Here in Brighton, the forthcoming elections will pit supporters of Caroline Lucas, our Green MP, and the minority Green administration on the local council, against Labour supporters who are campaigning to re-take the parliamentary seat and regain control of the council.
Labour supporters are clearly getting fed up with the number of voters who cite the Iraq war as a reason not to vote Labour. Recently the Labour candidate in my constituency said:
“To say that Labour’s sins over Iraq trump all else is to allow another Tory led government in to continue to dismantle every iota of community and respect that ties our lives and futures together and that makes us strong.”
I am glad she agrees that Iraq was a “sin”, but I fear others in the Labour Party may not. In fact I think it is somewhat disingenuous to use the word “sin”, since it is relatively meaningless to those of us who are not religious, and does not carry the same weight as a word like “crime”, which is what the Iraq invasion actually was. When a crime is committed, those affected by it find it difficult to “move on” until justice has been done; but justice has not been done in this case. Far from Blair being tried as a criminal – calls for which I fully support – he has not even been expelled from the Labour Party, and I think that fact speaks volumes to potential voters who are concerned about this issue: it says that those in power in the Party do not regard Blair’s actions as a crime, nor even, most probably, as a “sin”. If Labour is really a party in which we can place our trust, it ought to have been possible in the time that has elapsed since 2003 to get a sizeable majority of members voting for the expulsion of Blair and his cronies for bringing the party into disrepute. Ah, but sadly, of course, it is many years since that degree of internal democracy existed in the Party. So what Blair’s continued membership tells us is that (a) the leadership – those with the power to expel him – don’t want to; and (b) the members – a majority of whom probably would want to expel him – don’t have the power to.
I use the phrase “bringing the party into disrepute” partly because it is, or at least was, frequently used against members the party leadership disliked and wanted to get rid of. I have some personal experience of this, since it was what I and many others were accused of back in the early 1990s, following the closure of the local Labour Party, when I had been a member for barely a year. There were twenty-six of us altogether, and we were accused of that or similar “crimes” (the party had, and presumably still has, a sort of quasi-judicial mechanism for “trying” its members and “punishing” them), but not told what the evidence was against us for some considerable time; then, after 18 months or so, we were allowed to wither away (our suspension lifted but the unjust and groundless smears not apologised for) once the Kinnockites had got what they wanted. And what did they want? Well, clearly the motivation for the closure, coming swiftly on the heels of the selection of a left-wing candidate for a council byelection against the leadership’s wishes, was to stifle internal democracy enough to stop ordinary members from doing it again, and instead to shoe-horn in candidates approved by the leadership, whom we described, not unfairly I think, as “stooges”. Of course it was not publicly spoken of in such terms – it was dressed up as a response to a “Militant threat” that most members agreed had long since passed, if it ever existed in the first place.
But surely no-one has ever brought the party into disrepute more than Blair did? So why hasn’t there been a massive majority of ordinary party members calling for his expulsion, together with that of his companions-in-crime – Straw and others – even if the “modernisation” of the internal party structure means they can’t actually enforce it?
Probably the haemorrhage of members since 2003 means most of those who would have wanted Blair out have got out themselves (like me), and the bulk of the rest – like the candidate who described his action as a “sin” – don’t really care too much; which leaves a small, ineffective minority of good people who have decided to “stay and fight”, perhaps, as Polly Toynbee would say, holding their noses as they do.
Actually the assault on both internal democracy and socialism in the early 90s – which eventually saw the party abolish its socialist creed, Clause IV – was not done in isolation or without purpose. Several local parties around the country were closed down at the same time as ours, for similar reasons. After Blair came to power, what started as an exercise in internal party discipline was then “rolled out” across the nation in the form of draconian “anti-terror” legislation. The same hallmarks were there – detention without trial, guilt by association, kangaroo courts, secret evidence neither the defendant nor his or her lawyers were allowed to see. Caught up in this travesty of justice were some people who subsequently became good friends of mine; one was a victim of Blair’s mendacious “ricin plot” story, which was cited by Colin Powell as part of the reason for invading Iraq despite having been shown to be a complete fabrication. There are people in this country who are still having their freedom curtailed because of that – because of ambitious, greedy, foolish men who seemingly lack the ability to apologise. Sorry, did I say “men” there? The current Shadow Home Secretary has done a pretty good job of deterring any would-be Labour voters who have an ounce of regard for natural justice, often outdoing her Tory counterpart in her desperation to be seen as “tough”. I shudder at the thought of that woman ever becoming a minister, and I am sure my aforementioned friends do too.
