By Jay Baker
Jay is a British media activist who has almost ten years of experience as a professional documentarian, writer, youth worker, social justice
You’ve got to admit, there hasn’t quite been a political party like Labour – and arguably never been one as polarising.
Formed from a labour movement little more than a century ago, the proposal for a workers party was drafted up in The Good Woman pub on St Sepulchre Gate in my birthplace of Doncaster, South Yorkshire, by railway workers led by Thomas R Steels – a man whose name can be seen on a plaque on Doncaster’s railway station. This resolution was then adopted by the Trades Union Congress and the rest, as they say, is history.
The party changed Britain forever after the Second World War with Clement Attlee as Prime Minister, leading the UK back to normality and civil society, with an election-winning manifesto penned by Michael Young, adopting Keynesian economic policies, and giving us the welfare state and National Health Service we still often take for granted.
Of course, then came Neil Kinnock and, after him, Tony Blair, and New Labour was born. (You’d have been forgiven for thinking that if someone felt there needed to be a “new” Labour, they’d have just joined a different party). Many of us have argued for a long time that New Labour was an election-winning machine with no heart, and with no real sustainability prospects either. It was designed – intentionally or otherwise – to explode like fireworks, then fizzle out. And it did.
New Labour was quite something: Tony Blair became the first party leader to be booed at the TUC conference; socialists everywhere had more reason than ever to shout for alternatives on street corners while selling their newspapers; and ordinary working class voters slammed their doors in the faces of canvassing local Labour candidates over issues from privatisation to the illegal invasion of Iraq. Over a million people from all backgrounds marched in London on February 15th, 2003, to oppose the attack on Iraq. People in pubs all across the country expressed how they felt they’d been “fooled” by Blair in 1997 – that this was not the Labour they thought they were going to get.
On that unprecedented protest in London, I listened as Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy condemned the proposed war on Iraq. I voted for his party – three times – instead of Labour, like my father and grandfather had. Friends of mine went elsewhere: the Socialist Workers, the Greens; the foundation of Labour’s labour-driven working class was crumbling beneath them, ripped apart by the point of the flagpole once bearing the Red Flag to prompt the song of the same name, by then instead re-branded and brandishing the New Labour™ logo, vacuous as it was.
Yes, Labour had lost its heart, and with it its base. Many ribbed me for being a known “lefty” whilst voting for the Liberal Democrats; others simply expressed a disdain for the sorry excuse for a democratic system we have in the UK. But ultimately, revolutionary as they may have seemed, they would still go and vote. And this is the crux.
To accept that the British democratic system – like many – is flawed, is not to refuse to participate in it. Similarly, the Labour party is clearly compromised having lost its way since its formation, but remains the only significant opposition. I couldn’t bring myself to vote Lib Dem this year, instead endorsing Labour, simply because the thought of the Conservatives getting into power was just too frightening; the more it became a possibility, the more I realised that as much as I’d come to loathe New Labour (and their theme song “Things Can Only Get Better”), things could only get worse under the Tories. This didn’t make me a Labour man; it made me care about the lesser of two evils (or the evil of two lessers). As it would happen, having seen what’s become of the Lib Dems post-election, I have even less reason to regret such a decision. My dear old dad just the other day was talking about the ridiculous tag of being called a “red” for voting Labour almost all his life, adding “the colour yellow has never suited the Lib Dems more than it does these days.”
The post-election Labour leadership candidates have all expressed varying opinions from their shared Labour platform; they will be held to these views in the future, and party policy will be expected to reflect them. With that said, of course it matters who leads the Labour Party. I’ll elaborate.
Aside from the fact that politics is not a spectator sport, and that diplomatic debate should always be encouraged, it’s also important to take note that the leader of any party will have some effect on that party – to varying degrees, admittedly, but that still matters. I’ve lived in the UK, the US and Canada, and I felt it mattered whether David Davis or David Cameron became leader of the Tories, I felt it mattered whether Chuck Hagel or John McCain led the Republicans, and I even felt it mattered whether Bob Rae or Michael Ignatieff led the Liberals. There are differences that, long-term, shape the political landscape, frame debates, and shift the ground of conjecture. Does it matter if Sarah Palin becomes the Republican Party’s presidential candidate for 2012, and should you care? Yes: because if she does challenge Barack Obama, Obama’s guaranteed another election victory (Palin’s fruitloops, let’s be honest here, and the majority of Americans are fully aware of that fact when it comes to casting a vote).
I’ve said it before but I can’t stress this enough: in Britain in 2015 the ConDem coalition, by proxy, will split, and each party will oppose one another and blame each other for the ills of the preceding five years, and try to take credit for the positives (if there will actually be any at all to speak of). Labour will be poised – as the only significant five-year-long opposition to the ConDems – to exploit this in-fighting and offer a genuine alternative to the mere seventeen million people who, in 2010, bothered to vote either Conservative or LibDem (caught up in Nick Clegg fever and thinking, like Labour voters in 1997, that they were going to get something far more progressive than they did in the end). The Tories will have to pull off a miracle of Falklands proportions and/or Labour will have to be led by an individual who absolutely fails to appeal to the public.
It’s well documented that David Miliband worked closely with Tony Blair and – despite disagreeing with Blair’s absurd and widely discredited claims that the party lost in 2010 because it didn’t strictly adhere to New Labour positions – he is often perceived as the candidate of the “New Labour establishment.” His brother Ed Miliband cunningly commissioned a YouGov poll that showed 72% of undecided voters would be less likely to go red if they reverted back to New Labour policies. The right-wing press are already prepping propaganda for if Ed becomes leader, branding him “Forrest Gump.” Is this the best they could do? Forrest Gump was an underdog in a success story. And I can almost see Ed saying “Momma always said that Labour for too long has been like the Lib Dems – you never know what you’re gonna get.” Now we know, and it’s unlikely to be a Labour win under his brother.
I think it’s safe to say that, if like me you’re a “lefty,” and want to get rid of this gang in power, it matters very much who the Labour leader is.