Before the dead body of Miliband’s Labour leadership was even cold, the Blairites were lining up to try and pull the party further to the right. As various contenders throw their hats into the ring of the leadership contest, the question must be asked: is a move towards the so-called political “centre-ground” really the panacea to all of Labour’s problems?
Before the dead body of Miliband’s Labour leadership was even cold, the Blairites – old and new – were lining up in the wake of Labour’s electoral defeat to try and pull the party further to the right. As various contenders throw their hats into the ring of the leadership contest, the question must be asked: is a move towards the so-called political “centre-ground” really the panacea to all of Labour’s problems?
Blairite vultures descend
As the scale of Labour’s defeat became apparent on 8th May, Ed Miliband was left with little option but to resign. But it wasn’t only the Tories who were celebrating and popping open the champagne the morning after the election. After shedding a few crocodile tears and paying some obligatory lip service about Miliband’s “brave” and “courageous” campaign, various New Labour acolytes – with smug smiles on their faces – were weighing in about Ed’s errors, admonishing the (now former) Labour leader for straying from the chosen path.
All manner of Blairite grandees – a veritable rogues gallery of Lords and the warlord Blair himself– quickly jumped in, falling over themselves in their haste to blame “Red Ed” and his left-wing (?), anti-business (?!?) programme for Labour’s defeat. Lord Mandelson, Lord Hutton, Lord Reid, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, and even Ed’s brother David, the former foreign secretary: all of them hovered and circled like vultures as the general election results came in, diving in at the first opportunity to fight over the future of the wounded Labour beast. All proclaimed the same old Blairite mantra: the need for Labour to “return to the centre ground” in order to win.
Outlining his thoughts (to an electorate who would rather see the back of him), Blair, one of the founders of the New Labour, asserted in the Guardian (9th May 2015) that, “the route to the summit lies through the centre ground. Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care.”
“We have to appeal to those running businesses as well as those working in them,” everyone’s favourite war criminal stated. “We need to persuade people that we will run the economy well and efficiently…We have to conduct the big argument on the wealth-creating potential of the macro-economy, not only the targeted campaign on the injustices of it.”
According to the Independent, Miliband the Elder echoed such comments, criticising his younger brother for failing“to do enough to woo the middle classes.” Elsewhere in the same paper, it is reported that Lord Mandelson, the former strategy chief and so-called ‘Prince of Darkness’, “described Labour’s approach under its now-former leader as a “giant political experiment” that went wrong, and said that the situation Mr Miliband left the party in was “akin to sort of challenge we faced in the late 1980s””; “Miliband had made a “terrible mistake” when he ditched New Labour to take the party towards the left wing.”
Former home secretary, Alan Johnson, meanwhile chipped in by claiming that, “we can no longer relate to them [voters] as a party of aspiration. And that was one of the big successes that won us three elections.”
It is often asserted that the Left needs “new ideas”; but who needs new ideas when you can just regurgitate the same old drivel from the past!? Socialists are frequently accused of being the ones who want to take Labour back to the past (how dare anyone suggest that workers have such outrageous demands as access to a job and a house, a living wage, and free, public healthcare and education!), but here we have a hoard of wrinkled Blairite ex-cabinet ministers who want to take us back to the 90s!
“I mean it’s an incredible thing now,” Alan Johnson started, “that I was part of a successful government that did really good things, but you’d think that Tony Blair had lost us three elections, not won us three elections, it’s almost de rigeur now not to mention his name.”
Unfortunately for Mr Johnson, Blair’s name is not quite as popular amongst ordinary people as he seems to think, with both Blair and the New Labour brand being associated for most workers and youth as the party of war, privatisation, and fees.
For these learned ladies and gentlemen, it’s almost as if the last seven years of crisis, struggle, and radicalisation had never happened. Completely out-of-touch with reality and the lives of ordinary workers and youth, such professional politicians cannot possibly comprehend that the world of today ordinary is not the same as that of 1997 (or 2001, or 2005). Whilst life may well have improved for such figures – who are no doubt paid very handsomely in their new roles as consultants, advisors, orators, and members of the House of Lords – for the vast majority, things have most certainty deteriorated as a result of the crisis of capitalism and the ensuing austerity.
What is needed and wanted now is not a patronising appeal to “aspiration”, but an explanation and a fighting programme that offers a solution to the real problems that the working class faces: on jobs and wages; on housing and health; and on transport, education, and other public services.
The myth of the “centre ground”
Blair and co. like to hark on about the “centre-ground”: a mythical, timeless, objective monolith that apparently exists outside of time and space; an abstract universal truth that cannot be questioned; a utopian, Platonic ideal to which all parties much conform. According to these careerists, the God of the “centre-ground” is sacrosanct – all leaders must bow before it.
