Thursday, May 6, 2010

Election Inquest - Is there a void in the mind of the Left?

From Ken Curran (left).

The Polls have just closed. I am, therefore, not yet in a position to be able to know whether Labour has the largest number of MPs, whether we have a hung parliament, or whether we have finished up in third place. But what I do know is that this has been a terrible election, not just for the Labour Party but for the future of progressive politics.

Whilst the novelty of the TV debates could have raised some excitement amongst sections of the electorate, nobody can genuinely claim they were designed to raise the levels of political enlightenment. They were just another TV Game Show.

To understand why Labour is likely to have done so badly in the election, we need a sense of labour history in order to understand where its malaise had its roots.

Labour stood to be beaten long before the election was called. For years there has been a growing gulf between the Labour Party and its natural supporters. This has not just been a political gulf; every bit as important has been the cultural gulf. Over the past 30 to 40 years, too many Labour MPs have tried to emulate to the rich in dress, lifestyle and outlook. They have regarded politics as a career, not seeing themselves as the advocates of the poor. They have not acted on behalf of those whose problems arise from the operations of the current system of free market capitalism. They have failed to recognise the damage the free market does to those at the bottom of the economic pile. They have personally distanced themselves as far away as possible from those people they perceive as failures. New Labour has failed to recognise that the very economic system it put its faith in to produce a Golden Age of Post Blairism is itself fundamentally flawed.

People were never left in any doubt by Keir Hardie as to who he represented in Parliament. I feel that he would not have wished to have been seen dead with many of today's Labour aspirants. Nor would I.

Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems have tried to build three separate false perspectives. Each, however, presuming that economic and social progress will come as a pre-ordained gift provided we only vote for them. None of the parties have attempted to present the electorate with a vision for the future.

Whilst Brown did make several attempts to steer debate around to economic issues, both Cameron and Clegg avoided engagement on the issue. This meant that without seeing any serious debate, a mainly politically immature electorate were more easily seduced by the two younger and photogenic challengers for Downing Street. Given the nature of the TV coverage, hormones played the major role.

The big question at this important juncture is how do we begin to tackle the void in British politics which is the absence of democratic socialism from the centre stage.

A pointer is provided in an article by Matthew Brown entitled "The Void In The Mind Of The Left" which appears in the Spring Edition of Democratic Socialism. A version of his article can be found here here on the web-site of Independent Labour Publications.

His article is a response to the Compass Summer Lecture in September 2009 on "The Future of Social Democracy" by Jon Cruddas - which is printed as the first article here. In his address Cruddas had called for a realignment of social democracy and social liberalism constructed on what he called the four pillars of progressive politics - equality, community, sustainability and democracy. Under these banners he set out what he calls "a programme for the centre left".

Listening to the talk, Matthew Brown regards Cruddas's programme as little more than a series of leftish sounding demands for reforms; including anything from Compass's much trumpeted High Pay Commission to greater tax justice, scrapping Trident and the third runway at Heathrow, integrated transport, constitutional change including proportional representation and so on.

None of these will answer Mrs Duffy of Rochdale or the poor on the Manor Estate at Sheffield.

Following Jon Cruddas's talk a number of people contributed from the platform. It was Professor Massey who identified the lack of a political strategy in what had been said, claiming that a shopping list of electoral demands would not create a basis for viable politics. Whilst she was well disposed to many of the calls for radicalism from Cruddas, she felt that without a political strategy to support such a programme, it would ultimately fail as (by itself) it would create enemies. She felt that there was a need to go beyond parties and parliament to build a cultural and political movement as a means of bringing about wider and deeper social change.

I conclude from the forgoing remark that without a fully thought through programme and an accompanying strategy, the chances of a future radical Labour Government capable of being able to change the behaviour of capitalism are nil. The first challenge as I see it is to educate the electorate. As Professor Massey pointed out "Labour has been so used to having a natural social base it has no idea how to construct a new one". She claimed that "work has to be put in to establish a new common sense, because that is what he (Cruddas) is calling for. The current common sense took a concerted effort over years - not just the big set piece battles but the drip, drip, drip of arguments and constant assertions".

In 1992 I wrote a discussion paper entitled "Re-vitalising Labour". My opening sentence was - "We must return to the streets as the Party of protest, giving expression to the concerns of the people". We cannot wait for some political event or opportunity to arise before we act. Over the past few years the Party has almost suppressed its natural inclination to show anger in public. We became more concerned with image than we were with the many violations against working people perpetuated by Thatcher and her band of pirates.

