Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Labour Party and Its Culture of Pessimism

I saw a smidgeon, but only a smidgeon, of what Iain Duncan Smith has recently been talking about (‘bullying and threats’ from the anti-Brexit campaign) at our local Labour Party this week. I do not want to get this out of proportion. Our local Party is represented by a really decent and civilised group of people who generally treat each other with respect and courtesy. The 'bullying' (such as it was) came from an outsider. It should also be said that some of the grassroots supporters of Brexit on the Right are far more vicious in their own presentation of their case than their opponents and that these Brexit Tweeters lose votes every time they lift their malign little fingers. However, I would have expected far more from the official representative of Labour's campaign to remain within Europe.

I am not interested in naming names. It may just have been an 'off night' but the pro-European Union speaker (there was no representative of the countervailing case) directed comments at the only eurosceptic in the village (me!) which overtly associated my position with that of fascists like Nick Griffin. This was unacceptable and recognised to be unacceptable (he apologised for the 'offence' but not the misrepresenting claim) but a lot of half-truths and claims remained unchallenged and on the record. That's fine up to a point - after all, the party apparat is using a conference decision to claim priority for the pro-European case. This gives it carte blanche, one supposes, to walk all over those of us with a more nuanced vision of democratic socialism and a healthy distrust of Delorsian promises that have not been delivered, are not being delivering and will not be delivered.

It was conveniently not mentioned that the speaker might as equally be associated with Goldman Sachs as I am apparently associated with extreme nationalists but let that pass. Although (to his credit) he came clean about his presumably paid position at The European Parliament, it would also have been nice to have someone represent the Stay Campaign who did not have such an obvious professional interest in the result.

Regardless of all that, my political position was redundant. Not only was there no speaker for the alternative case (which is fine), I was not given the chance to respond to the implied slurs on my character (which was not). I did not expect to be allowed to challenge the misrepresentation and half-truths of the campaign itself and indeed had made that clear but I did think it reasonable that the specific charge of association with nationalistic fascism be refuted (the Chair failed at this point). Whatever! The membership seem totally sold on the European Project regardless of anything that I might have said in any reasoned way. Further intervention on my part would have been useless. I just disliked being treated like that by a 'comrade' who had been placed in a superior position by the decision of the Executive Committee ... if I was not such a tough nut, I think I might reasonably call that 'bullying'. Nor am I alone in this from reports in other parts of the country. It may raise questions for many people whether this liberal internationalist and European Socialist Party is really their natural home but I think that assessment comes later.

I walked away that evening very much more aware of the determination and resources of the soft left machine behind Stay within the Labour Party (with its very glossy and well produced brochure), of the risks that the Party is taking in its potential alienation from its historic working class base (not only on this matter but on the refugee crisis), of the dominance of the left-liberal (rather than democratic socialist) component of the Party and of the lack of fairness and tolerance towards other voices on this issue on the grounds that it was 'party policy'. This reproduces the mentality of past Labour top-down authoritarianism if worn with a relatively velvet glove.

Further reflection has also made realise just how much the party machine is broken in terms of its responsiveness to the twin needs of mobilising and engaging new members and creating a machinery for political education that can act as a transmission belt between the wider population and the 'avant-garde' of party thinking. Again, do not get me wrong - the local Party is friendly, vigorous in its own way, and making serious attempts to professionalise its approach to the electorate. There was an excellent local election policy statement developed by a leading member, albeit one that threatened to be turned into a curate's egg by its need to satisfy the standard liberal-left posturing on some issues.

But rules (which, of course, members can do nothing about) that mean that a member only gets a CLP vote when they go through the palaver of attending a branch meeting and getting elected as a 'delegate', and the way that these delegates are forced into supporting branch resolutions created in meetings which they could not attend, means that many new members sit at the CLP as observers rather than participants, delegates lose an important degree of autonomy in discussing policy and the processes are excessively manipulable by the sort of activist who can give up time at the convenience of the party calendar.  Small branches can also be out-manouevred by the effective organisation of large branches instead of being in the position of persuading the members as a whole on the merits of a case.  Surely members themselves should feel free in their own right to bring up resolutions if they can get sufficient support from other members.

Of course, to be fair, the branch activists are also the ones who organise the machinery that gets candidates into office and so perhaps should have some additional rights but the balance strikes me as wrong. The sort of party reform that has been batted around since the mid-1990s is long over due. It is good to hear that Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, is looking into this and, indeed, according to reports, is giving special attention to the digital issue which includes the particular problem of the possible disenfranchisement of those who do not have digital access. These are complex issues with no easy answers but at least there seems to be some intent to grapple with them under the new Leadership team.

In my own case, as a result of the manner in which the meeting was held this week, I came to a decision that I could not face our local electorate (as requested) in May under conditions where I might be misrepresented as supportive of the European Project simply by virtue of being a Labour candidate and so I withdrew.  Six months of engagement in the Party has started to make me feel uncomfortable on other grounds. The bottom line was that I could see that taking on UKIP in a strongly working class area would be almost impossible under such circumstances making me, suddenly, a pessimist which is not what I want to be - and life is short!

The Party's own aggressive stance on Europe had simply made me more determined than ever to stand for non-fascist and non-racist democratic socialists' argument for Leave and to give that struggle absolute priority, to the exclusion of every other political project, over the next four months. The national pessimism about May seems to have become infectious. I have caught the disease so that saving the nation from supra-nationalism in the greater interests of its working people in the long run suddenly seems so much more important than maintaining the illusory dreams of the jobsworths in the European Parliament. This does not mean that the Labour Party and Labour Movement are not to be supported as the primary voice for progressive politics in the United Kingdom (quite the contrary - they are, sadly, the only voice left!) but it does mean that the support should not be as unconditional as it once was in the days of tribal politics.

As I see it, the Labour Party at the moment has become mired in a 'culture of pessimism' as a result of the disastrous Blair-Brown legacy, the failure in the 2015 Election and the prospect of losing millions of pounds because of some particularly self-interested and vicious Tory legislation. Spend time with any activists working at a national level and they are excessively pessimistic about the prospects for their own Party. They are excessively pessimistic about their own Leadership in many cases. They are certainly ridiculously pessimistic about the opportunities to continue the democratisation and transformation of our own nation. As a result, this culture of pessimism has grabbed hold of an utterly undemocratic belief (for it is a belief) that a Social Europe can do the job that the Party cannot do domestically. This is added to a romantic idealism in which internationalism is reframed as supranationalism, democracy as platonic bureaucratism and the genuine cultural concerns of the working class as proto-fascism.  In other words, these liberal idealists would prefer a bureaucratic Europe to impose their values on the British people rather than persuade the British people to adopt those values itself.  That is not the democratic way and yet what has distinguished the Left in Britain since the days of the Chartists has been its commitment to democracy.