At the same time, the “centre-ground” is a mirage, like the sight of an oasis in the desert for a thirsty traveller who has gone mad from dehydration. As one moves towards “the centre-ground” out of desperation to win votes, one finds out that this hoped for salvation does not, in fact, exist. All the evidence of the recent elections demonstrates that the so-called “centre-ground” is indeed nothing but a fiction and a fantasy; a figment of the imagination in the eyes of those who are completely beholden to the bosses, bankers, and the right-wing press.
One only has to look at the biggest losers in this election to prove the point. Throughout the run up to the vote, it was Nick Clegg, the (then) leader of the Liberal Democrats, who claimed to represent the “centre-ground”. And yet, what was the outcome for the Nick and the Lib-Dems? Complete electoral annihilation.
After five years of participation in the hated Coalition, and with Tories on the right and Labour to the left, the supposedly solid, sturdy, and stable base of the “centre-ground” (that is, cuts and austerity, but with “compassion”, “care” and a sprinkle of social liberalism) collapsed beneath the feet of Clegg and the Liberals. The result was the loss of 49 MPs, including high profile figures such as Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, and Simon Hughes, leaving the party with only eight seats in parliament.
Despite this obvious failure of the strategy of capturing the “centre-ground”, this is nevertheless what is advocated by Blair, Mandelson, and co. If one assumes that Labour lost the election by being too left-wing, then one would also have to conclude – by looking at the example of the Liberal Democrats’ recent performance – that the Labour Party would have to be even more right-wing than Clegg’s pro-austerity party in order to win.
Indeed, if the aim is to win over Tory and UKIP voters, then Labour – as the Blairites have themselves stated – must pander to Tory and UKIP rhetoric over austerity and immigration. The reality, however, is that the centre-ground has collapsed and consciousness has polarised on the basis of events. In looking for a way out of the crisis, there will be swings both to the left and to the right. But the way to win over those who have bought into the anti-immigrant demagoguery of populists such as Farage is not by aping them, but by offering a bold, socialist alternative to the question of jobs, housing, and public services.
At the same time, almost one-third of the electorate did not vote at all. Again, what is more likely: that these were people choosing not to vote because there was no party right-wing enough for them? Or that these were abstentions on the basis of an anti-Establishment sentiment – a feeling that voting doesn’t matter because “they’re all the same”; that “they don’t represent us”; that the real decisions are not taken in Westminster and Whitehall, but in the City and Canary Wharf?
Lessons from Scotland
Rather than trying to win elections by proving their “fiscal responsibility” and promising to match the Tories on cutting the deficit, as Miliband and Balls attempted in the recent election campaign, the Labour leaders should be looking across border to Scotland, where Labour was demolished – not by a party that tried to copy the Tories, but by a party that gave a fiery, anti-austerity message.
For the Blairites, however, the SNP’s victory is conveniently not seen as being one based on an anti-austerity programme that could be emulated in England and Wales, but is the result of crude Scottish nationalism – as if the question of independence for Scots can be separated from the hatred that exists towards the Tories, Westminster politicians, and whole the Establishment, alongside a burning desire for more control over their own lives.
“Scotland is a vast challenge,” Blair himself states in the same article for the Guardian, “But we will never win it back by being more “Scottish” and more “left”. We will win when we confront the whole ideology of nationalism, which is a reactionary philosophy masquerading as progressive; and when we present the people of Scotland with policies that are forward-looking, progressive and not based on the myth that Scotland’s problems will be solved by a different relationship with England, any more than England’s problems will be solved by leaving Europe.”
Ironically, however, in Scotland, Labour had an arch-Blairite at the helm, in the form of the recently elected Scottish Labour leader (and even more recently defeated as a parliamentary candidate) Jim Murphy – and what a tremendous effect that had! Again, it is by copying the Tories and joining forces with them in the “Better Together” pro-union campaign that Labour have dug their own grave in Scotland, with the party now being labelled as “Red Tories” by many workers and youth. In trying to imitate the Conservatives with a return to New Labour policies, therefore, Labour only risks being lumped in as part of the Establishment everywhere.
The incredible rise of the SNP in Scotland, who won 56 out of the 59 seats available, alongside the surge in support for the Green Party (who quadrupled their vote), demonstrates that workers and youth everywhere are looking for a bold alternative to austerity, not a Tory-lite version of economics. As John McDonnell, Labour MP, recently said, “As Blairites prepare for recapture of Labour party, let’s be clear, it was a party standing on anti-austerity ticket that swept the board.”
