Frances Perraudin reported this news in The Guardian (18 03 2015).
The following is an expanded version of my unpublished response/letter to The Guardian.
As individuals relentlessly trained into neoliberal individualism and consumerism, the act of joining a group, a team or a club can be seen as a personal choice, an expression of preference, values and/or interests. A mark of your individuality and ‘freedom’. If it doesn’t work out to your liking, you can leave to do something else. Not unlike returning a recent purchase because it doesn’t fit / work, or you have just changed your mind (because you can).
Voting and power relations.
Voting in a UK general election is distinctly different from consumer activity. It’s a political process, not shopping (around). It’s more complex, with considerable consequences, not just for you as an individual voter, but for others, including all those you have never met, who live alongside you in society. The politics of the Left is never about personal vested interests, but about power relations and society as a whole, which is why Labour voters routinely over a lifetime, find themselves prioritizing the need to get the Tories out or stop the Tories getting in. However much the Labour party falls short of your hopes and expectations, you know you have to vote to block the Tories, because you recognise these arrogant, greedy, heartless vandals as survivors and the enemy of the majority: the people.
This fact of life will never change, because they know who they are and what they stand for; and they are very well placed and funded. Whereas on the Left, we are not simply ‘one thing’: we are diverse, dispersed, and underfunded, for example. Historian, Selina Todd, has drawn attention to the diversity of working-class life in C20 Britain, for example between Liverpool and Coventry, and she observes:
Class is a relationship defined by unequal power, rather than a way of life or an unchanging culture. There can be no ‘ideal’ or ‘traditional’ working class. Instead there are individuals who are brought together by shared circumstances and experiences.[i]
In an economy that ostensibly promotes ‘choice’ as the consumerist/political offer, it is hard, perhaps particularly for those born into the neoliberal irreality (as opposed to those who experienced the ‘managed capitalism’ of the preceding years), to accept that at this level, actually you have no choice. It will feel like more than constraint, more than a curtailment of ‘freedom’, even coercion. “I don’t want to vote again for the least worst option”. But actually, that makes sense, doesn’t it?
The alternative is to let through the party you really, really don’t want to get in again, to form the next government alone or in coalition. 30+ years of neoliberal rhetoric and coercion leaves you feeling dissatisfied, indignant that you are being corralled by events and circumstances beyond your control. This doesn’t feel ‘modern’ and you don’t feel independent. But voting strategically is a function of how much you care and what/who you care about. It’s not a free for all.
Our electoral system decides which of the two main parties, with the requisite overall majority, will govern the country for the next 5 years; or which of the two main parties, without an overall majority, will govern in coalition with a smaller party or parties; and which party leader (of the two main parties) will become Prime Minister. That’s the system we have and what we have to work with until we change it.[ii]
In an election that is probably the most important, far-reaching and scary since 1945, if you want to help prevent the further dismembering of the NHS, the further ravaging of communities, the undermining of the lives of those with disabilities or ill health, and the continuing exploitation of the environment, the further privatization of everything that moves, including education, probation and social care, voting Green or SDP is not the way. Both will leave the Tories and UKIP smiling. The awkward truth is that you cannot punish the Labour Party without betraying all those who need the Tories and Lib Dems to experience outright rejection, paving the way for a Labour or Labour-led government that will work hard to remove the stain of the neoliberal years.
The Labour Party since 2010.
Since Ed Miliband became Labour Party leader in 2010, membership of the party has risen and diversified year on year, and has become more diverse and more representative of our society. At annual conferences, new and longstanding MPs, councillors, prospective parliamentary candidates and activists demonstrate their political passion, critical skills, determination, compassion, stamina and humour. It’s heartwarming and inspiring! Reaching into communities across the country, and drawing from communities, has been prioritized by the Party, not just as an election strategy, but because in opposition (and post New Labour) it is re-engaging with Labour’s historic back story and purpose: its raison d’être.[iii]
As a historian from a working-class background, Selina Todd exposes and explores the complex social and political journey travelled by the British working class between 1910 and 2010. Opening her introduction, she writes:
Class has united and divided Britain since the Industrial Revolution. United, because class is widely accepted as a quintessentially British fact of life, a heritage and language that we can all share. Divided, because class is no romantic tradition or amusing idiosyncracy, but is produced by exploitation in a country where a tiny elite has possessed the majority of the wealth.[iv] Emphasis added.
