The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We have just lost an important election. It has been said by some that our Party’s purpose is to win elections. So it is. But our true mission goes beyond that and is much bigger than the loss of an election, however important. If we are to find a way forward, we must go back to basics. We must reestablish who we are, what exactly are our principles and what precisely we stand for. Somehow we must ensure that we have a brave debate and not a bloody battle – and we must hope against hope that it is not too late.
Perhaps we should start in a place where we all agree. The Labour Party was born out of a centuries-old movement for justice for the ordinary people who are the backbone of our world-wide society; those who, for far too long, have been deprived of the fruits of their labour and often have not even had bread on the table.
Herein is the fundamental difference between us and the Tories. It is true that there are some Tories who could be said to be kind decent people. I have known many who have charitable attitudes towards those ‘less fortunate’ and who are as vehement in their opposition to all forms of discrimination as we like to think we are. The difference between us and them is that we believe in justice- not charity – for the ‘less fortunate’. While we oppose all forms of discrimination, our struggle for equality goes beyond this. Our movement embraces all those other struggles for equality as we seek to strike at the heart of a system that allows some to enjoy unimaginable wealth while many of those that create that very wealth are condemned to lives of poverty.
Labour’s historic 1918 conference committed the Party to securing for the workers ‘the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible … (my italics). Even Tony Blair’s watered down version commits us to bringing about a shift in the balance of ‘power, wealth and opportunity in favour of the many not the few’ (again my italics).
So, how near to succeeding in our mission are we? There is a profusion of statistics out there that, while they may tell us slightly different things in different ways, do not paint a very positive picture when we consider how the rich and poor have fared in relation to one another – which is what we should surely be concerned with if we want to bring about the ‘shift’ that we commit to when we sign up to the Labour Party.
Statistics that relate to income tell us that the average income of the top fifth is twelve times that of the bottom fifth. However, since 1980 the income of those at the very top has increased disproportionately even for them. Between 1979 and 1987, the proportion of our population defined as ‘poor’ (however it is defined) doubled from 10% to 20% of the total population. This proportion fell slightly in the early 1990s and, again very slightly, in 2004/05. It rose again, reaching a new peak in 2009/2010 and has remained the same since. Whatever it was that brought about these changes, those at the top have done better and better – even from a pretty high starting point – and, even in 21st century Britain – the poor are still with us.
Statistics that relate to wealth are even bleaker. Between 1939 and 1979 wealth owned by the top 10% fell from 34.6% of the total ‘cake’ to 21%. At the same time, the wealth owned by those at the bottom increased slightly. This trend that favoured the poorest (if only a little bit), reversed in 1979 and peaked in favour of the rich in 1990. Having recovered their previous advantage, the rich have been free to enjoy their wealth ever since, while more and more people struggle simply to make ends meet.
The struggle for social justice – for ordinary people to enjoy their fair share of the wealth created by them – has been going on since well before the birth of our Party at the beginning of the 20th century. Many battles have been fought in the struggle for justice – from Tolpuddle and Peterloo to the ‘Headscarf Heroes’ of Hull, the women of Grunwick and of course the miners in the 1980s. All of the battles for social justice have been fought alongside battles for democracy. For without a fairer say, which is what democracy is all about, how can we bring about a fairer distribution of, not just the necessities of life, but the things – the wealth – that make life better than just about bearable – the fruits of our labour.
The rich will do all they can to hold on to their wealth. History has taught us that much at least. The more charitable among them may throw out a few crumbs now and again, but they will do all they can to maintain power over their wealth. That is why the rich have resisted democracy at the same time as they have resisted working class demands for a greater share of the wealth-cake. The Tolpuddle Martyrs wanted to build resistance to a reduction in wages. The employers fought back by attacking their right to meet to discuss that resistance. In 1819, it was hunger that fueled the 60,000+ who gathered in St Peter’s Square, Manchester to demand universal suffrage. They knew that, to make things better, they had to have the power to elect people who truly would represent their interests. The rich and powerful knew it too. That was why they sent in the cavalry to break up the demonstration – the event that we remember as the Peterloo Massacre.
The demands of the chartists in the nineteenth century were fiercely resisted because those in power knew that, once ordinary women and men had the vote, they would have the power to alter the balance of wealth in their favour. It is not by chance that our movement’s, and our Party’s, struggles for a greater and fairer slice of the cake have been inextricably linked to the struggle for greater democracy. It has always been so, and it is right and proper that it should continue to be that way.
So, we are a democratic socialist party. We exist to preserve and extend democracy within our society and in so doing we aim to empower ordinary people to take control of their lives and bring about a shift in the balance of wealth in their favour. We do not want to be dependent on charity. We want – and through democracy, we will demand – the justice to which we are entitled, and which is long overdue.
The nearer we came to us all having the vote, the more obvious it became that we could not rely on Tory or Liberal politicians to further the interests of ordinary people in Parliament or in local councils. The Labour Party was formed so that we could put up candidates of our own and from 1918 onwards when the Party became a membership organisation, it went from strength to strength. Finally, in 1945 we achieved the majority Labour government whose achievements make us so proud. It is no coincidence that the Government that achieved so much for ordinary people consisted of ordinary people themselves – one third of Labour MPs back then were manual workers – forty were ex-miners – very few were graduates and we had no ‘career politicians’ in our Party back then!