Others were even more vocal with their opposition to calls for a return of New Labour. Clive Lewis, the newly elected Labour MP for Norwich South, correctly declared that Labour was already failing in trying to occupy the centre ground, stating that a “bolder and more radical” stance was needed. “New Labour is dead and buried,” Lewis militantly asserted upon being elected, “and it needs to stay that way. We need something different that can offer an alternative to the politics of fear that’s at the core of what this government represents.”
Attack of the clones
Two current shadow ministers from the latest breed of Blairite creatures have already thrown down the gauntlet and announced their intention to stand. Both Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, and Liz Kendall, the shadow social care minister, have staked their claim to the throne – both repeating the same old Blairite tropes that Labour must be the party of “aspiration”, “business”, and the “middle ground”. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home affairs secretary, and Tristam Hunt, the shadow education secretary, are also being touted for the Labour leadership contest.
Elsewhere, the choice for deputy leader is being presented as a battle between Tom Watson – the likely trade union backed candidate – and a variety of other as yet unspecified figures from the centre and right of the party.
For the leadership contest, the right wing of the party will likely rally around Umunna, a former City lawyer, who has already received the implicit backing of old Blairite figures such as Lord Mandelson, with the two even appearing next to one-another on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. In a piece for the Guardian (9th May 2015), Umunna echoed the mantra of his Blairite predecessors and backers:
“Why did we do so badly there? First, we spoke to our core voters but not to aspirational, middle-class ones. We talked about the bottom and top of society, about the minimum wage and zero-hour contracts, about mansions and non-doms. But we had too little to say to the majority of people in the middle.
“Second, we allowed the impression to arise that we were not on the side of those who are doing well…we talked too little about those creating wealth and doing the right thing.
“…you cannot be pro good jobs without being pro the businesses that create them. In spite of the fact that our policy offer was pro-business, the rhetoric often suggested otherwise.
“…We need a different, big-tent approach – one in which no one is too rich or poor to be part of our party. Most of all, we need to start taking large numbers of votes directly from the Conservatives.” (Our emphasis)
No wonder the Blairites of Mandelson and co. like the man so much – he is another Blair clone! As the founding father of New Labour himself believed, so Umunna has declared also: the task ahead of Labour is to out-Tory the Tories!
Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing
Andy Burnham, a contender in the 2010 Labour leadership election and current shadow health secretary, is likely to stand again as a “Miliband Mark II”, courting the trade union vote as a candidate who, like Ed before him, can put forward a left-sounding reformist programme, but without the social awkwardness and inability to eat a bacon sandwich.
Again like Miliband in the previous leadership election, however, any attempt to gain the backing of the unions by Burnham this time round will be on the basis of extreme opportunism. Burnham’s left credentials are dubious at best, having himself consistently backed Blairite policies in the past. For example, when running in the 2010 leadership contest, Burnham stated:
“I think Labour did really good things, and at the beginning of New Labour we said things that connected with the public – that we would be tough on crime, that we would be pro-business and that we would really support those who want to get on in life – and Labour mustn’t walk away from some of those really important messages that we made.”
“I was in parliament at the time [of the Iraq war] and I voted for the war…I mean I’ve been over and over it in my mind many times since because obviously it was a huge decision and people still have very, very strong views about it. I, with hindsight, could look back and say well maybe that could have been done differently and that wasn’t quite right, but I don’t back away from the original decision. I think it gave twenty or so million people in Iraq hope of a better life and you just cannot walk away from that truth, and that’s so important to say.”
Genuine left-wing options for the leadership may include long-standing, relative unknowns, such Jon Trickett, deputy chair of the party, and Ian Lavery, former president of the NUM (National Union of Miners) and chair of the parliamentary Trade Union Group. Although new Labour leadership election rules give less weight to the careerist MPs in the parliamentary Labour Party, the challenge for any real Left candidate will be to get past the first hurdle: to find the support of at least 35 MPs, 15% of Labour’s 232 total in parliament – a hurdle that thwarted John McDonnell in his past two leadership bids as the socialist candidate, and this at a time when the barrier was lower, at only 12.5% of the total number of Labour MPs.
With the new electoral rules in place, it is possible that the trade union vote could, however, be even more influential that in the 2010 leadership election. The voting system is now “one member, one vote”, but with the addition that affiliated supporters – e.g. Labour supporting trade union members – can now vote, with a parity of weighting between the votes of affiliated supporters and actual Labour Party members.
The Labour leadership were proud to announce an increase of 20,000 party members in the wake of the general election, taking the total to over 220,000. But the major unions such as Unite, Unison, and the GMB, meanwhile, are busy trying to sign their members up as politically affiliated supporters, with some estimating that such trade union voters might provide as much as 250,000 votes to the final count, outweighing the votes of party members.
