For us to be the first (in England at any rate) to send a far-right MEP to Brussels is humiliating and heart-breaking. And not just any far-right MEP: Andrew Brons, former leader of the National Front. A Nazi.

But we need to analyse it.

6000 fewer people voted BNP in Yorkshire in 2009 than in 2004. This was not some great upsurge of support for the BNP or their policies in this county. This was not some great defection from Labour to BNP (though I’m sure some voters did make that switch, this was not the headline issue).

What happened was, on the night of a record low turnout, Labour voters didn’t vote. When they did vote, many of them scattered themselves amongst the other parties in protest, in fury, in thought-out defection, and some in sadness.

As such, the BNP did not need to increase their vote. They just needed to hold it up as much as possible.

So while the events of last night which hurt the most are the scenes of BNP jubilation, their apparent successes do not contain the most important lessons. Nation-wide, fewer than 3% of people chose to register a vote for the BNP. This was despite a more professional and active national campaign than they have ever done before, and despite the quite effective masking of their fascistic and Nazi core. Even in Yorskhire, less than 10% of the 35% of people who bothered to vote at all voted for the BNP.

The 65% of people who didn’t vote at all should be of much greater concern to us. Many of those people are those whose votes we used to be able to rely on.

Why have they deserted us? Let’s not imagine that it is all to do with expenses. Yes the expenses have added to a general cynicism and anti-politics feeling, but it didn’t create it. And we would have had a dreadful night if the election were a month or so ago too.

We didn’t earn people’s votes. We didn’t give them enough reasons to vote for us.

I mean, politically, partly because the mood of the popular media is that Labour is finished, we have become poor at ‘the game’. The economic signs are actually that Brown’s approach might well have been quite successful. There are some signs of recovery, banks here are going to be in a position to start paying the tax-payer back sooner than elsewhere, etc, etc. - we’ve just lost the ability to sell that.

But also we’ve lost that connection to reality that should tell us that that isn’t enough. Because that doesn’t house anybody, that doesn’t help somebody who lost their job last month, or is likely to lose it next month. Talk of green shoots is just offensively ironic to those people.
We’ve lost other things too. We’ve lost the moral high ground. Yes, expenses played a part in that, but policies played a bigger part. Illegal wars, illiberal anti-terror laws and heartless welfare reforms have - for many - made us the nasty party.

We’ve lost our sense of purpose. I hate the word ‘narrative’ in a political context, but we don’t have one. Certainly don’t have a positive one. 10 more months of Labour (unless something wholly unexpected happens in that election) - what is that government FOR? We will all have ideas about what it should be for, but I don’t sense any communication of what Brown, or the people around him, believe it should be for.

We need a radical agenda for the last months of this term. That radical agenda has to be rooted in real policies that produce real, tangible and measurable improvements in people’s lives: new houses, new jobs, repossessions halted, etc. rather than more academic, constitutional change that - while much of it necessary - should not be at the top of our priority list while unemployment and homelessness still rises.

I’ve kept out of the leadership discussion as much possible this time as it has essentially been a tiresome personality clash within the time-serving husk of what was once New Labour.
But if Brown won’t lead a government with that radical agenda, then he will need to be toppled and replaced with somebody who will.
It is all we have left.