No one could ever accuse 2015 of being a predictable year in the world of UK politics. This time last year not one single person I talked to, or indeed read in the media outlined a scenario where the Tories were returned to power with a working Commons majority. The view of most people was that Labour would be the largest Party and have to cobble together some kind of coalition involving the other UK regional parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru. There was even a whisper of a National Government, 1930’s style, as there wasn’t a fag paper between Labour and Tory policies towards the main issues in the election; the economy and the so called deficit.
The early part of the year was epitomised by a weekend in February where I attended two conferences in London on successive days. The first was Left Platform held on Saturday at the University of London. This was organised by John McDonnell and included the back bench veteran MP for Islington talking about Palestine. If a delegate had got up and said that Jeremy Corbyn would be Labour Leader in just seven months, and McDonnell would be rebutting Osborne’s Autumn Statement as Shadow Chancellor then they would have been gently led away to be sat down with a nice cup of tea. The arguments laid out in the day long meeting were sound; an end to the deficit lie, the reform of the tax system, an anti cuts local Government campaign which would set needs budgets as a start, and nationalisation. But in retrospect (a wonderful thing) the idea that the Labour Party be the conduit for such a programme is risible. This was confirmed by McDonnell in September when he told the Guardian, “The situation the councils are now in is if they don’t set a budget, a council officer will do it for them. There is no choice for them any more.” Local Government is where the cuts are delivered and cause the maximum damage, so for the Left to capitulate on THE frontline issue for this Parliament within a month of securing a 66% mandate from Labour supporters and members is truly shocking.
The Sunday was spent at a conference put on by Compass. On the face of things it didn’t hold much promise, but we were pleasantly surprised by the choice of workshops (local govt led Co Operative movement house building/ the plight of sex workers) and the responses from the floor to the main speakers such as PODERMOS, David Lammy and others showcased that there is a significant vanguard in the working class for Socialism but they lack organisation outside the Labour Party and believe (correctly) that current electoral politics is a waste of time and energy. The best speakers were from the Unions and from abroad. Looking back it was this element that suddenly engaged with the Labour Party in the summer and delivered Corbyn to the Leadership.
The weekend showed the Labour Left in splendid isolation and enjoying every self righteous minute of it, whilst the progressive, and mainly young elements in the working class had no means to have their interesting ideas put forward in mainstream politics. Once the Labour Left were faced with the prospect of actually having to do something by taking their ideas (with a huge popular mandate) into the public arena they failed miserably. More of this later.
I decided to stand for election in my local ward where the sitting Labour councillor was stepping down. My priorities were to follow the example of a handful of councillors I really admire by fighting for residents facing an onslaught from the Tories in everyday matters such as the Bedroom Tax, poor housing and issues with the DWP, social services and the NHS. A secondary consideration was to put pressure on both councils to oppose the cuts in a proactive manner. This would involve listening to residents and facilitating them to organise and fight back. Having been selected as part of a team for a two seat ward there were problems when not one but two candidates stood down, both for very good and understandable reasons. To secure a running mate proved difficult until someone who was eminently suitable (on the face of it) came forward. To secure the selection involved basically rigging the meeting by making sure people who would vote the right way showed up. This is basic practice in the Labour Party and is not seen as corrupt. This is because the number of wards with active, well attended branch meetings are as rare as hens teeth. The candidate was duly selected to run with me. I hardly heard from, or saw this person again. I admit I found this hard to comprehend. But in retrospect (again) I shouldn’t have been surprised. Apart from a select few the Labour Party is stuffed with lazy councillors who just sit back and enjoy the kudos. This person was only copying their behaviour.
