Monday, 24 September 2007

Should the left give up on Labour?

I hope you will forgive me if I mark my return to blogging after an absence of several years by republishing something that I wrote five and a half years ago.

I was going to add some thoughts on the Red Pepper debate, Should the left give up on Labour?, and before doing so I decided to dig out a column I’d written for Tribune around the time that I left the party. I went before the Iraq war made it impossible for so many others to remain, and before what was then a rumbling unease over ’cash for access’ turned into the full-blown ‘cash for honours’ imbroglio. But you didn’t need to be a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing in Blair’s inner circle.

Re-reading that Tribune column (first published on 1 March 2002) reminded me of why, in my own quiet way, I gave up on Labour (or at any rate gave up on being a Labour Party member, which is a somewhat different thing) five years ago. It still seems to say most of what I want to say about not going back.

I’ve avoided the temptation to update or edit the piece. So here it is again in its entirety:

Not with a bang but a whimper

The ending of an old relationship should be marked in some way, not left as an unopened letter on the kitchen table. Better a bang than a whimper when something once so full of passion is finishing; and if the divorce cannot be forged in friendship, better a row than the absence of all emotion.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I pondered the renewal of my Labour Party membership this year and left the forms unanswered. As resignations go, it was a supine gesture, which would probably have gone unnoted but for the existence of this column. Like a couple who no one has seen together for ages, there would have been those who thought the Labour Party and I had parted years ago – and others who thought we were still together, but living separate lives. I would have joined the silent haemorrhage of party members, most of whom have left with no bang and barely a whimper.

It’s probably a sign of the malaise that is ‘New’ Labour that so many of us are going quietly. It’s not that there has been any shortage of issues over which to make a grand resignation gesture. From the privatisation of public services to the pursuit of the war on terrorism, there is much to unsettle even the most modest of centre-left aspirations.

But that sort of gesture presupposes that there is a point in making it: that someone will be listening; that, however unlikely, your resignation might actually have an effect. The truth is that although they might want our numbers (and our money, though it matters less these days than that of the millionaires), the present party leadership doesn’t want us – or at any rate, it doesn’t want us in any meaningful, active, empowering sense of what it is to be a party member.

I’m not what the New Labourites like to call an oppositionist. I joined the Labour Party at the time of Michael Foot’s election as party leader because in Foot I saw a man who combined principle with pragmatism in equal measure; a man who history will show to have played a pivotal role in saving the Labour Party when both left and right could have torn it apart. I didn’t support the resolutionary socialism of the 1980s, nor Tony Benn’s battle for the deputy leadership, even when I was most active on the leftward fringes of Labour politics. I was, and remain, a Tribuneite: a member of a coalition in which all of the various strands of democratic socialism could find expression – and respect.

But no more a Labour Party member.

Harold Wilson once said that Labour ‘is a moral crusade or it is nothing’. But the party that has been constructed out of the tumult of the 1980s, and the election landslides of 1997 and 2001, is one that has ceased altogether to be a campaigning organisation, except for election purposes. If I want to influence public attitudes or government policy, I can do it better by joining organisations such as Amnesty or Friends of the Earth or any number of other single-issue campaigns or protest movements. If I want to protect public services, I can get involved locally or through the trade unions. And if I want to support the Labour Party, at an election or at any other time, I can do so without being a member. I can even, if I feel so minded, make a donation of the money that I would have paid through my membership subscription.

What I can no longer discover is any good reason for retaining my membership card. Giving it up means I will miss out on selecting local election candidates in my ward this year. It means I won’t be able to vote for Mark Seddon and the Grassroots Alliance candidates in the NEC elections. And, er, as Private Eye would have it, that’s it.

Two things, I suppose, made me realise finally that a parting of ways was inevitable. The first was the reaction to the ‘cash for access’ furore by government ministers. As a journalist at the heart of the Tories’ ‘cash for questions’ scandal in the 1990s, what struck me most at the time was the absolute incomprehension of the MPs involved that they had done anything wrong.

That scandal involved backbench MPs and payments to their private pockets. Labour’s ‘cash for access’ involved government ministers and party funds. It’s a bigger scandal, albeit without the element of personal corruption – but still those involved in it see themselves as acting as pretty straight sort of guys.

The second deciding factor, though, was more mundane. I was approached a couple of weeks ago to give a talk to my local branch on ‘reclaiming the party’. I knew then, by the way my heart sunk at the thought of addressing a couple of dozen diehards in some draughty north Islington meeting room, that whether or not the party was capable of reclamation, I was not the person to be doing any reclaiming. Like so many people who’ve gone before me, I’ve decided simply – and sadly – that I have better things to do with my time.


Martin Everett said...

Welcome back to blogging, Steve - I wish you were still editing the New Statesman!

Jane Pritchard said...

Don’t wish that on him!

The unanswered question is: if not Labour, what? You can give up on power and join one of the small or fringe parties or keep out of all parties but if you want to have the power to change things what is your alternative?

Freddie T said...

Blogging beats branch meetings any day. Welcome back.