Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
 
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Europe
Economy and society
Science and culture
Reviews

A grim prospect

Peter Kenyon admits Labour's prospects are bleak and those of the people it professes to serve even worse.

Working people face a grim future. New Labour's faustian pact with neo-liberal capitalism has been cemented by events. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is being propped up in government by the enobled former EC commissioner and New Labour spin-doctor, Peter Mandelson. US investment banker Lehman Brothers' collapse in September last year triggered an unprecedented banking crisis that aroused hopes on the centre-left of a reckoning with the Thatcherites and their Blairite successors nestling in government in Britain. It is proving an illusion. Not least because of the wanton greed of members of both Houses of Parliament. Profiting at the taxpayer' expense has reached epidemic proportions in both the House of Commons and, as will eventually be exposed, the House of Lords too. Brown's moral compass has already spun out of control. There were too many members of his cabinet formed in 2007 that have questions to answer arising from the Parliamentary Allowances scandals to have a proper clean-out. There would have been virtually no-one left in Cabinet.

It is symptomatic of New Labour that fraudulent/extravagant and/or unjustifiable claims were exposed thanks to Labour's Freedom of Information Act. Such has been its arrogance in office that only that most perceptive of parliamentarians, former Labour Cabinet minister Robin Cook cited in Chris Mullins' book A View from the Hills appears to have appreciated the implications when the legislation was passed back in 2002. Cook sadly died in 2005. By 2009, when the Daily Telegraph newspaper obtained, and started to publish, the most salacious details of MPs expenses did it become apparent that the rot had taken a truly shocking hold. The full implications for the dying days of Labour in government are only just becoming apparent. The vast majority of Labour's cabinet appear to be genuinely in awe of how Brown dealt with the banking crisis, credit crunch and its international ramifications leading right through the winter of 2008/09 up to the G-20 in London this spring. I will confess as a member of the Party's National Executive Committee that is where I was too, until the Cabinet reshuffle on 5 June was completed.

We now know that Brown himself faltered on that morning. It was not certain that he would be able to form a Cabinet. There had been a string of resignations immediately before the Euro and local council elections on 4 June, including Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears. Then a moment of media theatre as the polls closed, James Purnell, Work and Pensions Secretary, resigned. Each resignation was portrayed by the media as weakening Brown's authority.

The truth is that they all have questions to answer about their Parliamentary expenses, with the possible exception of Caroline Flint, who indulged in the most bizarre 'chic flic flounce'. Another Cabinet minister Geoff Hoon, Secretary for Transport and Housing minister, Margaret Beckett, were also let go. They too have questions about their expenses. As do most members still in the Cabinet, particularly the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, and Brown's former closest advisor, Ed Balls and his wife, Yvette Cooper.

Those concerns had to be swept aside in the interests of stabilising the government and enabling Brown to announce a new Cabinet. Enter Peter Mandelson, recently returned from Brussels, brought back in a Brown coup de grâce to reassure British business that the Labour government was still on their side in the wake of the credit crunch. It was he who rallied support after the polls closed and has been showered with titles and flummery making him the most powerful un-elected politician since Cardinal Wolsey in the 16thcentury. This is where it gets grim for the centre-left and most working people. This is the man who said shortly after Labour was elected in 1997 that Labour was ‘very relaxed about people getting filthy rich'. It was he who, back in government last autumn, seized the Hooper Report into the Royal Mail and announced without so much as a Cabinet discussion that the government accepted its recommendations, including – contrary to Labour Party policy approved by Conference – the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail. The best currently on offer according to union sources close to the discussions is that the issue will get parked, but legislation enabling possible part privatisation will remain ready to be acted on.

Throughout Mandelson has been aided and abetted by Pat McFadden MP, chair of Labour's National Policy Forum and his Business departmental mouthpiece in the House of Commons as Minister of State – a role which he continues to occupy following the reshuffle.

How is Labour's core vote ever going to be persuaded to support Labour at the next election, let alone the coalition that brought us to power in 1997? Opportunities are being lost daily. A seemingly relentless stream of announcements since the Cabinet reshuffle on constitutional reform, the setting up of an inquiry into the second Iraq War, cleaning up politics have all failed reality checks. The one possible exception being the announcement to legislate for the government's child poverty targets as a matter of urgency.

The vast majority of the electorate are still going to vote with their gut feelings about the economy. Too many have written off Labour already, just as they abandoned the Tories before 1997. It is our core vote that will continue to be hit hardest. Unemployment will continue to rise as employers struggle to cut costs and stay in business – that will be true for both private, public and voluntary sector organisations. But the Labour Party is not powerless to act. Labour in government needs to continue mitigating the impact of the crisis on working people. But there is a hearts and minds job to be done too. Responsibility for the Party is shared between elected representatives of members, unions, local and national government, and elected representatives in Westminster and Brussels. At the time of going to press, there are (just as there were last year) doubts about the Labour Party's finances and its status as a going concern. It was touch and go last year as to whether its auditors would sign off its annual accounts without qualification.

This year now as a member of the NEC I can only speculate. Like all other NEC members who do not sit on either the Business Board or the Audit Committee, I am kept in the dark completely about the state of the accounts. Instead I have to rely on delphic reassurances from the Treasurer, General Secretary or the head of the Audit Committee. It is quite outside my experience as a unincorporated voluntary association management committee member, registered charity Trustee or company director. I have asked for immediate publication of the final accounts on 30 June to reassure members that Labour is a going concern. As a constituency member representative on the NEC, I see membership, either individual or affiliate, as vital to face the future with confidence.

Secondly, there is policy. It is entirely within the existing powers of the NEC to direct the Joint Policy Committee to call a meeting of the National Policy Forum in July. The agenda could include a review of current policy, and processes to give members a say in future policy making and ensure the next general election manifesto reflects Labour values. At the time of writing the powers that be, i.e. the Party Leader, No.10 advisors, the General Secretary and most NEC officers appear to be resisting calls from members for an extra NEC meeting before the end of June to deal with this business.

The electorate will have to sense a shift in Labour thinking to address its needs to return another Labour government. The banking crisis offered an opportunity. But our Party Leadership is far too frightened of the City and the Masters of the Universe to 'tax them until the pips squeak' in former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey's famous mis-attributed quote. However, and here I am, I admit, clutching at a straw, there is an enduring commitment to fairness and equality. True, the latest income data shows Britain is a more unequal society today than it was in 1997. But there is a growing popular movement in favour of a living income, whether pay, pension or benefit as reported in Chartist passim . Legislating against child poverty will not be enough.

The Tory right is already marshalling an attack on both the London Living Wage and the National Minimum Wage on the pretext of offering poverty wages to relieve unemployment. There needs to be a paradigm shift in thinking about levels of national debt to ensure popular support for higher levels of public spending ahead of the next General Election. At the same time the logic of shifting minimum pay rates from the current minimum to living income levels must become the rallying cry to see off Tory greed and contempt for working people.

Here the industrial wing of the Labour Party is being put to the test right now. June is traditionally the month for Annual Conferences for the sisters and brothers. Their leaders are making the right noises about Labour policy, cleaning up politics and advancing the case for working people. But are they willing to face out the Labour leadership and demand change in direction. As Chartist went to press that was the question. By the time you read it will it still be in doubt? Together with radical constitutional reform, a clean up of salary and expenses, which is in prospect, and very public repayment of extravagant expenses (all within the now discredited and former Parliamentary Fees Office rules), these moves might just persuade enough of the electorate to vote Labour to enable it to form a further government. Otherwise the prospects for working people in Britain are very grim indeed.