Renewing Labour’s terms of reference: crisis and turmoil begat opportunity and political creativity.

  • The equalities slate and Labour in 2016
  • The problem of old words
  • Language, identity, Labour politics
  • Meanwhile.

The equalities slate and Labour in 2016
             So many of the opportunities that the British people have had over the past  half     century – the best schooling, the best of health care when ill, and for many of us the best chances at university –owe their origin to the decisions of the 1945 Labour government to build decent public services that reflect our obligation each to the other in society; to create a welfare state that has taken the shame out of need; and to deliver a national health service free to all (Gordon Brown, then Labour Prime minister, in his introduction to the republication [2008] by The Aneurin Bevan Society in association with UNISON, of Nye Bevan [1952] In Place of Fear: ix). Emphasis added.

The roots of the Labour party lie in taking up issues of inequality and social injustice: and writing 60 years later (in 2008) Gordon Brown, then Labour Prime Minister, reiterated how, in the aftermath of a devastating war, the unpredictability of need (for example health care) and the rising costs of new health technologies:

It is more important than ever to pool risk and share the cost of those interventions fairly across our whole population (Brown, ibid: xiii).

This was Labour’s 1945 ethic that its politics would seek to serve and deliver. And at the centre of Bevan’s vision was a National Health Service, “a uniquely British creation, and still a uniquely powerful engine of social justice” (ibid: xiv), not just health care. Labour’s NHS underpinned a distinct vision of society (together with social housing and state education) and the politics required to create that new reality. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, current Labour leader, stand by this ethic.

The years since have seen wave after wave of liberatory / equality / social justice / environmental and community campaigns and movements help make significant improvements in our society to the lives and rights of previously marginalized and/or exploited constituencies. In 2016, we stand on the shoulders of those campaigners and activists who made parliamentary legislation and social change possible, bettering so many lives and communities.

When Tom Watson came to Liverpool in 2015 campaigning to be the Deputy Leader of the Labour party, I told him (from the floor at the end of the meeting) that I had waited most of my adult life for a Labour party that did not see environmental issues and feminist values as add-ons, as opposed to being integral to Labour values and progressive change. On his election as Deputy leader, Tom declared that “The Labour party must be a feminist party!” Wow, I thought. So what happened next?

Most Labour MPs supported the renewal of Trident in July 2016. 184 Labour MPs did not vote against the Tory Health & Social Care Bill, which will further the privatization of the NHS. 1945 Labour values have taken a concerted Tory thrashing. Most recently, for example:

Education experts have expressed fears that the abolition of the student maintenance grant for the poorest young people, combined with increasing tuition fees, will set back widening participation and deter those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university.

Students from low-income homes . . . are no longer entitled to a maintenance grant to support their living costs, but will have to borrow the    money in the form of an additional loan, further increasing their debt. (Sally Weale, ‘End of student grant “could deter disadvantaged from university”’. The Guardian, 02 08 2016).

The architects of austerity have left government, yet disabled people still face inhumane benefit cuts (Frances Ryan, ‘Peter has a lifeline – why remove it?’ The Guardian, 04 08 2016).

Ryan provides harrowing examples of what Nye Bevan referred to as “unnecessary deprivation” and “preventable poverty” (Bevan, ibid.: 3) – not to mention humiliation and indignity – which Ryan damns as a “reflection of a system that has decided the disabled are fair game” (Ryan, ibid.). The ease with which the Tories, with a piddling majority of 12, are getting their political programme through the House, is in part an indictment of a PLP unwilling to act collectively and decisively as an opposition party.

The Labour history outlined above is a significant part of the backdrop to the second Labour leadership contest in a year, brought on by a Parliamentary Labour Party determined to bring down the current elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn (as opposed to the Tory government). The Labour leader (and those early Labour values and purposes) are identified by the media and the PLP as not just “leftwing”, but on the “hard left”, now that the centre of British politics has shifted so far to the Right since Thatcherism. So what remains of the relevance of the conventional binary ‘left / right’ distinction?