This understanding is part of the Labour Party’s DNA. Following chancellor George Osborne’s final budget (19 03 2015) before the general election, a Guardian letter writer comments:
A suggestion for the rich of a legal way to pay less tax: pay yourself less and pay workers a living wage. This way we would all pay less as the benefit bill would reduce. Fortunately, it is also Ed Miliband’s policy, so all we have to do is vote Labour (Brian Keegan, Guardian letters. 20 03 2015).
The place of women within the labour movement, on the other hand, has been both significant and contentious, not least since we developed our own social critiques and politics as feminists, which go beyond accepting men in power as role models and aspiring to upward ‘social mobility’.
Labour, women and social change.
Women have been historically prominent as social and political activists, inside and outside the Labour party, including across environmental, social justice and peace campaigns. The one day LP women’s conference, inaugurated in 2010 by Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader, has seen hundreds of women from across the country turning up a day early to attend (in Liverpool, Manchester, Brighton), and participation has doubled year on year. We fall over each other in our eagerness to speak from the floor; we queue patiently to share experiences and ideas; we listen attentively; we clap and cheer and wave to show support for each other. We smile and laugh and hug.
Labour’s Commission on Women’s Safety was set up in November 2011. In 2014, Labour MP Seema Malhotra was appointed by Ed Miliband as first shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls, to work alongside the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper. In 2014, the new panel Malhotra now chairs was launched at a packed meeting at the Labour women’s conference. The panel’s membership brings together longstanding, leading activists in the field, such as Vera Baird, QC, former Solicitor General and Northumbria’s current Police and Crime Commissioner; Holly Dustin, manager of EVAW (End Violence Against Women) coalition; and Marai Larasi, Executive Director of Imkaan, a black feminist organisation dedicated to addressing violence against women and girls, and joint chair of EVAW. In fact the only member I didn’t already know was the new Chair herself.
This is a panel of substance: established feminist activists, invited to bring their expertise and passion to this controversial, neglected and urgent area of social and political concern, and embed these issues at the heart of Labour politics and “at the heart of our modern welfare state” (Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary). To see this specific all-women line-up was momentous, even before anyone spoke. It was emotional: how long have we worked and waited for this recognition?
Already, proposals from Northumbria’s own panel, for a minister for VAWG, a commissioner to tackle domestic and sexual violence, and a new National Refuge fund, have all been accepted by Labour. For more detail, see Labour: Placing Women’s Safety Centre Stage (December 2014).
How are the other parties contributing to change in this hugely significant area, which is not just about protecting and enhancing the lives of women and children, but about improving gender power relations across society?
Challenging power, voicing discontent, enacting hope.
Award-winning British singer, Paloma Faith, brought up in a politically aware environment, with a mother who took her on demonstrations as a child, when asked about voting and the coming general election, took a very different stand to actor and comedian Russell Brand, who told young people not to bother voting. She vociferously recommended:
“Vote first. Then complain!” (Channel 4 news interview, 19 03 2015).
This, I suggest, is not the time to walk away from the Labour Party, thinking:
In an ideal world we’d have a Labour/SNP/Green coalition. . . . (Jack Monroe, cited Frances Perraudin. The Guardian, 18 03 2015).
Given the contradictions inherent in such a threesome – for example, fundamental disagreements about the importance of maintaining or breaking up the union (the UK); very different priorities regarding the NHS, poverty, welfare and gender issues, for example, versus ‘green’ issues, this is not a coherent political suggestion, never mind “ideal”. Membership of the EU may be the only area of accord.
We need to vote Labour’s expanded diversity and expertise into parliament now, to effect changes in our democracy and society. Only the Labour Party, under Ed Miliband’s leadership, offers these opportunities, and only the Labour Party is in a position to consolidate women’s feminist presence and men’s feminist consciousness within our political culture, and across supportive parties, in ways that will change lives, improve women and children’s safety, social justice and cohesion, and enact environmental sustainability. These being connected projects.[v]
val walsh / 20 03 2015
[i] Selina Todd (2015) The People. The rise and fall of the working class: 7.
[ii] For in depth discussion see: ‘Friends, comrades, strangers: especially those feeling apathetic, cynical, confused, disillusioned and/or angry. Pre-election reflections as May 2015 looms’, at togetherfornow.wordpress.com under the category ‘essays 2015’.
[iii] See Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry’s Last Stand. How the word my generation built is falling down, and what we can do about it.
[iv] Todd (2015): 1.
[v] See Val Walsh (09 08 2014) submission to Mayor of Liverpool’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability: ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritizing renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. In category ‘conference presentations 2014’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com