Edward Hart could not be more different. Committed and believing in the core values of Socialism he worked harder than any other Parliamentary Candidate I have ever had the privilege to campaign with. And with not one word of complaint. No day was too long, no task too minor and he deserved the success of a huge swing to Labour in a Tory dominated constituency. The swing against the Lib Dems in Haltemprice and Howden was three times larger due to Ed’s tireless effort. In the Ward where I ran we put out three leaflets (in addition to the thrice yearly routine newsletter) raised £1,500, did numerous door knocking sessions, street stalls and meet and greet events. When the ballots were counted on the Friday afternoon I came last with just under 1,100 votes. My AWOL running mate got 200 more votes than me. Politics, eh? Jacky Crawford also ran a superb campaign in Brigg and Goole and I very much enjoyed being part of the team, writing press releases. However the regional Party organisation in Yorkshire and the Humber was a shambles. Disorganised just doesn’t do it justice. If this level of campaigning was replicated in other areas then it’s a miracle any MPs got elected by Labour at all. One bright moment came with the election of 18 year old Terence Smith as Deputy Mayor of Goole. Patrick Wilkinson did a sterling job in trying circumstances as Chair of East Riding Local Government Committee where at 18 he learnt the skill of herding cats. His reward was victory in a Withernsea autumn by election.
On a more positive note Danny and I had our book, “Through Red Lenses: It Was the Labour Party Which Made Britain Great“ published by Searching Finance, a London based group who number economist Richard Murphy and the late Michael Meacher amongst their writers. The whole process taught us a hard lesson about how the market is shut to people without connections. We made a final editorial commissioning board with two big publishers, but fell at the final hurdle as we had no profile to speak of. We achieved reasonable sales and were taken and put on display by Waterstones central London branch. The irritating bit was having to be on Amazon. I am proud of the fact that we did this despite both of us battling life threatening illnesses. Danny was just 25 when he overcame an aggressive form of cancer which required major surgery and two months of gruelling chemo.
As the election progressed the more doors we knocked on and the more people we talked to, the more it became apparent to me that the Labour Party was as far detached from everyday life as it is possible for a soft left Party to be. The solutions we were offering were tinkering at best. Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic sprung to mind. Where were the Big Ideas? Where was the game changing proposal? In 1997 Blair’s vision and commitment to world class schools and public services no matter what the cost won the overwhelming support of the public who wanted the proceeds of growth to be spent not on lining the pockets of the rich, but of turning the UK’s decline around. History showed New Labour was still in thrall to the idea that the market could be the panacea for all ills, including the public services. The result was 2.5 million votes lost to cynicism in 2001. But Blair proved the public can be galvanised. Miliband failed miserably by playing too safe. Despite popular support he baulked on nationalisation (which was only a return to state capitalism, not workers control) and his own basic decency was exposed by a failure to support, or even meet with striking care workers in his own constituency. The core failure was not to stand up and state the bleedin obvious; that the deficit is a lie promulgated by the ruling class in order to impose their dream of a pliant and cowed working class on the run from trashed wages, fear of the dole queue, zero hours contracts, crumbling social security and collapsing public services. Amongst other things.But this was never going to happen. And it will never happen unless the Labour Left has the courage to start a new Workers Party from the ashes of the Labour Party.
As Labour woes were leading to defeat so life began to imitate politics. In February the Blood and Transplant Service announced a chronic shortage of fresh plasma products for use in conditions such as mine which require frequent plasma exchange therapy (PLEX). Plasma must be sourced outside of the UK due to CJD. I bet you didn’t know that the threat of Mad Cow Disease still hangs over Britain to this day. I was ignorant of the fact that white blood cells farmed from UK residents may still be contaminated. B and T was sold off by the coalition in 2013 and is now held by a hedge fund run by Mitt Romney and his magic kegs. Portfolio mates include Dunkin Donuts. With the legal obligation to maximize shareholder profit came the decision to sell the imported plasma not to the NHS, but to China where PLEX is used as the elixir of youth by the ruling elite. Instead we in the UK had to make do with artificial concentrate diluted by saline. I reacted poorly and my condition deteriorated over the summer including reduced mobility (which resulted in a broken arm) and the wasting element of the disease gathering pace confining me to a wheelchair out doors. Luckily I have brilliant staff looking after me in Leeds and fresh plasma has been restored. Unfortunately this could not prevent a blockage in the artery which deliver PLEX. A series of bungled events led to two lengthy and preventable stays in hospital, a two hour operation under general anaesthetic and the need for weeks of intensive PLEX in Leeds to try and halt the resultant damage. There is a lot I could say, but it basically boils down to a lethal cocktail of cuts and privatisation producing an understaffed and disorganised service. I am angry and the daily grind of dealing with enhanced symptoms including powerless legs, vertigo and chronic fatigue are an immense source of frustration and angst. Just ask my family. But at least my confidence and ability to articulate my needs have saved me. What about those with no one to support them, or without the means to fight? The answers are plain to see, and frightening in their consequences.
