The Parliamentary Labour Party has been out of touch for years, but now the people have a voice again, writes MARTIN MAYER
JEREMY CORBYN’S extraordinary surge in the Labour leadership race has caused shock and panic in the media and has generated denunciation and condemnation from the Labour hierarchy and across the wider “political class.”
New Labour is already crying foul and challenging the electoral process itself — the very one member, one vote ballot that the right wing has been demanding for years.
It seems as if the entire political class — the media, the Establishment, big business, the leaders in our country — is of the opinion that a Corbyn victory would be a disaster for the Labour Party and that Labour would be “unelectable” in 2020, or maybe destroyed altogether.
The truth is there is a real fear that a lurch to the left on a popular wave of support from young people, alienated voters of all ages and working-class men and women who’ve felt turned off from politics for years will break the neoliberal political consensus that has gripped British politics for 30 years.
For there can be no doubt now that Corbyn’s lead in the polls in the widest and most democratic contest for a Labour leader ever, and with a hugely expanded electorate of possibly up to 600,000 members and registered and affiliated supporters, is most certainly a sign of his eminent electability.
If an anti-austerity figure offering a real alternative of a better and fairer future can generate such enthusiasm and regeneration of interest in politics in such a short span of time, how can anyone doubt that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would surge in the polls and take the 2020 general election by storm?
However the British Establishment is not worried that a Corbyn victory will destroy Labour’s chances.
They are scared stiff that left politics is back with a vengeance, which could wreck the project the Establishment has been engaged in over the last 30 years — destroying the corporate mixed economy and dismantling the so-called welfare state that was constructed in the post-war years.
Their neoliberal vision is one of unbridled free-market capitalism, unfettered by regulation, freed of trade unions and cumbersome red tape like health and safety legislation and workers’ rights, paying rock-bottom taxes, gobbling up our public services with lucrative “no-risk” public-sector contracts, and no longer required to support a welfare state “benefit culture.”
After all, they dream, isn’t it obviously true that capitalism unleashed will generate such extraordinary new wealth and jobs and prosperity for all?
George Osborne’s austerity package is increasingly understood as being a device to achieve the endgame in that project, and much less about reducing the government’s deficit.
Of course New Labour did not sign up to the entire project. Tony Blair got rid of Clause IV, Labour’s socialist credo, he continued the privatisation of public services started under Thatcher and determinedly refused to repeal her anti-union laws.
But New Labour did believe in light-touch regulation such as the national minimum wage and the subsidisation of a low-wage economy by means of working families tax credits.
Ed Miliband, much to New Labour’s chagrin, took the party back towards the centre left, with popular policies like reversing the privatisation of the NHS, restoring the top rate of tax, ending zero-hours contracts and raising minimum income levels towards the living wage.
But on economic policy, Labour still went into the 2015 election fully signed up to an “austerity-lite” agenda, promising further welfare cuts, including Ed Balls’s disgraceful pledge to cap child benefit, and promising yet further wage restraint on public-sector workers, who were hammered under the coalition government and made to pay for a crisis not of their making.
Where was the bold vision of an alternative for working people who had seen their incomes fall in real terms over the last five years? Where was the prospect of decent, proper jobs for young people? What was on offer to solve a housing crisis that has hit the poor and those on low incomes so hard?
In spite of Labour’s shortcomings on a policy vision, its confusion on race and immigration and its paralysis in the face of the SNP, Miliband’s shift to a more humane centre-left Labour vision of a fairer Britain generated a big increase in Labour Party membership during the final weeks of the election campaign.
After the shock Tory victory, that increase became a surge, with around 40,000 new members signed up within a month of Labour’s electoral defeat.
As we know, that increase in membership has surged even more during this Labour leadership election to stand now at almost 300,000 — an increase of approximately 50 per cent in a matter of months.
In the main these are decent people who are genuinely concerned enough about the future of our country under a Tory majority government to get engaged in fighting for a real alternative.
For those of us on the left of the party, Corbyn’s dominance in this leadership campaign is great news — but it’s not entirely an accident either.
Yes, it was a struggle to find enough Labour MPs prepared to nominate him — and many who did are not Corbyn supporters.
But then the Parliamentary Labour Party has hardly represented the thinking of the wider party membership and supporters for some years.