It must be acknowledged that, although the majority of those who represent us in Parliament are not working class in the way they once were, Parliament is now far more diverse in terms of age, gender and ethnic background (local government is a different matter). This has to be a good thing, but while we celebrate it and work for greater improvement, we should not allow the ‘equality mantle’ to shield us from the reality that those who represent us cannot solely be representative by virtue of characteristics such as gender or ethnic background. We will need to find a way to discuss matters such as these if we are not to lose sight of our aim to achieve a shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of ordinary people.
As Labour Party socialists we must question why the balance of wealth and power has hardly shifted for over forty years – indeed things have gone into reverse so that the system favours the rich as much as it ever did – in spite of the existence of a Labour Party that has been in power for a substantial proportion of that time. Given the link between democracy and socialism, perhaps we should think about what has been going on in our democratic socialist Party during the period. We need to think hard about these things because, given that our whole reason for being is to bring about a shift in the balance of wealth and power, if we are not managing that then we might as well all pack up and go home.
Politics has been viewed as a career path since long before the birth of the Labour Party. For a long while our Party was not seen as a serious option for those who wanted a political career. Sadly, as our Party came to be recognised more and more as a natural Party of Government, it has, at the same time, been increasingly viewed as an option for those who seek a career in politics. There is nothing wrong with someone who supports the aims and values of our Party pursuing a career in politics. But we should understand how this phenomena affects the way we work and what we achieve. And we should be always on our guard against those who are prepared to bend their principles according to which way the wind blows.
We work to earn a living and we are entitled to manage our working lives – call it a ‘career’ if you wish – to the best advantage for ourselves and our families. We will all ‘fight’ to keep our jobs, to better ourselves, to further our careers and to achieve success in what we do. That is human nature. The problem is that it is almost inevitable that it makes all politicians (including Labour ones) more inclined to the status quo. After all, if you have mapped out a career path for yourself based on certain assumptions, you are not going to welcome big changes in the way things are done. If you have got where you are, and plan to go further, based on the system as it is, then any change will represent a huge conflict of interest for you.
The Labour Party started life as a ‘grassroots-up’ Party. Our rules and processes worked to ensure that it stayed that way. Under New Labour, all that changed. With the exception of the (probably unintended) changes that extended the franchise for electing the Party’s leader, decision-making has become less democratic. What happened nationally was mirrored locally. Councils were compelled to operate a cabinet system in which it was possible for a single individual (the leader) to make important decisions with little or no consultation. This way of doing things has inherent weaknesses – there is virtually no built-in protection against patronage and preferment and the kind of abuse of power that we are quick to condemn when it occurs outside our own organisation.
As the Party went bottom-up, membership fell. People simply weren’t interested in foot-soldiering for (or financing) a Party whose leaders believed that they knew best and sought no input from them. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Party leader told us many things. It told us that members expected more of a say. We have had enough of ‘I know best’ and expect to play an active part in shaping policy and have a say in the direction of travel of our Party. Corbyn’s election told us that the Party establishment was out of touch with members and had hugely misjudged us. His election did not come about because of the huge influx of new members and registered supporters – they were the result of Corbyn’s rise, not the cause of it. Many of us had continued our membership through the Blair years in spite of what was happening to our Party, not because of it. By 1997, after 18 years of brutal Tory Government, our country needed Labour so badly that we had to hope that New Labour would be up to the challenge. As it turned out, many of us were massively disappointed. And surely nobody can be proud of the fact that, in thirteen years of Labour Government, the gap between rich and poor was at least as great as it had been to begin with.
When Corbyn was elected leader, the Party received a welcome boost of positive energy. Unfortunately, due to the decline in Party democracy and increasing disregard for what was left of it, much of that energy went into replacing one set of people who thought they knew best (the so-called Right) with another (those who self-identified as ‘Left’). Our Party’s rules and processes were cast aside in the scrap for positions of power and influence and the Party fractured into cliques and factions vying to ‘take out’ individuals perceived as the enemy of the other in order to replace them with their own. Even our Party’s disciplinary processes have been used as weapons in this battle. There is no longer any natural justice there, for these are now damaged to a degree that we would find unacceptable in a workplace and are no longer fit for purpose.
We have lost an election that, for all our sakes, we needed to win even more badly than we needed to win in 1997 – that is, if we still mean it when we commit ourselves to bringing about a shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people. Once again, we find ourselves faced with age-old choices, debating the same questions that we have debated so often in the past. Do we face electoral oblivion unless we sacrifice all our socialist principles to such a degree that the forces that work against us no longer see us as an establishment threat? How far do we water down our socialism in order to get elected? The answers to these and many other questions will concern us all. But if we are serious about our reason for being, then we need to begin by setting our own house in order. The way we operate needs to be brought into alignment with our socialist principles once again. If properly applied, our rules and processes have the potential to allow for the healthy battle for ideas that needs to take place. They can lift us above the ‘personal’ and take us to a place where we are once again able – through the force of our arguments – to win the hearts and minds of our fellow women and men as well as win elections. This way we can move on from the crossroads we are at and continue the march along the road to justice for the many that our fore-mothers and fore-fathers set out on all those many years ago.