On June 11th I was expelled from the Labour Party and banned for five years. I can have few complaints as I was photographed supporting Hull Red Labour who stood candidates in May’s Hull City Council election to oppose the implementation with no attempt to fight back. Cllr. Allen said the slashing of services had been “compassionate”. Orwellian double speak at its surreal and satirical best. And I did take to the BBC’s airwaves and declare vis the Labour leadership race, “you can change the boom but if the handle is rotten nothing changes!” and announced by intention to quit the Party. But I was beaten to it by an anonymous dossier of my misdemeanours which was submitted to the Compliance Unit and the NEC. I am flattered. The only drawback is any embarrassment by association caused to my CLP and LGC Executive which is populated by decent people.
I joined Labour in 1984 and saw it as the only genuine mechanism to deliver Socialism in our society. In public I mostly kept my trap shut and toed the line, especially in the media in order to play the long game. Irony of ironies then that after 31 years I succumbed just as “our” people in the Party were about to take the reins.
But as it happens I am not unhappy at being out of the Labour Party as the rise of the Left has actually shown once and for all that the Party is incapable of becoming the vehicle of change leading to a Socialist (and by this I mean a broadly Marxist-Leninist) society encompassing ownership of the means of production but not in a post 1945 state capitalist way. (You can see why our editor had problems judging by this sentence!). I am not particularly interested by Corbyn as an individual; he held anti worker views regarding the IRA, and has no record of supporting his Council in Islington to oppose cuts. But we should be fascinated by what his elevation shows about what over 400,000 people want for our future in the UK.
When I was Chair of my CLP I, and many others argued tooth and nail against the review of how the Leader was elected which determined that none members could participate by paying £3. The aim of the Blairites was to try and diminish the influence of the Unions which had a bloc vote in the previous electoral college system. Ed Miliband had lost to David Miliband in the CLP and PLP sections and it had been support from the Unions that won him the leadership. The Blairites cunning plan being that none members would be more “moderate” and vote accordingly. This was a strange assertion since Kinnock, Smith, and Blair had won previous elections and Ed Miliband was no fire brand lefty. Come to think of it, he was no fire brand anything if the truth be told.
The Tories won with just 24% of the popular vote and people were not un naturally steaming mad. This anger was channeled when 1/4 million marched in London that June and on the same day the kids in Hull organised a mass demo of 1,000 on their own. The People’s Assembly Against Austerity was a powerful groundswell, but where would these people find a voice? The Labour Party had a massive stroke of luck. Their leadership race would ordinarily have been voices in an empty room but the decision of MP’s such as Gareth Thomas, Emily Thornberry, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan to nominate Jeremy Corbyn in order to make it look inclusive back fired in spectacular style. The public who were galvanised were not the expected “moderate” silent majority. Instead nearly 1/2 million paid the £3 and and the campaign dominated the news agenda over the summer. Meeting were packed to the rafters. In their droves these newly engaged Labour supporters voted for a candidate who they felt best represented their anti austerity, anti war and pro socialist agenda. Despite being a UNITE activist and member of the Co Operative Party I was denied a vote. Corbyn was now leader of a mass movement. The iron was hot, was the Left ready to strike? Hell, no.