The problem of old words.
            The student of politics must . . . be on his (sic) guard against the old words, for the words persist when the reality which lay behind them has changed. .  . . thus we talk of free enterprise, of capitalist society, of the rights of free association, of parliamentary government, as though all these words stand for the same things they formerly did (Bevan, ibid., chapter 2: ‘The role of parliament- active or passive?’: 13).

‘Rightwing’ is a pretty stable term: the interests represented and the methods used have remained fairly consistent and familiar over time. ‘Preventable poverty’ and ‘unnecessary deprivation’ are to the Tories mere collateral damage: and unacknowledged political tools of social control. By contrast, the term ‘leftwing’ lacks stability, belonging to a politics of change and challenge, designed to shift the status quo, its norms and its power relations.

Whereas racist views are historically more readily associated with rightwing politics and fascism, and the Labour party and trade unions have increasingly identified themselves with anti racism and anti homophobia, Labour’s commitment to multiculturalism and anti-racist values has tumbled somewhat in the wake of the EU referendum result (Brexit) and the rising dominance of the UKIP narrative, that actively sought to engender fear of difference, under the banner, ‘Take back control’. The EU campaign exposed a sense of grievance and abandonment felt by mainly elderly working-class communities, in particular in the north and midlands.

White working-class communities, dominated by people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who mainly left school at 14, 15 or 16, between 40-70 years ago, used the referendum to convey their acute sense of social class grievance, their fear of and hostility to migrants, and seething anger at the British establishment, identified with Parliament and London, as distant elites. They managed to outvote young people, many of these college and university-educated, who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. And it is the latter constituency that will have to live with the consequences of the Brexit vote, not those older voters who so exultantly celebrated the result. And now, the promotion of Owen Smith by the PLP as leadership candidate further calls into question the centrality of the equalities slate to Labour politics.

No matter that equality issues (including VAWG, FGM, sexual trafficking and disability issues] have crept on to the political agenda, ostensibly becoming cross-party concerns, if the PLP embraces and promotes MPs whose reflexes are sexist and/or homophobic, glossing over their behaviour in a haste to label them ‘leftwing’ or centre left, or mainstream, what does being Labour actually mean? While anti-racism (including hostility to anti-semitism – see letter from 110 correspondents in The Guardian, 09 08 2016, on Shami Chakrabarti’s report for the Labour party on antisemitism and racism in the Labour party. Full list at may reasonably be considered historically as part of Labour DNA as a party, this is obviously not the case regarding sexism / misogyny / homophobia or disability issues (see ‘Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest’ in ‘Commentary 2016 category, 

Sitting opposite young Corbyn supporter, Sam             , on C4 News (09 08 2016), an older, long term Labour man, lauded Tom Watson’s attack on Corbyn supporters as “Trotskyite entryists”, and described Watson as “a bruiser”, who would sort things out. Here was old style hetero-masculinity strutting its stuff, indifferent to gender issues, male dominance and aggression as problems not virtues: a Labour man seemingly unaware that being a “bruiser” is no longer a desirable category of masculinity, marking you out for stardom, but part of the problem the Labour party must tackle. Many of us, women and men, young and old, have had enough of ‘bruisers’ and bullies ‘sorting things out’, on the street, in the workplace and in politics. 

That core Labour values seem to mean different things to the PLP and to the wider membership (including those who favour Jeremy Corbyn and the values he represents), is now out in the open. ‘Leftwing’ quickly became a term of abuse rather than a mere adjective (including in The Guardian). Although the situation in the PLP looks frought, chaotic and nasty, this new transparency can also be seen as a good thing, as it means that clarification (even revival) could follow. And the internet and social media are helpful to supporters who want to track how MPs are voting on particular issues. This was not possible until relatively recently.