The signs have been there for those who wanted to see it.
From the loss of five million working-class voters from 1997-2010, to the desertion of working-class Labour voters to Ukip and the collapse of Scottish Labour to the SNP. New Labour really has not been a vote-winner for some time.
The Labour Party leadership refused to listen to our calls for an anti-austerity message and a bold vision of jobs, sustainable growth and hope for working people.
Its strategy was as always to gain respectability and approval in the columns of the Daily Mail and sound like pale Tories to wavering middle-class voters — our “only hope” of ever gaining power again.
To understand Corbyn’s extraordinary lead, you need to look at what has been happening in Labour’s core constituency during the coalition government.
Key to this shift in thinking has been the trade union movement, the democratic voice of working-class people, which has been increasingly critical of the right-of-centre direction in Labour Party policy.
From about 2005 onwards there has been a growing consensus at the annual TUC Congress on a broad, left-of-centre policy outlook.
This includes demands for real trade union freedom and workers rights, public investment in our infrastructure and state intervention in and regulation of the economy, a new council house-building programme and the reversal of privatisation of public services.
More recently it’s the TUC and the trade union movement that have led the popular opposition to austerity.
Huge rallies in London attracted hundreds of thousands of trade unionists — but also students, young people and ordinary people who shared our anti-austerity position but felt no mainstream political party expressed their views. The People’s Assembly, which attracted an astonishing 250,000 to its June 20 London rally, was set up with trade union influence in a conscious attempt to broaden the alliance between trade unions and the wider community.
Unite Community branches have embedded this community and trade union connection at a local level, while trades councils — often working alongside People’s Assembly and Unite Community branches — have led the protests against austerity in our towns and cities.
But the Labour Party leadership has refused to listen. New Labour’s stranglehold intellectually and organisationally has held the line on a right-wing neoliberal economic agenda, including “austerity-lite.”
Instead it demanded a lurch back to the right after Labour’s defeat. The three other candidates in the election promptly did exactly that, which largely explains their demonstrably poor performance.
Liz Kendall, as the darling of the New Labour “Progress” wing of the party, not surprisingly has done very poorly in this contest, reflecting the utter disdain for New Labour felt by most within Labour’s ranks.
Yvette Cooper, known previously as a “Brownite” New Labour supporter like husband Ed Balls, might have shone in this contest had she carved out a centre-left agenda.
But she made the fatal — and ultimately disloyal — mistake of condemning her own party’s manifesto as “too anti-business” within days of the election defeat, publicly calling for Labour to agree with the Tories on reductions in corporation tax and a reversal of Labour’s popular pledge to reintroduce the 50p top rate of tax. She has since been almost incapable of defining a policy vision at all.
Andy Burnham was certainly the likely winner in the early stages of the contest before Corbyn took the union support away from him.
He too made similar mistakes, lurching to the right on economic policy — including criticising the Brown government for not balancing the books before the 2008 crash and therefore yet again giving the Tories credence for their mantra that Labour’s “overspending caused the deficit” — and then vacillating in the face of the obvious left surge in the polls for Corbyn.
But the real denouement for all three of them was their support for the fateful decision of acting leader Harriet Harman to marshal the Parliamentary Labour Party into abject abstention on the Tories’ vicious Welfare Bill.
Yet again, Labour made the mistake of seeking respectability with the Tory press and imagined Tory voters, while ignoring the anger and disgust felt by the party membership at such a betrayal of Labour’s values.
Unseen by the “political class” has been a rumbling of discontent among Labour’s grassroots and indeed within the wider electorate who should have been natural Labour voters, angry and outraged by a brutally unfair system and a Labour Party which failed to connect with them.
It’s been going on unseen and unreported for some time. This leadership election — the first ever using one member one vote and with a credible left-wing candidate allowed to stand — has at last given a voice to the wider labour and trade union movement to express its view.
To New Labour and the Establishment’s shock and horror, they’re choosing Corbyn.
And for all the dismay, consternation and hand-wringing in Labour HQ, in newspaper offices and in business boardrooms, there’s a huge joy and optimism felt by the many tens of thousands out there whom Labour took for granted all these years.
Martin Mayer is a Unite Labour NEC member and chair of United Left.