Chaos ensued from the start as the Left failed to implement what the electorate had given them a mandate to do. McDonnell quashed any hope for local government and even flirted with supporting Osborne’s ludicrous fiscal charter. Trident is being back peddled on with a Shadow Defence Secretary in favour of renewal, and the newly elected Leader bottled it by not enforcing a three line whip over Syria. This has given succor to the wreckers in the PLP. Hilary Benn’s grotesque performance when winding the debate up for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was a naked call to arms to organise a Palace Coup against the Left. Benn was simply echoing the views of former Blair lackey John McTernan who called those who nominated, and by logical association voted for Jeremy Corbyn, “moronic”. Every week the press are briefed about what goes on at PLP meetings and as a result Labour are in complete disarray. Most worrying is the fact that the Left has done virtually nothing to activate those hundreds of thousands who voted for change and in effect a new Party. We did a street stall in September and a newbie member approached us wanting to know why how to get involved as she had not even received an email from her CLP in East Hull regarding her membership or what was going on campaigning wise. The answer would be nothing as it happens. The story is repeated across the country leading to the obvious onset of cynicism that the Left were only interested in engaging with people when votes were at stake. Same old, same old politics and politicians.
Labour has never been a Socialist Party, but it has enjoyed times when some socialist policies were implemented. The crowning glory being the founding of the NHS in July 1948. If the Labour Party never did another thing, this is a magnificent legacy. They also didn’t return the public utilities which had been nationalised by the wartime coalition, to the private sector. But crucially they failed to implement true workers democracy and instead coal, steel and the railways were run along the lines of the state capitalist model which the Tories were happy to go along with when Churchill returned to power in 1951. The market was still king. This failure of the post 1945 government led to 1970’s collapse of state capitalism once the oil shock derailed sluggish growth. This was epitomised by British Leyland, Red Robbo and industrial relations calamity across the UK. Then to add insult to injury prime minister James Callaghan and his eccentric chancellor Denis Healey decided that monetarism was the way forward. Choking the money supply demanded massive wage cuts in real terms and unsurprisingly the Unions rebelled and Labour were out for 18 years. So if the new Left leadership of Labour ever believed that the Labour Party establishment would just roll over and kick market capitalism into touch, then they were a best very naive. There are far too many vested interests in the Labour Party. Due to the generous allowances on offer (I was shocked how much I was to get tax free if elected) for councillors and the open trough that is the Westminster expenses system, it doesn’t really matter to lots of elected representatives if Labour is in or out of power. The money still flows. Therefore the last these MPs and Councillors want is to have to get out of their comfort zone and make the argument for socialism, for real and meaningful change and for empowering their communities. Yet the Councillors that have done precisely that are the ones who keep being elected due to their close ties to their residents.
Labour is beyond redemption. You can’t reform something that doesn’t want to change. That’s why it is important that a new party be created, one which is grassroots based and where ideas flow upwards rather than be imposed from above. The events of the summer proved that the thirst is there. From the People’s Assembly, the desire to help refugees to the wonderful work being done with the homeless there is a growing, and active tide for change, and for socialism building. This cannot be allowed to fizzle out. There is a phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and this seems relevant today. Just as it appears the Tories have us on the canvass so the ingredients for an effective fightback coalesce. This government is weak and vulnerable with a tiny Commons majority and its writ does not run in Scotland whatsoever. They are divided over Europe and Osborne was forced into a humiliating U turn on tax credits when it became apparent that the country was in open revolt. History shows that hubris is a massive fault in the Tory Party. it makes them prone to blunders such as the Poll Tax. The Local Government settlement is patently unfair and politically motivated and this is where socialists can begin to organise by shaming Labour Councils who are prepared to lose £261 per head in Hull when the figure in Guildford is just £14. Working together we can create the preconditions for a new Party and particularly reach out to those workers dissatisfied with Labour, or who have been seduced by the quick fix bigotry of UKIP and those who see no use for politics at all.
So in conclusion it’s been a rough year but if we hold our nerve and put the work in, anything is possible and the events of the summer prove the appetite for change is there.
*The Newsroom S3 ep6, The West Wing S1 ep22 by Aaron Sorkin.