Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Long, Lingering Death of Labour? (Part One)

People across the left join to oppose austerity in London in June
The Labour leadership election contest is well underway with four MPs competing for what might be increasingly seen to be a post that comes complete with its own poisoned chalice. With the collapse of the party in its old Scottish heartlands, its vote in northern England eaten into by UKIP and with many leftwing young voters switching to the Greens, the rushed vote to replace Ed Miliband is rapidly revealing a party that is bereft of both unity and a soul.

In the media at least, the frontrunners are seen as Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, both very much graduates of New Labour, while the odious Liz Kendall seems to be positioning herself day by day more and more to the right. These three represent all that has gone wrong since Blair's ditching of Clause 4 and the subsequently quick march to the right. Committed to market economics, privatisation, austerity and spending cuts, the party has abandoned all the things that it once stood for - in place of equality comes choice (determined by access to cash); in place of public services comes "partnership" with the profiteers; and in place of fairness is at best an emphasis on "opportunity" rather than outcomes. You can't help but wonder why they don't just join the Tories and get on with it; except of course that would vacate the Labour Party to those on the left who still have some desire to stand for something, to work for something better, more egalitarian. People who even now sometimes dare to whisper the word "socialism".

Labours Choice: Cooper, Corbyn, Kendall and Burnham
People like Jeremy Corbyn. This left wing Labour MP may yet be the surprise in an election which, to be fair, embraces a very broad constituency - members all now get one vote as the electoral college and union block votes have been abolished. Anyone can register as a supporter for £3 and vote. Many on the non-Labour Left have done just this to have the chance to vote for Corbyn, whose unalloyed commitment to end austerity and return to socialist values have put the only sparks into an otherwise tedious contest between would-be meritocrats. With his meetings drawing vast audiences and key unions backing him over the pseudo-left Burnham, there is every chance that Corbyn will poll very strongly indeed. If he wins, which is not impossible, he will be at odds with the hierarchy of his party, but he will have a powerful mandate to change the party and begin to shape a genuine choice in 2020.

On the other hand, the smart money remains on Cooper or Burnham and herein lies the seeds of yet more problems for Labour. For if either of them scrape through in a second or third round over Corbyn after he polls the largest minority vote in the first round, Labour's splits will come ever more into the open. This may finally lead to a fracturing and realignment of progressive politics in England, perhaps on a par with the huge shift in Scotland. If other parties on the left, and especially the Greens, stand open to co-operate and welcome new allies, it may finally be possible to build a genuine alternative to the politics of austerity, fear and profiteering. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has already talked about cross-party co-operation and plenty was evident across the Left in the recent People's Assembly March Against Austerity. With the budget this week showing a Tory Government warring on the poorest yet again, the appeal of a genuinely socialist left alternative is growing.

Corbyn campaigning with Greens Romayne Phoenix & Caroline Lucas MP
It will be no fast task. But it is feasible and even essential. A good showing for Corbyn may ironically hasten the process of party disintegration and realignment, but it won't be before time. If Labour is no longer a political home for someone such as Tommy Shepherd, formerly a senior Labour member but now an SNP MP (see the video below), then it is little wonder if, faced with Tory versus Pseudo-Tory, voters abandon Labour. What real purpose does it now play apart from validating the deeply illusory nature of our supposedly democratic system?

It is unlikely to be a pretty or comforting process. It may take many years to complete the change fully, but voters are less and less impressed by the major parties and, just as Corbyn is wowing crowds for the leadership election, who knows what unexpected train of events might kick in very rapidly indeed if there was a substantial and real leftwing choice on offer? Syriza and Podemos may yet reach our shores.

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