This split burst to the fore with the ‘shock’ election of Jeremy as leader in 2015, after Ed Miliband’s resignation, following Labour’s (‘shock”) 2015 general election defeat. Politicians and the media did not see his election coming: all the ‘experts’ were thwarted, because they were collectively so out of touch with what was happening to people’s lives and communities across the country, as a result of the neoliberal project and its lethal manifestation, Austerity politics.

Neoliberalism (sometimes known as market fundamentalism) had been internalised as the ‘natural’ order (past, present and future) instead of being understood as a chosen political project of the Right at a specific time for their own purposes. Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, notes:

The founders of the euro were guided by a set of ideas and notions about how economies function that were fashionable at the time, but that were simply wrong. They had faith in markets, but lacked an understanding of the limitations of markets and what was required to make them work (Stiglitz, ‘The future of the eurozone?’ The Guardian, 06 08 2016).

And he suggests that:

On both sides of the Channel, politics should be directed at understanding the underlying sources of anger; how, in a democracy, the political establishment could have done so little to address the concerns of so many citizens, and figuring out how to do that now: to create within each country, and through cross-border arrangements, a new, more democratic Europe, which sees its goal as improving the wellbeing of ordinary citizens. This can’t be done with the neoliberal ideology that has prevailed for a third of a century. . . (ibid.) Emphasis added.
(See ‘”The trouble is. . . ” Economists, economics, and the Labour Left’ in ‘Commentrary 2016’ category,

The neoliberal credentials of the three candidates standing against Jeremy Corbyn for leadership in 2015, including two women who self identify as feminist, left them exposed as part of the problem, not the solution, as well as problematising the identity ‘feminist’ for many Labour supporters.

Language, identity and Labour politics.
            Social institutions are what they do, not necessarily what we say they do. It is the verb that matters, not the noun (Bevan, ibid. chapter 2: ‘The role of parliament – active or passive?’: 13).

Writing over 60 years ago, Nye Bevan’s counsel remains astute:

As we fumble with outworn categories our political vitality is sucked away and we stumble from one situation to another. . . This is the real point of danger for a political party and for the leaders and thinkers who inspire it. For if they are out of touch with reality, the masses are not. Indeed they are reality. For them their daily work is an inescapable imperative (Bevan, ibid.:       14). Emphasis added. [In 2016 their daily work / their reality is more likely to be un or underemployment, zero hours contracts and insecure jobs.]

So what does it mean, for example, to be a feminist and not vote against the Tory Health & Social Care Bill? What does it mean to be a feminist and vote with a Tory government for more, and more brutal, Austerity, including privatising the NHS and dismantling support for people with disabilities? To vote for cuts that result in the closure of Sure Start centres, a reduction in support services for women victims of men’s violence and sexual coercion? Cuts that make women and children poorer and less able to survive and thrive with dignity. The removal of educational opportunities for young and old. Cuts that plunge people into hopelessness and despair, mental health problems, even suicide. Many neoliberal women in the PLP (‘Blair’s Babes’, feminist or not) appear not to understand their role as Labour MPs in this crime scene.

Similarly, what does it mean in 2016 to be a ‘leftwing’ Labour MP, and not vote in opposition to Tory policies (perhaps because you fear being labeled ‘leftwing’ or ‘radical’, not a proper politician, a ‘pussy’)? Owen Smith, for example:

supported Osborne’s devastating benefit cap because of its popularity with voters, and abstained on a welfare bill that was expected to negatively affect 330,000 of the country’s poorest children” (David Wearing, ‘Labour’s bitter battle isn’t about Corbyn – it’s a fight for change’. The Guardian, 27 07 2016).

Owen Smith is being described as ‘leftwing’, and seems to want to present himself as a leftwing contender for the 2016 Labour leadership contest: more Corbyn than Corbyn, only not Corbyn. What does it mean to be a male leftwing MP who indulges in the odd sexist or homophobic outburst? And Angela Eagle, whose voting record and actions suggest she is not leftwing, is now glued to his side on the leadership campaign trail, trying to look cheerful as her credibility as a senior Labour MP crumbles.

