Monday, 23 July 2012

Digging myself a hole

I made the trek up to Durham last week for Unite’s political school and the Miners Gala. Just a fortnight after Unite’s Policy Conference in Brighton, and with a cold hanging over me, I had considered whether I was really this committed. However in the intervening time I received a (completely unsolicited) letter from the Communist Party. So, figuring my hopes of a career at MI5 were already dashed, I set off for the North.

It was a great few days in a beautiful city with old friends and new. There was however one particular incident that I will remember, and that is getting into an argument with the redoubtable Ian Lavery MP, the ex-president of the NUM, about class.

Mr Lavery, along with Jim Sheridan MP, gave speeches to our little group and then fielded questions. Something set me off. Maybe it was his admission that he loved to argue. Perhaps it was the mention that as an NUFC supporter he clashed with Man Utd fans, at a time when I know my dad was in the Firm. Beyond that though, there seemed to be a disagreement about what it meant to be part of the labour movement.
A full and frank exchange of ideas ensued. We shook hands afterwards, and while he won the room I gave a decent account of myself for a cocky 24 year old. However my little run-in did get me thinking about how we all put people in boxes.
There has always been a tendency in the labour movement to create our own aristocracy, and in the mythology miners sit at the top. From Orwell’s vision of “iron hammered iron statues”, to Peter Clarke and his exhortations about 1926, to the Gotterdammerung of the 1980s, there has been a fascination with this profession above all by those on the Left, in some ways akin to what the Right feel for certain elements of the armed forces. This hasn’t often crystalised in the leadership, but then the Tory Party hasn’t elevated many guardsmen to the top jobs. Both parties seem to prefer Old Oxonians after all. Yet still that veneration is palpable, and perhaps nowhere more than on that day in Durham.

I do occasionally wonder how much of this yearning is for the reality or the fantasy. Bevan, who actually started in a colliery, seems to have gotten out of it as soon as dignity allowed. His subsequent diet, particularly the champagne, rarely gave the impression he wanted to go back to dying for eight hours a day. Dennis Skinner worked in the pits for twenty years, but he’s been a Parliamentarian for over forty. One struggles to believe he would have kept going at the coalface fifteen years after he could have retired, or that he would have been as useful to the causes he supports.

Part of this fascination is top down, the dialectic daydreams of Fabian intellectuals seeing themselves commanding hordes of broad-shouldered proletarians at the barricades. Somehow organising Britain’s million call-centre workers lacks the same romantic edge. The mental check being applied is how good you’ll be hitting a copper with a pick-handle. Yet this attitude isn’t revolutionary, but profoundly reactionary. The notion that you’re better than someone because of the way you speak, dress or earn your living is a Tory idea, regardless of which way round you apply it. Equality of respect for our fellow men and women, because we all have value, is at the heart of the labour movement.

Now I know how this will come across, as some posh lad objecting to his privilege coming to an end. I leave that for you to decide. I lived on a council estate. I went to private school. My mum was a single parent. I went to university. I have a Mancunian accent. I work in an office. I hate the ballet, classical music, and football. I love poetry, brutalist architecture and strong tea. I’m not entirely sure where that puts me, so answers on a postcard please.

I don’t think every Labour councillor and Parliamentarian should be judged by how closely they resemble Alexey Stakhanov. Old Hayleburian Clem Attlee didn’t, and neither did the former Viscount Stansgate. And nor will the next generation, particularly the women, BAEM or disabled candidates whose participation is essential for our movement to be representative of Britain as a whole.

Just as we viewed the American arguments about whether Barack Obama was ‘really black’ with incredulity, so would most people see our agonising over one’s working class credentials as distracting at best and cultish at worst. Now, to be perfectly clear, Parliament is far too narrow. There is a difference between knowing what the poverty and unemployment are intellectually, statistically, and having lived through it, and both views are needed. The great thing is that we don’t need to wrestle with exactly what ‘class’ is in Britain to fix the democratic structure, as long as we ensure a diversity of experiences. The problem is not that Parliament includes journalists, or lawyers, or even public school boys. It is that it contains a disproportionate amount of those groups compared to the wider population. It probably always will.

But moves towards a more diverse House of Commons should be welcomed and fought for. The way to do this is through better organisation and bringing more people into the movement, so candidates are less reliant upon their own resources of time and money to run. It is about making processes transparent so that selection processes aren’t restricted to those ‘in the know’. It is about giving opportunities to learn the skills of communication and public discussion, so those who didn’t get their practice in at the Bar or the Oxford Union aren’t excluded from the debate.

It is not, however, about deciding whether your clothes make you the enemy, like Labour were some coalition of Mods and Rockers. To paraphrase Billy Bragg, just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I’m not a socialist.

That is not dead, which can eternal lie...

Anthony Blair’s musing over a return to British political life has caused much consternation amongst the Labour movement. The two great criticisms of New Labour as a project, that it was too close to Big Finance and Big Media, are being thrown into sharp relief by Leveson and the events at Barclays.
Mr Blair has some extremely competent defenders, and my friend Stephen Bush over at Progress does a remarkably good attempt at defending ‘the legacy’. Yet the third great criticism of New Labour goes without mention in his article. That, of course, is Iraq.

It’s almost a decade since the marches, the arguments and the invasion. Many argue it’s been done to death. But actually, for much of the Labour movement, it’s not even about the blood and treasure squandered in the deserts of Mesopotamia. It’s about the will and double standards of New Labour.

For the length of the New Labour project, we socialists were told we were dreamers, with our notions of greater workers’ rights, economic rebalancing, public ownership and the rest. But we weren’t the only ones. The aspirations of the New Labour elite, from the Euro to ending boom and bust, seem like fantasies today. Yet Iraq is the defining moment where the Labour Government reversed the old maxim and declared “Not for Peace, but for War”.

The rulebook was thrown out the window. The Clintonian triangulation about focus groups and public opinion was ignored, the importance of party unity disregarded, the media threatened into submission. The biggest march in British history came to the streets of London, and the prime minister remained unmoved. While Tony Blair did, indeed, go on to win the 2005 election, he received fewer votes than Major got in 1997.

This demonstrated the power of ideology over pragmatism. The Labour government did have the power to enact a hugely expensive, hugely unpopular policy, and spend its entire political capital both domestically and internationally doing so. What had been lacking was the will. The fundamental legitimacy of the Labour movement was put on the line. This was not done for an issue of social justice, or economic success, but for the particular ideological convictions of its leader. And so the arguments against ‘Old Labour’ policies were exposed as bunkum. It was not that New Labour couldn’t bring about the reforms the movement had asked for, it was that they didn’t want to. The psychological shock of that betrayal – of knowing what could have been achieved after 6 years – still reverberates within the labour movement.

I do not degrade the important things done in office. As a man who likes other men I have a lot to be grateful for, though my student debt wears away at that gratitude a little every month. And yes, I still get a twinge when ‘Things can only get better’ comes on. But the man of 1997 is not the man of 2012.  You don’t have to keep defending the messianic tax-exile because you loved the nice young reformer.

At the last though, we don’t judge people in the balance, we judge them on the worst things they did. Nothing Ted Kennedy did made up for Chappaquiddick. Making decent chocolate bars doesn’t make up for Nestle pushing formula to African mothers. And there is no exchange rate that says you get excused so many dead civilians in a foreign land because you gave pensioners free bus passes.

But perhaps the best argument against Blair’s return is deeply Blairite. He’s no use. The fireworks and slick sheen are useless against a far more cynical electorate than we had in 1997. Substance is required, not spin.The challenges to the labour movement today are immense. And as someone once said, today is not a day for soundbites.