But what was actually driving all this? Why, when the Thatcher and Major governments were implementing increasingly draconian and unpopular measures, was the official opposition so keen to roll over and let them? Why, when “new” Labour did finally win power, did they not at least repeal the pernicious anti-union laws, if not reverse some of the privatisations as well? Well, you don’t have to be much of a conspiracy theorist to imagine that corporate vested interests would have infiltrated what was the main opposition party when, if not before, the long-serving Tory administration started coming apart at the seams. After all, they’d have been pretty stupid, by their own standards, not to do so. But there is a more straightforward reason.
A few years ago the Guardian published a very interesting article by Philip Gould, one of the first “spin doctors” and “modernisers” in the Labour Party, who died in 2011. He had advanced cancer at the time he wrote the article; perhaps he wanted to put on record what he’d achieved for the party. What he said was very illuminating. He said that he and his friends got involved in the party because they wanted it to represent “aspirational” people. How dare he? How dare this former advertising executive suggest that the party didn’t already represent aspirational people – as if anyone could be in politics without being aspirational! What he was referring to of course was not the sort of people who aspire towards a fairer and more equal society like you and me, but people who were “aspirational” for their own ends – in other words, greedy people, who were in awe of the rich and wanted to be rich themselves. This all happened at around the same time as our party and others across the country were closed down for being too left wing, and party democracy was replaced by pointless “issue-free” policy fora; and I am sure that is no coincidence. The rest, of course, is history.
While writing this, I must say something briefly about caucusing. Ostensibly, the “charges” the Labour leadership made against some of us in 1990 were to do with belonging to “banned” organisations such as the Militant Tendency. This group was banned because it was considered to be a “party within a party”, with its own agenda. We were supposed to think that such behaviour was beyond the pale, and the proscription of such groups beyond debate. But tell me, honestly – what member of a democratic party does not have their own agenda? And what could be more natural than those of a similar persuasion – especially within an extremely “broad church” such as the Labour Party – getting together to discuss tactics? The Blairites and their creators, the Kinnockites, would have you believe that a good Party member goes to a meeting with a completely blank mind, and makes up his or her mind on the basis of the arguments put for and against. But the Labour Party was built by people who were driven by conviction – blank minds never got anyone very far. And besides, of course, to suggest that having one’s own agenda was intrinsically wrong was somewhat disingenuous when it was considered “all right” for the right wing of the party to have its own caucuses – such as the Labour Co-Ordinating Committee (LCC), which masterminded the party closure.
I actually went along with all this “no caucusing” crap for years, but eventually I had to admit that it was utter tosh. I didn’t have the time to join any of these internal groupings before the party was closed down, but that didn’t stop the local council leader from accusing me of belonging to an organisation that I’d actually never heard of before I was accused of belonging to it – and this an organisation that was not actually proscribed, but was a bit left-wing, which was probably all the excuse he needed. (I was also “accused” of being involved in an organisation called the Friends of Brighton Labour Party, which was set up after the closure of the official party, to fill the vacuum and debate the issues out in the real world, where of course life was going on as normal, and the kind of injustices socialists campaign against were still occurring. This was perfectly true, except that the “Friends” didn’t actually have members, and more to the point, it had absolutely no connection with the Labour Party, nor any pretence of being the Labour Party, so it was outside the jurisdiction of the Stalinists at party HQ). I asked my accuser, several times, to apologise for libelling me, but he did not even reply to my letters. No doubt if I had been rich enough I could have sued him, but then if I’d been rich he wouldn’t have libelled me in the first place.
Incidentally, in case you are still wondering why a new member like me should have been picked on, then left to rot once the real targets of the closure had been dealt with, the answer, of course, is in numbers. There were 26 of us who were originally suspended. Of those, perhaps a dozen at most were the real targets. But the local rightwingers in the LCC and other groups had been waging war on these people for years, and had tried to get the local party closed down before; however the national party would not play ball, and instead told them to come up with some better statistics. I am not sure if an exact numerical threshold was actually discussed, but presumably 25 was considered to be a nice round number, and maybe I was the “one for luck”.
So, after all that, who am I going to vote for? Well, I’ll give you three guesses.