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Monday, August 16, 2010 

Why I'm not joining the Labour party.

You might recall that a couple of months back I wrote a pretty dreadful off-the-cuff piece on how I might be joining the Labour party, having been moved to reappraise my long opposition to the party while in power. Since then I've reappraised the reappraisal, and moved by Sunny's decision to join, it's worth taking a look at the reasons why now isn't the time to do so.

First off, the only real legitimate reason to join Labour at the moment is to vote in the leadership election. The party certainly hasn't since the general election presented any real reason to join it through its performance in opposition, which has been woeful at best and damning at worst. True, the party has been more concerned with the election of that new leader than anything else, but that hasn't stopped the current old shadow cabinet from deciding to oppose the bill setting up the referendum on the alternative vote on the specious grounds that the equalising of constituencies will amount to gerrymandering. To go from supporting AV to ostensibly opposing it in just over three months is an absolutely ludicrous position, and bodes ill for how the party intends to fight the coalition over the next potential five years. Whilst it's perfectly reasonable to want to have a say in who leads the opposition, we all know that it's going to be a Miliband. And again, while it matters which Miliband it is, and my preference would be Ed, it isn't going to make that significant a difference: both will undoubtedly keep the party either dead in the centre or move it very slightly to the left. Indeed, the only candidate who might move it further would be Diane Abbott, and she isn't going to win.

Sunny makes a good, but hardly watertight case in his piece for joining something, just almost certainly not Labour:

I don’t think it’s possible to sit by idly while the Coalition tries to better Thatcher in destroying the welfare state. I wanted to get involved in the fight-back but I also wanted to be part of a political movement that articluated an alternative.

Trouble is, we don't yet know just how far the coalition is going to go. Admittedly, the omens are far from good, and there's already much to oppose which has so far been suggested, but we're not going to find out just where the cuts are going to fall and how heavily until October. Sure, we should start to mobilise now, yet from within Labour? Almost certainly not.

Why? Because the candidates for the leadership have not even begun to articulate that alternative. The hustings so far have been raking over the past, which any party which has just lost power needs to do, yet with the exception perhaps of Ed Balls none of the candidates have set out a course on what they need to do now to oppose the coalition, let alone rebuild the party to an extent where it can win again. All of them have successfully identified areas of policy which Labour while in power got wrong, and in their Fabian essays, probably the best distillation so far of where they stand and where they're going, all recognise that the party has been too managerial, that it triangulated far too much and that it lost the support of core voters for various different reasons whom they need to win back. Andy Burnham, bless him, even makes an attempting at rehabilitating "socialism", even if he has to pair it with that other should be dead New Labour buzzword "aspirational" to do so. None of this however at the moment amounts to anything other than fine words, nor should we be surprised that it doesn't. When the coalition itself doesn't yet know how hard and how fast it's going to cut, we can't expect them to build an alternative to something which itself doesn't yet exist. Hence why joining Labour now is a daft idea: let's first see what the new leader does when the time comes.

We shouldn't however got our hopes up even then. At the moment most are assuming that even if the coalition lasts the full five years, Labour will be able to effectively clean up, such will be the anger over the cuts, the wholesale desertion from the Liberal Democrats of the floating voters and general discontent at how things will have gone. What though if that doesn't happen? What instead if this is Labour's turn to experience what the Tories did from 1997 to 2005? Just like the Tories suffered from being unable to exorcise the ghost of Thatcher, such was the grip of Blair and Brown over Labour that we now have a whole group of leadership candidates whom with the exception of Diane Abbott can be identified either as Blairite or Brownites, fairly or not. As much as the party might want to move on, it's struggling to do so for the simple reason that none of the candidates even begin to represent a clean break from the party's period in government. This would have been different if either Jon Cruddas or even John Denham had decided to stand, neither of whom fit comfortably into either category, have their own ideas and could have at least been in with an outside chance of winning. Moreover, even with many of the shadow cabinet retiring or returning to the backbenches once the leadership election is over, it's not clear where the new blood is going to come from. It's in all likelihood going to take until 2015 for the rising talent and new MPs to make a proper impact, conveniently maybe for when Labour needs to choose its next leader.

