So if things weren’t bad enough for Gordon Brown, it looks like the Labour Party has been taking big donations from Tory voters and small builders. Or at least that’s what David Abrahams the shy, retiring and seemingly eccentric millionaire would have us believe.
Apparently, a number of confused and shocked members of the public have been stunned to discover that their bank accounts have been used to transfer funds to the Labour Party on behalf of Mr Abrahams. This all sounds a bit fishy. Could it be that another scandal akin to the cash for honours is in the offing? Is it another case of corruption? Can we expect a new episode of "Our friends in the North"?
The North East is forever linked to the corruption trial of T Dan Smith and John Poulson which took place in 1974. Inevitably, the recent revelations around David Abrahams have brought comparisons with the fictionalised account of the circumstances leading to the downfall of Dan Smith in the drama "Our friends in the North". But as Mark Twain observed, "History doesn’t repeat itself – at best it sometimes rhymes". After all, it’s not unknown for Labour politicians to receive funds from undesirable quarters, but the circumstances aren’t always the same.
It is quite possible that Abrahams as an individual is nothing more than an eccentric with a lot of money and a shy nature, but the whole issue brings into sharp focus the relationship between the right wing of the Labour Party and big business.
It’s well known that Blair and his mentor Peter Mandelson admired rich people and sought their company. It’s also clear that to a large extent Blair’s crusade to "modernise" the Labour Party was a very thinly veiled attempt to sanitise the Party in the interests of big business and quarantine it from working class people and particularly Socialist ideas. Unfortunately for the right wing, it’s life under capitalism and people’s own life experience that infects them with socialist ideas. The best sections of the Labour movement are a living embodiment of "Socialismo difficile" and no amount of spin doctoring can eradicate that.
Blair consistently sought to raise finance from rich backers and so reduce the strength of the unions in the party. But, in the long run it’s impossible for the Labour Party to be as efficient a vessel for the bourgeois as the Tories and inevitably the bulk of big business is a fair weather friend, if that. But in the meantime, the gravy train has rumbled on. Doubtless the corporate world, the world of rich capitalists, wealthy "friends" and mutual back scratching has provided many of the parliamentary right wing with opportunities for favours to be sought and granted and if not "cash for honours" to be provided as such; certainly there have been many opportunities for "mutual advancement".
It’s a different world light years away from the life of ordinary workers on the housing estates, in the factories and the offices, who get in hock with credit cards and end up still paying for Christmas months later. The parliamentary life style in and of itself is corrosive, taking even some of the best MPs away from their roots and exposing them to massive pressure from alien class forces. But that was the case anyway… before the rise of Tony Blair. The best that we can say now is that those pressures will be far worse.
There are a number of important lessons from the T Dan Smith and Poulson case which blew up in the early 1970s.
T Dan Smith was from a working class background in Wallsend. He was unemployed in the 1930s and eventually became a painter and decorator. He became active in the Independent Labour Party before becoming a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose main theoretician was Ted Grant. After leading a war time shipyard strike, by 1945 Dan was in the Labour Party. But he joined as an individual, having abandoned a Marxist perspective.
Dan was articulate and managed a meteoric rise in the local party. He became leader of the council in Newcastle and became known as either politely as "Mr Newcastle" or impolitely as "The mouth of the Tyne". Certainly he was a charismatic character who sought to make Newcastle the "Brasilia of the North", although Brrrrrrzilia might have been more appropriate given the weather! But as the proverb says "the road to hell is full of good intentions". It was noted early on that half of all the council house painting contracts went to Dan’s firm.
Dan’s urge to make money soon became entangled with his political aspirations as "Wikipedia" explains "In 1962 he established a public relations firm firm to support redevelopment of other urban centres in the north-east, and later nationwide. This company formed links with John Poulson, an architect keen for the business and known for paying those who could supply it".
Poulson had a big nationwide network of councillors and others who were on his payroll. Not huge amounts of money, but just enough to turn the heads of enough people in the right places. Literally hundreds of public buildings were built – including Swan House in Newcastle, Cannon Street Station in London, much of Aviemore, and Leeds City House, as well as buildings overseas. Poulson eventually came unstuck when he went bankrupt and his web was unearthed. The national Labour Party launched an internal enquiry but, as one old councillor said to me about 10 years later, "they came and asked us loads of questions, but they never found much out about what had been going on".
Sections of the regional Labour Party fought the corruption. In one instance Eddie Milne the MP for Blyth, who was hardly a left winger, broke from the party and stood as an Independent Labour candidate on an anti-corruption ticket. Although the Marxists grouped at that time around the Militant stood against the corruption, the tendency opposed the standing of independent candidates as it basically left the right wing in control and weakened the opposition within the party. Milne won in February 1974, but was defeated in October that year in the general election. All manner of sectarian groups including the Socialist Workers’ Party (then the IS) jumped on the bandwagon of the Blyth Independent Labour Party but, once Eddie Milne was defeated, the organisation collapsed.
The lessons from the T Dan Smith and Poulson case are clear:
- There is low level as well as high level corruption
- Only a democratic Labour party with a mass active working class membership can really prevent corruption, by taking control of the party.
- The fight needs to take place inside the party, not carping from the sidelines in little sectarian groups.
With respect to the issues of today, the situation is different. The corruption is more subtle. It’s the trappings of power and the lifestyle that it brings. It’s the influence of the bourgeoisie in the Labour Party, and it’s the ongoing attempts of the right wing to smash the links with the unions.
The lessons are more or less the same there are bound to be further revelations as Blair’s legacy unravels and the Tories set their sights on Gordon Brown and the people around him.
- Break the links with Big Business,
- Open the Labour Party books, for a labour movement enquiry into big business funding
- Don’t stand on the sidelines. Reclaim the Labour Party!