Labour’s inducement to military veterans to join for a measly penny is the epitome of Labour’s loss of identity and desperation for popularity by any means. Chris Smith argues that the Labour Party can only be saved by an honest figure such as Tony Benn who has clearly defined beliefs and principles; someone who knows that the Party should stand for the working-classes.
The Labour Party has announced it will be offering party membership to military veterans for just 1p. The move is intended to capitalise on growing disillusionment with the Tories among the armed forces caused by larger than expected cuts to defence spending. Labour describe the move as part of the process of reinvention to meet its new role as the party of opposition, aiming to diversify its membership to provide a home to all those opposing the coalition’s age of austerity. The simultaneous message this strategy broadcasts of course is one of pure opportunism and desperation.
Courting a core constituency of “the other guys” is an ancient political strategy of dubious acclaim for its one that rarely works, as core constituencies are there for a reason. This in itself is a revealing hint as to the lack of inspiration afflicting the Labour party. Whilst the idea of making price the attraction of joining a political party speaks volumes about what that party itself thinks of what its membership means to people.
Political parties are by definition supposed to be composed of individuals who deeply value their beliefs and ideas and have chosen one party particularly because they sincerely feel that organisation best represents the things they hold dear. Of course the Labour party ceased to be such an organisation a long time ago and I hope this latest stunt will confirm this in the minds of those who have suspected but been unable to fully admit this to be the case.
Labour didn’t lose the last election because they didn’t have the best answers to the nation’s problems and questions. They lost because the Conservatives controlled the narrative of the election and the questions that dominated it. The election according to Gordon Brown was a question of Tory cuts vs Labour investment, which surrendered the narrative to being about levels of public spending. To everybody with the slenderest grasp of the concept that Britain’s problems stemmed from the nation living beyond its means, Labour’s message missed the point completely. No amount of Keynesian economic theory or reference to the precedent of Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the Great Depression could remove the thought from people’s minds that the Tory narrative of the imperative nature of stopping spending made more sense than Labour’s suggestion that the solution to debt was more debt.
Labour has been utterly unable to set the political narrative since 1979. Yes it won its historic three consecutive terms since that date but it did so by continuing the narrative of the free market that Margaret Thatcher started. The Iron Lady was undoubtedly helped in establishing her narrative by Capitalism “winning” the Cold War with Communism, and the American academic Francis Fukuyama declaring the “End of History” to mass acceptance. The psychological trauma inflicted on the Left worldwide by this realisation that perhaps liberal democracy was the best form of society undoubtedly weakened the resolve of even the most moderate social democratic parties. The rest, as the saying goes, is history because the democratic Left of the western world embarked on an unapologetic program of jettisoning the convictions it previously held most dear, with the British Labour Party leading the way.
The Labour Party came to define itself by one thing alone; being the party to remove the Tories from office. It didn’t matter to the leaders of New Labour that they did so by becoming Tories themselves. Why should it have? After eighteen punishing years of life in Tory Britain, most of the electorate had had the hope of a better, or at least different, form of society crushed. Fertile ground indeed for the self-serving, uninspired and uninspiring likes of Blair, Mandelson, Blunkett and Prescott to thrive.
No one truly cares what Labour thinks or feels about the issues afflicting the world because Labour politicians themselves don’t truly care about what they think about anything. To hold honest convictions is nothing but a nuisance as it inhibits the careers of jack-of-all-trades politicians. With such lack of belief it is a forgone conclusion that such a party do not possess the passion to control political discourse in a meaningful way.
Tony Benn wisely diagnosed two types of politicians: signposts and weathercocks. Signposts being the preferred type and he is openly complimentary about Margaret Thatcher being one. Stating even though he regards her as pointing in the totally wrong direction at least you are in no doubt as to what a signpost believes and intends to do. You can work with such people in politics because in order to hold believes that motivate you to seek a different type of society you must have a desire to do what is best for those who share it with you.
Benn is again openly complimentary of Thatcher and Tories such as Enoch Powell and Ted Heath stating that, although he believed their solutions to be flawed, he accepted their actions to be motivated by a sincere belief that what they were doing was for the good of their country. Can anybody say any such thing about the ”New Labour” Party and its lead architects?