Sunny also writes:

Given the Coalition’s agenda, the time to just shout from the sidelines and hope the system changes is over. We have to campaign for it and get involved in the political system. We have to try and influence that direction. Labour’s values used to be different, and it can change again. That doesn’t necessarily mean political wilderness, because

Labour is at an intellectual juncture with the centrists devoid of ideas, vision or energy. It’s no wonder many of them are now joining the Coalition as advisers.

The problem is that it isn't just the centrists who are devoid of ideas: the entire party is. The party's election manifesto, lest we forget written by Ed Miliband, is testament to that, and even with the addition of his thinking on a living wage rather than simply a minimum one it remains a tired document, just as the party itself is tired. It needs revitalising, but while those previously outside the party can help it's fundamentally the role of those inside to recognise such is the case, and they show no indication of doing so. This is, as Jamie so succinctly puts it, the party of Phil Woolas. It's the party of Alan Johnson, declaring that he doesn't think anything the party did which affected civil liberties was wrong. It's the party of Jack Straw, disingenuous, dissembling and the consummate politician to the very last. Labour as it stands is an authoritarian, centralising and centrist party which has yet to even begin to realise where it went wrong, and in the shape of David Miliband at least has little to no inclination to change any of that.

If the cuts turn out to be as harsh as we fear them to be, let alone if the feared double-dip recession becomes reality, then the real opposition to them is unlikely to be led by Labour but instead by the trade unions and at the grassroots. The record of Labour support for such campaigns in the past has been sketchy at best, despite so many current Labour MPs and indeed leadership candidates expressing horror at their own memories of the 80s, and there's no reason to assume anything will be different this time, especially as Labour's connections with the trade unions continue to dwindle as MPs and activists fail to find common cause. A single member, even one as well connected and influential as Sunny, is highly unlikely to make much difference on that score.

Sunny concludes:

Labour has to become pluralist, outward-looking and visionary. It needs conviction in the values that it was founded on. It needs to attract back millions of voters. I feel I can better campaign for that from within the party than outside it.

All of this is true. Key will be whether the party itself is willing to be receptive to those aims, and at the moment it seems to be interested only in power for its own sake, just as it was after 97, rather than in any great internal soul-searching. I could be too pessimistic: this time next year the new leader might have articulated the alternative to the cuts in such a way that makes the coalition's blaming of Labour for everything start looking like the big fat lie which it is; the party might be leading the opposition to the worst, most destructive cuts while recognising and supporting alternatives elsewhere; it could have left behind the Blair and Brown years and be outlining the beginnings of a new era of Labour thinking; and it could have dislodged, even abandoned the authoritarianism and centralising nature previously inherent within the party. Equally, it might be just as much in the doldrums as it is now. Either way, joining the party at this time will change nothing. The left needs to unite and fight; it just doesn't need to do so from within the confines of a party.

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I call the Labour party as it stands now the "Stopped Clock", as in "Even a stopped clock shows the right time twice a day". They seem to be saying some of the right things (albeit in a half-arsed way) in criticising the Tory cuts agenda every now and again, but that's just because they're in opposition - it's certainly not for ideological reasons. In my view, the party needs to be "flushed out" and completely reformed. Before such a time, I'd rather put my trust in unions.

Interesting ... Are you saying then that large cuts in spending aren't necessary and we can just go on borrowing 100s billions a year?

No. I state quite clearly that Labour hasn't yet articulated an alternative to the cuts, and also say that hopefully the party might be leading the opposition to the worst most destructive cuts while recognising and supporting alternatives elsewhere. We all know there's got to be cuts, even if some within Labour still currently believe otherwise, just there doesn't have to be to the extent to which the coalition appears to be planning.

What the Labour Party needs to do is to be disbanded entirely. Whoever is "elected" leader of the party will hopefully lead it to death. After thirteen years ruining Britain and putting the country into disrepute, this would be the very least they could do. End of.

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