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

Win or lose

Peter Kenyon reports on New Labour's last gasp and the relentless march of the political class

What's in a name? Labour's young turks – led by election strategist Douglas Alexander and manifesto coordinator Ed Miliband purged the 2010 Labour Manifesto of any reference to New Labour bar one dated 1997. Tragically, but predictably, they found their best laid plans undermined by Gordon Brown in his speech at the tome's launch. Every conceivable effort was made by the young pretender to enable Labour party members, supporters and potential voters to have a say.

When the delivery moment arrived, Labour Party leader Gordon Brown tore up the Alexander/Miliband' script and embraced m'Lord Peter (Whimsy) Mandelson ('s) – his partner in the mid-1990s New Labour putsch. “In 1997, New Labour asked the country for the opportunity to renew Britain – our hospitals, our schools, our towns and cities. Now, in a changed time, New Labour is once again ready and equipped to answer the call of the future...” Brown proclaimed. Excuse me! Where did that come from?

Web of patronage

For the unsuspecting voter, there are battles in play. These are not just between Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and let's not forget the Greens or UKIP, but within the Labour Party itself. The vast majority of the Labour Party and its voters abandoned New Labour, maybe as much as a decade ago. Some never embraced it or former Labour Party leader Tony Blair's messianic zeal for abandoning Labour values in the first place.

Britain's parliamentary democracy has been convulsed over the past twelve months by scandals relating to MP's expenses, allowances and pay. Similarly murky dealings have mired the Lords too. Underlying their wanton greed and shameless disregard for the electorate is a vast and finely meshed web of patronage. Its tentacles extend from the monarch, through the office of prime minister, the leader of her majesty's loyal opposition (sic), to the other party leaders represented in the Houses of Parliament, the whipping system and out into other parts of the establishment, especially the quangocracy – government by appointment rather than election.

Exposing the rot, paradoxically, was a by-product of New Labour legislation enshrining Freedom of Information. According to Chris Mullin's published diaries, ‘A View from the Foothills' (2009) the late Robin Cook MP, then Leader of the House, foresaw the implications for Parliament itself. From the then Speaker of the House, former Labour MP Michael Martin down through the serried ranks of parliamentarians of all political parties, they thought it was their entitlement. Some blame former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who specifically encouraged an increase in expenses, nudge, nudge, wink, wink style, as compensation for denying MPs a pay increase in the 1980s. Their appetite whetted, they went on and on until a whistleblower in the Fees Office offered the data to the press. The Daily Telegraph newspaper bought the rights, boosting, significantly, its lagging circulation.

Administratively, Parliament has dealt with the superficialities. The notorious second home allowance, for example, has gone. This enabled MPs to claim mortgage interest costs at the taxpayers' expense and then pocket any profit, sometimes without any capital gains tax (CGT) liability by designating it as their primary residence! A new independent parliamentary standards authority has been established, which promptly reversed one of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner and allowed MPs to continue to employ family members.

But how will the electorate respond? Polling data suggests turnout will suffer. In constituencies like Salford, where Blairite sitting Labour MP Hazel Blears is defiantly seeking re-election, despite a revolt within her own constituency party, independent candidates are seeking to defeat incumbents like her tarnished by the scandal. And as for the House of Lords, now almost entirely made up of appointees, only Labour has spelt out in its manifesto a possible end date. One pledge is to abolish sitting rights for remaining hereditary peers. The other is for the completion of a three-general election cycle scheme to elect members of a second chamber. So that form of patronage could end sometime between the years 2020 and 2025, but only if Labour is re-elected with sufficient seats to form the next government.

Unresolved divide

However, parliamentary culture and that of the political parties remains corrupted. At the heart of our democracy is the residue of monarchy, and a worrying and unresolved divide between the electorate and the elected about how to pay for party politics. The corrupting ingredients are patronage and money. In the next Parliament the chances of containing patronage are very low, while the risk of a lunge into the public coffers for far more tax-payer or state-funding of political parties is very high.

None of the leaders of the three main political parties is what might be described as a committed democrat. None of them is devoted to reversing downward trends in membership of their own political party or encouraging small donations. The fate of the Electoral Commission report on the funding of political parties (2004) and a daring Blairite bid to sever the Labour Party's links with the trade unions in return for state funding, in the wake of the 2006 'cash for honours' scandal, were reported in Chartist passim.