Because we wanted respectability from the establishment, our supporters were left on their own. We have to been seen physically both supporting and leading people in their daily trials for them to recognise that Labour is really on their side.

When Professor Massey stated the need to go beyond parliament and political parties to build a cultural and political movement to bring about wider and deeper social change, then personally I feel that she is right. Perhaps we need the formation of a new Chartist Movement to operate beyond the current political parties. With clearly declared objectives, perhaps set in a time-scale it could become a massive public pressure group. Its size would force all political parties to have due regard for its views and demands.(The original Chartists in 1848).

If such a movement had been formed well in advance and in sufficient depth, then perhaps Blair would not have been able to join Bush in his Iraq war. I can think of a number of times when the existence of a new Chartist Movement could have influenced the Government. The most recent could have been over the banking system and the bonus's paid to executive directors. It has not just been Labour voters who have been angry over these issues. I am sure that there are many Tory voters who are angry over the arrogance of bankers and big business bosses. These discontented people have a key role to play if we ever hope to change the behaviour of capitalism.

We need a wide debate on the future of what is a fragile democracy. We can at least do our own bit in the light of today's election results. Others are welcome to participate. See here also.

Ken Curran Snr, Chair of the Sheffield Co-operative Party. Sheffield District Labour Party. Writing in a personal capacity.

On Sunday evening, the Dronfield Labour Party Discussion Group (seen below) will be discussing the consequences of the General Election Result for Labour. Roger Barton our former MEP will be the speaker whilst Ken Curran will be present to argue for his above concerns. This could well be the first grass roots reaction in the Labour Party to the new situation. (See the right hand panel for details).


  1. Next week the National Executive Committee should delay the election for the Leadership of the Labour Party and in its place instigate wide ranging discussions throughout the Party about how Labour should operate in the future and what its major policy objectives should be. It is only following such discussions by the membership of the Labour Party, its affiliated organisations, the Co-operative Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party that the leadership contest should be set in motion. The discussions do not need to lead to a firm policy programme, but we need to find out what views on Labour's future direction exist within the Labour Movement so we can then have a meaningful leadership contest in which the candidates and those voting understand each other.


    I was never less interested in what the outcome of a general election would be. The Labour Party did better than I expected. NE Derbyshire is now a marginal seat, which did NOT surprise me; and I fear that we shall be stuck with Natascha and Blairism in this neck of the woods for some time to come.

    What chance is there for breaking free from American domination over our foreign policies? We finished paying off our war debts towards the end of 2009, BUT the American's "own" quite a lot of our national assetts and probably (I speculate) have enough financial grip to have a dominant influence over our decisions.

    The Coalition Government may well inflict hurtful cuts in expenditure etc, BUT it will benefit from a very juicy windfall by selling back those banks that were bailed out last year; and the profits will probably be BILLIONS.

    It has been clear that western governments, ours included, are unable - or perhaps unwilling to control the powerful bankers. The IMF, however, must feel that "it" can exert pressure enough to have serious influence over them.

    I speculate that when nations turn to the IMF for help, then "it" can then dish out very lucrative contracts to the various financial institutions and I guess that competition for such contracts will be strong. Hopefully, then, bankers will need to toe any lines set by IMF or pay the price of seeing rivals take advantage. So then, WHO CONTROLS THE IMF, which (I think) has control over many (maybe most) of the western democracies?

    Much of this is, I admit, speculation.

    We have been here before and seen it all. There is now talk of parliamentary reform. There was such talk last time when it was a hung parliament and the time before that, although in the end nothing much happened. We may get round to proportional representation. Who knows? I wonder what difference that will make to the electorate. It WOULD make some difference to political parties I think. The transfer vote recommended by Jenkins is a disaster which could still happen. The electorate AND the politicians will catch on to that (I HOPE) in no time flat, especially once they see the possible shock of a BNP candidate getting elected.

    In any case AS I SEE IT voters would have to vote for a party rather than a candidate and it would become the norm - then in NE Derbyshire we might end having something worse than Natascha imposed upon us. To be truthful I don't know exactly what the Lib Dems want, or more to the point what exactly will be the mechanics of the final objective of a fully "proportional" voting system. But I am scared that any small advance they make next year will lead to the Jenkin's proposals becoming the accepted norm.