Election 2015: Time for Labour to return to its Socialist roots
In the 80’s and 90’s my generation were sold a lie. Although many of us steadfastly refused to believe it, it quickly took hold, particularly within the Labour movement. Successive party leaders, egged on by a willing media, succumbed to the notion that Socialism was dead, toxic or at least out of fashion. A campaign was launched aimed at driving Labour into the political centre ground. The red flag was supplanted by a rose and ‘New Labour’ was born.
It was an argument that, although unpalatable to many ordinary working people, seemed to make sense. I remember the Thatcher years and the creeping sense that she was invincible. She had after all survived record unemployment, a widening North South divide, broken the unions and gone on to win three elections. If she hadn’t believed her own hype and tried to introduce the ‘Poll Tax’ she may have won a record fourth term.
Neil Kinnock summed up the argument in a leaders speech to his party conference, saying “I would love to have a debate about what a Democratic Socialist Britain would look like,” then he lowered his voice for dramatic effect “What a glorious day that will be. The plain truth, is that we can’t have any socialism until we are in government.”
The implication was clear and many working people repeated the argument to me time and again. We just need to keep our head down and don’t rock the boat, get Labour elected and then they will undo all the damage Thatcher has done. It didn’t wash with me and it didn’t wash with the British people, with a quarter of the electorate deciding not to bother voting at all.
I believed at the time, as did many of my friends that Labour was losing because they appeared weak not because people thought they were dreaded socialists. To put it simply Labour wasn’t offering anything significantly different from the Tories.
In the face of Conservative savagery they preached caution and moderation while our cities burned. Lacking a political voice or a movement which spoke up for them many people, including some of those in my own city, took to the streets and rioted. During this period Britain saw some of the worst civil unrest in living memory. Why couldn’t Labour harness that anger and channel it peacefully into an election victory?
The reality was that in its heartlands working people wanted change and they wanted it faster than the Labour party was prepared to offer. This was born out by the fact that while the leadership were losing election after election, left wing Labour candidates were winning them all over the country.
In Liverpool a Militant dominated Labour council was elected. Many would say ‘well of course Liverpool is a left wing city’. That wasn’t true in the 70’s and early 80’s. Believe it or not there used to be Conservative councillors in Liverpool. Whatever, you believe about the merits of Liverpool Militant, they were swept to power with promises of new housing, a rent freeze and fierce resistance to Tory cuts. They were overtly Socialist and they won elections.
Liverpool also elected Terry Fields, a Militant Member of Parliament and were not alone. In Coventry Dave Nellist was elected and Pat Wall joined them both in the Commons representing Bradford North. Scotland was a virtual one party state, with many Labour MP’s all firmly sat on the left of the Party.
Eventually though the right of the party achieved their goal of capturing the centre ground from the Liberal Democrats. In reality Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ was no longer a Socialist Party. It was instead a Social Democratic Party dependant on ‘middle England’ and the belief that its traditional support would stay loyal come what may. Sadly, Labour is in trouble now precisely because their natural constituency has abandoned them for more radical alternatives.
New Labour took us into a deeply unpopular war based on lies and fabrications. Cheered on by the political right they also failed to regulate the bankers who caused the recent crash. Margaret would have been so proud. They did some good though. Labour actually inherited a huge Tory debt (42% of GDP) and they reduced it while in office.They did that while investing heavily in public services and lowering unemployment.
However, Labour’s eventual undoing at the polls actually lay in their rejection of the very principles that drew me to them in the first place, namely Socialism. Their failure to address the inherent instability of the market economy and leave us to the whims of boom and bust would ultimately lead to the coalition government we have today.
So here we are in 2015 and I find myself asking, have we come full circle? Labour’s poll rating is roughly where it was in 1983 and this despite five years of austerity. In truth they should be walking this election. Why aren’t they?
Interestingly we need to look to Labours former strongholds for the answers. One of the principle reasons for Labours dismal showing in the polls is that Scottish Nationalism has managed to fill the vacuum created by Labour as it marched to the right. Their policies are overtly ‘left wing’ and they are very popular. They talk of ending austerity, while Labour promises tough choices and more spending cuts.
Time and again it has been shown that parties that argue coherently for social justice, fairness, redistribution of wealth, equality of opportunity and strong public services win elections. These are fundamentally socialist ideals. Many people may not describe themselves as left wing, but if asked I am sure the majority would associate themselves with these principles.
Interestingly as the 2015 campaign gets under way much of Milliband’s rhetoric has shifted in the direction of traditional Labour values and his position in the polls is improving. After trailing hopelessly behind Cameron in personal ratings, he has now caught up.
We have heard that ‘Britain succeeds when working people succeed’ and today Ed spoke about the need to end a system of one rule for the rich and another for everybody else. He also had a pop at ‘trickle down’ economics. It’s a peculiar twist of fate that a Labour leader now feels that left wing rhetoric is a vote winner. Better late than never I suppose.
In my view Socialism never stopped being relevant, in fact I would argue its more relevant today than ever before. Since the 80’s we have seen an inexorable rise in social inequality. The gap between the rich and poor is shameful. It is a simple truth that with accumulated wealth of human kind, nobody should sleep rough on the streets and no child should go hungry.
There is enough wealth in the world to end starvation and many of the diseases that devastate populations in the third world. Certainly in a country like Britain there is no justification for the inequality we see in life expectancy today. It should be possible to plan our economy so that everyone has a home and nobody needs food banks to get by.
In the first televised ‘debate’ between Cameron and Milliband, a female audience member asked Ed if he thought Socialism was still relevant to the Labour Party. His answer suggested he did. Her reply was that Labour should revisit those values. I couldn’t agree more.