The latter has reared its ugly head in the Labour Party 2010 manifesto. The section on Stronger Accountability on page 9:5 concludes: ‘We believe that the funding of political parties must be reformed if the public is to regain trust in politics. Our starting point should be the Hayden Phillips proposals of 2008. We will seek to reopen discussions on party-funding reform, with a clear understanding that any changes should only be made on the basis of cross-party agreement and widespread public support.'

If the Tories were to defy electoral gravity and achieve a working majority in the new Parliament, then there is a serious risk of vengeful legislation to limit the affiliated trade unions capacity to fund the Labour Party of which they, the unions, are an integral part.

Tangle of patronage

Bedded in that tangle of patronage is a behavioural trait that continues to prove resistant, particularly, to internal accountability. (The same could be said of international bankers until their own greed and hubris caught up with them.) New Labour under Blair had taken this lack of accountability to new extremes in government as evidenced in the post-Iraq War inquiries – Hutton, Butler, and Chilcot (still in session), and contemporary accounts such as the books recently published by the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley, and former Labour Party general secretary, Peter Watt, both reviewed in this edition of Chartist.

The relentless march of Britain's class towards accountability-lite with presidential aspirations has taken a dramatic turn with the introduction of three televised 'Prime Ministerial debates' into the 2010 general election campaign diary. The electorate now thinks that when it goes to the polls it is electing a prime minister. Why bother joining a political party? Now you can snuggle down on the sofa, turn on the television and the prime ministerial hopefuls are beamed into your living room. Better still if you are so minded you can twitter, blog and vote instantly thanks to the virtual Coliseums of cyberspace. No wonder there is concern about turnout.

However, as the campaign unfolded Labour rediscovered the importance of talking directly to voters. This election is about 'people, not posters', Labour's election strategist Douglas Alexander proclaimed, quietly forgetting that Blair had nearly bankrupted the party, which could not afford major poster campaigns any more. For Labour Party campaigners like Save the Labour Party all this is rich in irony. To run effective grass-roots campaigns requires not tens, but hundreds of activists in each constituency. These are the people whose loyalty can no longer be assumed. They want a say. It is at this level of party activity as much as the corridors of Westminster that coalitions need to be forged to run local versions of national campaigns, such as the living wage, save a post office/pub, and zero carbon initiatives. For Labour the new politics has to be about recruiting back Lib-Dems and Greens into a more collegiate and accountable Labour Party. Politicians who aspire to elected office have to be willing to be answerable to members as well as the electorate. Few are willing. Too many in the Labour Party could lose their seats on 6 May as a result.

This erosion of accountability has been paralleled with an extension of the full-time paid function into the politics of local government. Too many local constituency Labour parties rely on funding from elected members of a local council. Executive councillors have embraced the mantle of patronage afforded by public office under New Labour legislation.

A renaissance please

This can only be reversed by a renaissance of party democracy inside the Labour Party. It could start with an Annual Leader and Deputy Leader election process – inviting nominations from all Labour Party stakeholders. All Labour Party elected representatives should be subject to compulsory reselection as in the early 1980s. A Party leadership that is willing to accept these minimal terms of engagement will understand the role of members both as agents of change in society, as well as helping in election campaigns whether local, regional, national or European.

New Labour's death rattle

Gordon Brown, currently Leader, will know his fate shortly. He only survived in government in the wake of the June 2009 Euro-elections thanks to the un-elected Mandelson, who was rewarded in Ruritanean-style with the title of First Secretary of State, and many others. He steadied the last vestiges of Blairite support in the Cabinet represented by Foreign Secretary, David Miliband and Blairite Lord Adonis reshuffled as Transport Secretary. If Labour, for its part, were to confound the pundits and retain a working majority, the seal would be set on Brown's premiership, though questions would arise about who's really in charge – Brown or Mandelson? As they would if Labour were to emerge the largest party, and able to form a minority government.

New Labour's death rattle would linger longer. But the course back to Labour values, evidenced in the 2010 Manifesto, has been set with the return of an industrial policy (green), commitments to tackle high pay, link the national minimum wage as well as pensions to earnings, offer a living wage, and bring international banking and finance into a new global tax and regulatory net. Plus there are the commitments to maintain front-line public services, continue public sector investment in transport and telecommunications and curb private sector excess.

Win or lose, the battle for the soul of the Labour Party continues.