Neoliberal Labour MPs seem not to understand that offering a political platform labeled TINA (there is no alternative), is offering no political expertise, effort or commitment on their part, to people they are meant to represent. Such a political offering from Labour perpetuates a raw sense of betrayal and contempt, as was evident during the EU referendum campaign. By contrast, Corbyn’s leadership has drawn older, ex Labour voters, previous non voters, and those too young to vote previously, back to the Labour party or into the Labour party for the first time. The anger at injustice and the neoliberal project felt by this diverse body of people is fuelling a collaborative political movement aimed at democratizing the Labour party and building effective political alliances, rather than the gesture politics of grievance, rejection and victimhood.

The ‘leftwing’ and ‘rightwing’ binary may have taken a nosedive with this contest. In 2016, it would appear that a politician whose reflexes are sexist and/or homophobic can be either ‘leftwing’ or ‘rightwing’. The current complexity and shifting sands of progressive politics needs language and a naming that bring together new constituent elements as a convincing and vibrant political narrative and political agenda. A sense of the complexity of the challenge made of us as we variously face up to difference, privilege, gender power relations and racism, for example, and strive to achieve heightened awareness, to behave with sensitivity, respect and understanding – true empathy – is suggested in a recent conversation between two authors.

Discussing translation, ‘travelling while black’ and how to avoid classification, author Teju Cole in conversation with Taiye Selasi, responds to her question about how he “writes often and explicitly of race and nation, but more allusively about gender” (‘Afropolitan, American, African. Whatever. I’m “local” in many places’ (The books interview, The Guardian, 06 08 2016.) He responds:

Misogyny is atmospheric. What does an embodied commitment to the equality of women look like for a male writer? I think the central conflict of my novel, Open City, is about how this smart man, this occasionally charming man, is also guilty of an atrocious act of violence to a woman. . . . but writing in a non-fictional mode, as in the essays of Known and Strange Things, permits me a more straightforward expression of what’s at stake – and part of what’s at stake is getting to the point where we say, “Come the fuck on, this should all be self-evident by now.” You can say that seriously, or with bitter irony. But of course, it’s not self-evident. Most men, even the feminists among us, still swim merrily along in all the advantages that masculinity proffers (ibid.). Emphasis added.

And if you think that being a ‘bruiser’ is still a useful category of masculinity, please step off the Labour bus now, and make room for those women and men who have worked hard over many years to show how wrong and dangerous that old masculinity and male dominance is to our society and an inclusive progressive politics.

It seems clear that in the wake of the social and political movements of the C20 and C21, the term / identity ‘leftwing’ has been voided of meaning, if it can gloss over and not prioritise as fundamental to Labour values, the social justice and human rights issues obscured by racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and disablism. But the political and democratic deficit extends further: the term ‘leftwing’ provides little or no purchase on other challenging and interconnected political issues, and may even be an obstacle to clear thinking, effective action and alliance building regarding the following, for example:

  • asylum
  • refugees
  • movement of peoples
  • environmental issues, such as renewable energy, water conservation and distribution, pollution, climate change and decarbonisation of the economy
  • consumerism
  • new economics
  • electoral reform.

All of these issues have implications for the practices of democracy and sustainability: keeping nature, people and communities alive and well, as opposed to exploiting / killing them off / using them up. A recent clutch of letters in The Guardian (06 08 2016) speaks to ‘Our collective amnesia on climate change’ and the lack of engagement by the media, politicians and universities.

Parliament in Britain is centuries old, and “so many people confuse the existence of Parliament with that of democracy” (Bevan, ibid.: 8). But we’ve only had political democracy since 1929. It is clear we need new ways of talking politics in order to respond to its contemporary complexity adequately. The search for meaningful, ethical and political terms and practices is urgent. A new collective effort, across old demarcations and boundaries towards a progressive politics, could prove to be inspiring as well as lifesaving, rather than something to fear.

val walsh / 09 08 2016




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