The Left have a grudging respect for Tories such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson in that they are at the very least true to themselves. Why, we ask ourselves, if they can pursue unmitigated Tory policies of cutting corporation tax and high rate income tax, raising VAT (that affects the poorest disproportionately) and attacking trades unions can’t the Labour party have the integrity to defend policies that benefit the working people it is supposed to represent?
The answer often spouted to the zeitgeist is that the Tories can get away with it because their policies are where the country is, and the policies of “old Labour” are the “Looney Left” policies that crashed and burned in the eighties. This, like most mainstream political theory, is a gross simplification that benefits those who peddle it. That is, the architects of New Labour, big media and big business and special interests.
Part of the problem is Britain’s crooked electoral system that resulted in the Labour Party of 1997 being swept to power with the biggest parliamentary majority in its history by fewer votes than it had received in losing electoral efforts during the preceding decade. The point of this article isn’t to debate the merits of electoral reform but to make the point that more people, not fewer, want the Labour Party to be more left-wing.
Just ask former Liberal Democrat voters as it is difficult to find one who will not list their reasons for supporting them to be because, on a multitude of issues, they were Britain’s most left-wing mainstream party. From opposing the war in Iraq and university top up fees to proposing raising the personal income allowance to take the poorest out of taxation on earnings, and championing state support for clean technology, the Lib Dems won support from people who had once voted Labour.
The infamous removal of Clause IV from the party constitution is widely viewed as the birth of New Labour and the clean break the party needed with a past that some individuals viewed as shameful. It marked Labour’s climb back to electability, Blair and Brownites both claimed.
I prefer to view it as the day the Labour Party ceased to be a party that cared about what it meant to be a party of the working class. Or any political party for that matter. If I may refer you back to my previous definition of the necessary value of convictions to the being of a political organisation: To construct New Labour, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and their cronies joined a party that had an avowed socialist constitution (represented by Clause IV) doing so with the intention of turning that party into something it was not.
Blair and Mandelson are many things and have been called many more, but socialist is not one of them. They joined the Labour party because – shrewd politicos that they are – they knew the Tories where a sinking ship and if they wanted any career in politics the place to find was the only other major political party in Britain. How else can one account for an individual such as Mandelson who is famously okay with people being stinking rich whilst supporting a socialist institution? At the least it confirms gripe that Labour’s problems stem from its lack of principles. How can anyone else be expected to believe in such a grouping of shameless snakes in the grass?
I lay myself open as an idealist – but it is true that where there is a will there is a way. There are no easy decisions to be made in government, ever. But things still get done by statesmen possessing the will to fight the good fight. Abolishing slavery was drastically unpopular in certain circles but I doubt there is a single (certifiably sane) individual who would seriously argue the world would be better if we had never bothered ourselves with the issue. Defenders of New Labour blame its failings on others (the media, business lobbies) and content themselves that more of the Tories would have been worse, that at least Labour gave us the minimum wage other gutless compromises that the Right never would have.
This is to let them off the hook. The absolute least to be expected from a party of the working class in government are measures to protect workers from workplace mistreatment – just as the least to be expected from a party of the capitalist class in government are measures to aid capitalists. Britain’s trouble is she only has capitalist parties now who maintain only the faintest pretence of valuing social democracy.
New Labour lacked the will to challenge the status quo or the lazy idiom that all the British public care about is shopping, drinking, car driving and property speculation. They mistook the British people as being as uninspired and self-obsessed. A true party of the Left would have at least tried to shift discourse from the imperative of life being about getting rich to one where the pursuit of lives of liberty and happiness are not constructed by using our fellow men and women as stepping stones.
Many on the Left remember Tony Benn’s defeat in his bid for Labour’s leadership as a day of relief that the Labour party was saved from a fate worse than death – being turned into a party unashamed of its identity, offering membership for a penny to people who don’t necessarily believe in it. A fitting end for a party clearly unable to identify itself in terms other than what it is against. If the Labour party wants any kind of future it must be able to identify itself in terms of what it is for.
To read Chris Smith’s other articles visit Chris Smith’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast.