The local elections have left Gordon Brown and the Labour government in a very weak position. Brown himself is deeply unpopular. The Tories, thanks to years of New Labour betrayal, are once again a viable electoral alternative.
Here in the South Wales valleys, where Labour used to rule unchallenged, control of three councils have now slipped from its grip. In a newspaper interview a local Labour activist argued that Brown’s continuation of Blair’s policies, symbolised by his invitation to Number Ten of Margaret Thatcher who is rightly hated for her role in destroying the coal based economy of South Wales, was the number one cause for the recent election losses.
John McDonnell’s own response to the local elections was relatively muted. He said:
“After the serious rejection of New Labour at the polls last week assurances that the Government is listening are simply not going to be enough to restore any sense of belief in the Labour Party. What is needed is a radical change of political direction. We have to demonstrate that change by introducing a new policy programme that specifically and very concretely addresses peoples’ concerns raised on the doorstep. This May manifesto petition is launched so that all our supporters can have a say in pressing for the changes we need. We believe that Labour can win back the support of our people by adopting a new 2008 May Manifesto.”
What is to be done?
Across the labour movement activists in the Labour Party, the unions and the wider left are all asking what should be done in the light of New Labour’s rotten record and the shift to the right, in elections at least, that it has precipitated. The answer is to wage war on the whole New Labour Project. And the war should start with a battle to finish Brown’s leadership off.
We don’t say this because we think Brown lacks charisma and is a poor communicator. Such twaddle is best left to the press pundits who think politics should be about celebrity and image.
But nor is addressing Labour’s crisis merely a matter of convincing Brown to adopt a few better policies to revive Labour’s credibility with its voting base. Cosmetic surgery cannot eradicate the ugliness of New Labour.
Brown and New Labour need to be fought at every level of the labour movement. The pay freeze needs to be smashed. The increasingly regressive tax system needs to become the focus of mass protest action. The steam roller of Labour privatisation across the public services needs to halted in its tracks. And the daily racism meted out by this government – racism that is fuelling the growth of the fascists – needs to be combated.
The Labour Left today
The first port of call for workers up against such a right wing Labour government used to be the Labour Left. But today the Labour Left cannot rally mass support in the unions and really shake things up in the way, for example, that Benn’s deputy leadership challenge did in the early 1980s.
John McDonnell, the nearest person to being a figurehead that the Labour Left has in parliament, could not get enough support from MPs to mount a leadership challenge to Brown last year. With so many MPs looking anxiously at their slender majorities he would probably get even less support for a challenge now.
More importantly he does not have anything approaching a sizeable base amongst the activists – in the party or the unions – to be able to shake things up. The membership of the Labour Party is in sharp decline. So too is that of its left. The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) which McDonnell heads has rightly opened itself up to non-party members (though wrongly, as long as they don’t stand against Labour) to try and build up wider support for its renewal project. But there are no signs that this is transforming the LRC into a significant player.
In these circumstances John McDonnell’s new manifesto is a disappointing one. It consists of the following ten points:
“ * Nailing the 10p tax mistake by the introduction of a fair tax system removing the low paid from taxation and ensuring the wealthiest and corporations pay their fair share
* An increase in the basic state pension, immediately restoring the link with earnings, lifting people off means tested benefits and providing free care for the elderly
* An immediate start on a large scale council house building programme and assistance for those facing repossession
* Immediate end to programme of local Post Office closures and liberalisation of postal services
* An end to the privatisation of our public services
* A new pay deal for public sector workers to protect their living standards and tackle low pay
* Abolishing tuition fees and restoring maintenance grants for all students
* Scrapping ID cards and abandoning 42 days detention
* Introduction of a trade union freedom bill and measures to protect temporary and agency workers
* Rejecting the proposals to renew Trident”
This is a pallid manifesto. While Brown hits the poorest sections of society with unfair indirect taxes he tolerates criminally low rates of corporation tax. Calling for fairness doesn’t really amount to much. Why not say openly, let’s tax the rich?
A new pay deal for public sector workers? Why not call for an end to Brown’s pay freeze? Reject Trident – sure, but we aren’t using it in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s prioritise getting Britain out of the wars Labour is actually waging and link this to a fight to end Britain’s nuclear missile programme.
A new trade union bill is all well and good – but what about scrapping the existing anti-union laws? And why no mention of renationalising the railways, raising the minimum wage and carrying through a massive investment in the public sector, including bringing privatised services back into state ownership?
By any standards this manifesto seems timid when so much is at stake. And if you believe, as McDonnell does, the answer to the current political crisis and growing economic mess, is a programme of left reforms then those reforms should provide a fundamental alternative to the New Labour programme.
It is questionable whether even a set of more powerful reforms would do the trick. Will issuing a manifesto, even a better one than Mcdonnell’s (better in left reformist terms) really change much? It will be taken up by a handful of supporters. It will give Labour left activists a petition they can take to meetings. And it will provide a counterpoint to the official manifesto when work on it gets underway. But it won’t change a great deal in British politics because it does not constitute a full frontal attack on New Labour.
A manifesto for today should encompass a strategy for taking on and defeating New Labour in every arena of the class struggle – the party itself, the unions, the campaigns against racism and fascism, the campaigns against climate change, the campaigns to defend abortion rights.
A call to arms
McDonnell should have issued a call to arms. He should have said, “Brown is following on from Blair. He is leading us to disaster and I intend to call a national meeting of all activists across the movement (or I call on all activists to come to the Convention of the Left) to discuss waging a fight to the finish with these traitors in our midst. They have single handedly saved the Tories from oblivion and restored their electoral credibility. I will ask every union conference to back my challenge to the leadership of Brown in the next few months. I declare war on New Labour” … or words to that effect!
But he didn’t. He did not outline a course of action that could rally people to a fight now. He poses it all as a “policy” change. This misses the point. Brown will change policies as and when it suits, as the retreats over the 10p tax threshold shows.
What Brown will not do is change New Labour’s fundamental line. And getting into arguments about the finer points of policy plays into Brown’s hands. He can keep the debate going at that level while carrying on a neoliberal programme at a practical level.
None of this is to suggest that McDonnell and the LRC should not be part of the fightback. They should. But the number one priority is not a policy debate within the Labour Party in preparation for the next election. The priority is beginning the fightback – the sooner the better – so that the working class movement is better equipped to resist whatever is thrown at them by either New Labour or the Tories, before, during and after the next general election.