Friday, July 25, 2008

Stick a fork in him


Brown is finished. Let me say that again: Brown is finished. One more time: Brown is finished. I had an inkling this was coming when I saw Margaret Curran's election message for Labour on the BBC - discoursing grimly on the unacceptable inequalities that made Glasgow East so poor, she insisted that the correct response was to ensure everyone had access to sports and ate healthily. Seriously, however, I doubt Curran had much to do with it. And she has every reason to feel disappointed. Labour was ahead in the polls, and there was a jumbo majority that the SNP had a tiny margin of time to erode. But the rate at which New Labour heartlands have been evaporating, turning over to any opposition that runs a half-decent campaign, has been nothing short of astonishing. And look, this turnout may have been down on the general election, but it's actually quite decent for a bye-election. It looks like, alongside glum Labour voters sitting on their hands, there were quite a few motivated voters determined to smack the government.

And let's look at what the Brown administration did to, er, assist its candidate in Glasgow East. They gave in to the City and the rich on tax evasion, declared a freeze on public spending, advertised for bids on the privatised delivery of welfare, and announced a 'revolutionary' shake-up of benefits for the unemployed and incapacitated that will treat both like criminals. Everybody knows by now that Glasgow East is an overwhelmingly working class constituency, with life expectancy in some areas lower than in Gaza. Unemployment is well above the national average: 10% for men over 25, 25% for women. It contains Shettleston, the most deprived area in Britain according to the UN. This is a place where even the Tory candidate was a trade union branch secretary. This is Labour turf, has been for generations, and it has stuck with Labour during the worst of the Blair years, through gritted teeth. A little bit of imagination should tell you something about the combination of fury and heartbreak that produced a 23% swing to an SNP candidate with no profile, no charisma and not much in the way of policy. Not only does the government have no solution for those squeezed by soaring food and fuel prices but to scrap the winter fuel allowance and abolish the 10p tax rate, they decide to go after those on benefits while allowing criminal companies to engage in tax evasion.

Commentators marvel at the government's apparent determination to make itself unelectable. It was once the Tories doing that, with a succession of bland right-wing leaders talking 'tough' on crime or asylum. Let me tell you something - I'm reluctant to link to the Tories, but they are actually running a petition against Brown's NHS cuts. They frame it in terms of inefficiency, of course, but in every other respect it looks like the kind of campaign one would see on a trade union website. The Tory strategy is unmistakeably to pitch for the slightly-left-of-New-Labour vote, and it may have some success. Now the government, aside from constantly attacking its own electoral base, frequently indulges in the right-wing populism that made the Tories look hateful and unelectable to many centre-right voters. (Not least of which, on Labour's part, is the surreptitious Islamophobic poison about the liberal blogger Osama Saeed, the SNP's candidate in Glasgow Central at the next election - a naked attempt to smear all SNP candidates by association with an "Islamic fundamentalist"). The story of the next election will probably be a continuation of the same: New Labour heartlands tumbling one after the others, as working class voters vent their fury about - well, take your pick from Post Office closures, privatisation, benefit cuts, public sector pay, tax breaks for the rich, the abolition of the ten pence tax rate, the abolition of the winter fuel allowance, soaring inequality, tuition fees, etc etc. So, the columnists wonder whether New Labour's head has disappeared up Brown's crack - surely, cabinet ministers with sense can see what's being done? Surely, the backbenchers can understand that their careers are at risk? Why isn't there a revolt? Well, there may be a revolt, but I suspect it would be a Blairite one aimed at removing an elephantine social misfit from a post that they would rather trust to Charles Clarke or Alan Milburn. There will not be a change of course. And the reason is simple: they are committed to this, they like doing what they're doing, they think it's sound economics and good politics. The Labour Party has spent twenty years talking itself into this happy little rut, and it no longer has the means to think that it might be good to get out.

All of which raises the question: what is to be done? My favourite kind of question as it happens. The left has to have a strategy for coping with the collapse of Labourism that doesn't threaten to drag it down with the irreparable hulk. That can neither take the form of sectarian disengagement with Labour supporters, nor can it take the form of some 'progressive alliance' uniting the various fragments of the radical left, since a) it would not necessarily be more than the sum of its parts, b) it is not going to happen anyway, and c) even if it did, it would in practise be tied to the Labour Party. Both of the above solutions are tempting short-cuts, to be sure, especially when there appears to be a paucity of alternatives. But an alternative to Labourism cannot be built from above by a loose association of 'ecosocialists' and Eurocommunists who flee under the Labour umbrella when there is the slightest of sign of precipitation. It has to come from below, and to that extent it has to come from the ongoing revival of trade union militancy, particularly from the fightback against Brown's government by the very working class who can no longer stand to vote for that shower. As these strike waves become more frequent and longer, as they are sure to do, the question that has dogged previous trade union conferences - why are we funding these bastards? - will return with force. The hardcore of Labour left hangers-on will have to look increasingly outward, toward alignments beyond the party that it is kicking them. Of course, no alternative that could conceivably be built would be a 'pure' working class movement, or from the old left. It would embrace all the diverse campaigns that the Left has thrown itself into, including defending council housing, defending asylum seekers, fighting the BNP, resisting the war, and so on.

I suppose it's about time I mentioned the People Before Profit charter, which has got the support of Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn MP, John Pilger and others. The purpose of the charter is to formulate a set of demands and signposts for the way forward. It expresses some basic requirements that the left can agree on - no wage increases below the rate of inflation, tax businesses and the rich to fund welfare and public services (particularly impose a windfall tax on energy companies), repeal anti-union laws etc. It also commits to support for various essential campaigns such as Stop the War, Unite Against Fascism, Keep Our NHS Public, and so on. You can read it in full here [pdf], although I believe a separate website is being developed for this. And you can sign it by e-mailing your name and details to: peoplebeforeprofitcharter@googlemail.com.