Although the unions are themselves no longer responsible for sending out ballot papers to members, which previously allowed the union leaders to provide a pro-Ed endorsement to every voting member, the trade union leadership still has an enormous ability to influence the outcome of the leadership contest. At the same time, the distortedly large influence of the parliamentary Labour Party vote has gone. As the Financial Times (11th May 2015) commented, “By introducing “one member one vote”, Ed Miliband may therefore have handed more power to the union grassroots.”
Len McCluskey and the other major union leaders must learn the lesson from last time: do not be taken in by opportunists and careerists who promise the world and pose left, only to later turn on those who have brought them into power. As the Bible teaches, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15).
Fight back with socialist policies!
In order to galvanise union members into voting, however, the trade union leaders need to be vocal and clear about what is needed from a future Labour Party leader. What went wrong in the elections? Why is political representation relevant and important for workers? And which path is the way forward for the labour movement in the fight against the Tories and their programme of austerity?
After almost a week of silence, Len McCluskey, leader of Unite the Union – Britain’s largest union and Labour’s biggest backer – has now come out fighting against Blair, Mandelson, and those who advocate that the Labour leadership break with the unions. Attacking the Blairites nonsensical appeals to imitate the Tories through talk of “aspiration” and “wealth creation”, the Unite leader has gone on the offensive against these New Labour ghosts from the past:
“This general election was a long time in the losing. Millions of people voted for parties perceived to be to Labour’s left – the SNP and the Greens. Even more voted for Ukip and in many cases they too were expressing hostility to elite economics. Yes, we need votes from the Tories – but we need more.
“Nor do I accept that Labour lost because it was too “left wing”. In fact, the policy offer was not particularly radical. Radicalism would have meant taking railways back into public ownership, for example, or challenging the City’s grip on the economy. Labour didn’t lose votes by proposing to tax the wealthiest a bit more, or intervene in the housing and energy markets. It did lose support because of its muddled message on austerity. The“triple lock” budget pledgewas allowed to entirely dominateLabour’s manifesto launch – surely securing not a single additional vote.
“In fact, Labour had fallen for the Tories’ austerity trap much earlier. Ignoring the views of many economists, it accepted a need to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit which left them playing on Tory ground. Once this was conceded, Labour was on a hiding to nothing – no one will ever believe that they would be more reliable cutters than the Tories. So Labour was left trying to protect the victims of the Tory cuts agenda while accepting its underlying premises, also depriving itself of a coherent narrative linking together popular individual policies.” (Our emphasis)
Before this latest article by McCluskey, however, there was a notable silence from the trade union leaders. Whilst figures on the Left within the Labour Party such as John McDonnell and Owen Jones have correctly attacked the Blairites and their recently re-emergence on the political scene, little has been said about why Labour failed to win the election and how the fight against the Tories and austerity can be taken forward from here.
Admittedly, nobody expected to wake up to a Tory majority on 8th May. But the leaders of the trade unions and the Left should have at least been prepared with the arguments and an action plan in the case of such an eventuality. Instead, leaders such as McCluskey had assumed that Labour would be leading the next government, and had sown illusions in Miliband leading up to the elections, promising that everything would be better once Labour were in power. Importantly, the union leaders failed to explain how pressure from below would have to exerted on the Labour leaders in order for workers to ensure that their demands were met – pressure that is even more vital, in the shape of industrial action, now that the Tories are in still power.
The task now is for the whole labour movement leadership to come out fighting – both in words and in deeds. What is needed is a sword and a shield. On the one hand, the union leaders must provide an organised, militant lead in the defence against cuts, austerity, and Tory attacks, beginning by supporting the national demonstration against austerity on the 20th June.
Furthermore, in order to galvanise workers and embolden them into taking further action, the TUC leadership should be calling for a one-day general strike. Such a strike would be an explicitly political act, and would be a bold act of defiance in the wake of the Tories latest announcements surrounding anti-strike laws.
On the other hand, the trade union leaders needs to go on the offensive politically, arguing the case for a genuine, socialist alternative to Tory austerity, and fighting for such a socialist programme throughout the labour movement.
The Blairites must be defeated politically, with the current crop of careerists and carpetbaggers sent packing. Rather than kowtow before the New Labour grandees, the party and parliament must be swept clean of such creatures by the labour movement. And rather than backing another soft-left candidate, such as Burnham, the union leaders should be pushing for a genuine leader of the Left – one who will stand up for workers against the bosses and bankers.
The fight ahead is not an easy one. But with capitalism in an endless crisis, there is no other option. In the final analysis, the cuts and austerity are not merely the result of the nasty Tories, but flow from the laws and logic of the capitalist system – a dying system that is no longer able to take society forward. The only road ahead for workers and youth is the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society.