Thursday, March 01, 2007
Why the left should back Jon Cruddas
I want to return to the issue of whether the left should support Jon Cruddas for deputy leader of the Labour Party. Not only is it increasingly likely that there will be no left challenge to Gordon Brown for leader, but as I have argued before, the dynamic of the Labour Party means that Cruddas’s candidature for deputy leader actually makes it less likely that McDonnell (or Meacher) will get support from the 44 MPs that they need.
Unfortunately, the forthcoming leadership election and deputy leadership contest has generated as much heat as light in blogland, about the relative merits of being in the Labour Party as an individual member. This is largely a futile argument, as we are not going to convince each other, and the key issue is how the left can work together and support each other.
I think the correct position was very well expressed by Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party (CPB), in a debate with me two years ago: “As far as we are concerned we will do all we can to support those in the Labour Party, and do everything we can to give unity and to help to give clarity to that fight within the Labour party and the affiliated trade unions against New Labour. There is also the important area as well of the left outside the Labour party. We will certainly be committed … to contributing as much as we can, not to the point where we will attack those in the Labour party who continue to work for left policies and socialist polices in the Labour party - we will be in solidarity with them. We won't join in any attack on those, but we will work with others on the left to try to build as much unity as we can in the left outside the Labour party. … And we would argue to both sets, we have good friends in the Labour party, we have good friends and allies outside the Labour Party, and we think, by and large, while we will continue to debate our differences of course, we believe it is futile to attack one another and say you shouldn't be over there you should be over here. We will be arguing that the left outside the Labour party should be showing as much solidarity as they can with the left inside the Labour party, and we will be arguing with our friends inside the Labour Party that they should be as much joint work, and common work and unity as possible with those outside the Labour party.”
Now of course the Labour Party leadership, and deputy leadership, contests are an issue for both those with individual Labour Party membership, and also for those of us in the affiliated trade unions.
In January there was an important article in the Morning Star, by editor, John Haylett, that described the situation we are in very well. “The trade unions, which remain the largest storehouse of pro-Labour sentiment, personnel and finance, bear key responsibility for what happens to the party that they created. They have already been conned once by the Warwick agreement, of which Hans Christian Andersen must have seen an early draft and based his Emperor's New Clothes on it. It delivered nothing for working people other than an increased level of disappointment and alienation. Today, for the labour movement, the status quo is definitely not an option. Change must come or, as Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas suggests, we could see the demise of Labour, leaving the field to barely distinguishable pro-business parties funded by the rich and by taxation. Indeed, it is difficult even to find evidence that a party of labour - rather than a neoliberal imposter party that bears the name Labour - still exists. The unions have links with most Labour MPs. Those links must be activated to let these MPs, half of whom have never broken ranks to speak out against new Labour's pro-business, pro-war agenda, know what is expected of them.”
Haylett puts it very well: “Unless Labour changes course, adopting a political approach such as that put forward by left leadership challenger John McDonnell, the future is bleak not only for Labour's short-term electoral hopes but for its very future. ”
I am sure we would all like to wake up the day after the labour leadership result is announced and find that John McDonnell is Prime Minister. But if we look at the actually existing possibilities and ask ourselves what would be the most progressive outcome and context for the continuing struggle against New Labour’s neo-liberalism, then that is probably a Gordon Brown victory, with Jon Cruddas elected deputy leader, or at least securing a very credible vote. (And make no mistake Gordon Brown PM is a preferable option to David MiniBlair PM). Of course if McDonnell does manage to get on the ballot for leader and secures a creditable vote, then that is even better still - but we all know he cannot win.
As I have argued before, “The union leaders want influence, and also want a change of direction. They will reason that backing Brown keeps them close to him, and they could maximise pressure on the new PM by backing a deputy leader closer to the unions’ agenda. As has been shown at the last two party conferences, the union leaders are very disciplined (or spineless, depending on your perspective) at sticking to their own agenda, and not supporting left initiatives over Iraq, etc. Cruddas himself has a good prospect of being not the “left candidate” but the “unions’ candidate”, in the same way that Callaghan was for leader. I think those union leaders wanting to pull Labour towards their own agenda may back Brown and Cruddas.”
So why does Cruddas suit the union leaders' agenda? It seems many on the left have missed the fundamental dynamic. The Labour Party has institutionally embedded neo-liberalism into its DNA, yet this places the Parliamentary Labour Party in a prolonged structural antagonism with the Party’s base of support within the Trade Unions. Triangulation also means that Labour Policies are not engaged with the priorities of working class voters in safe seats, which leads to apathy, disengagement and even some voting for the BNP.
Despite his background as a Blaitite, Cruddas does understand this dynamic, and has spoken against it. In his epilogue to the Rowntree Trust’s report (PDF) on the far right Cruddas wrote: “The originality of New Labour lies in the method by which policy is not deductively produced from a series of core economic or philosophical assumptions or even a body of ideas, but rather, is scientifically constructed out of the preferences and prejudices of the swing voter in the swing seat. It is a brilliant political movement whose primary objective is to reproduce itself – to achieve this it must dominate the politics of Middle England. The government is not a coalition of traditions and interests who initiate policy and debate; rather it is a power elite whose modus operandi is the retention of power. … … At root the gearing of the electoral system empties out opportunities for a radical policy agenda. On the one hand, policy is constructed on the basis of scientific analysis of the preferences of key voters; on the other, difficult issues and the prejudices of the swing voter are neutralised. Labour have become efficient at winning elections and being in government yet within a calibrated politics where tenure is inversely proportionate to change. As a politician for what is regarded as a safe working class seat the implications of this political calibration are immense. The system acts at the expense of communities like these – arguably those most in need. The science of key seat organisation and policy formation acts as a barrier to a radical emancipatory programme of economic and social change.”
Get that: “a radical emancipatory programme of economic and social change” It doesn’t matter whether or not Cruddas is sincere, or whether he will deliver. A vote for him is a vote for a change of direction from New Labour towards: “a radical emancipatory programme of economic and social change”
He may or may not be a socialist, but he is attuned to the broad social democratic agenda of the trade union leadership. If Cruddas wins, then that is a much better context for the unions to exercise influence over the direction of the Labour Party, or if they fail in that to develop alternative avenues of influence. It is my firm view that the Labour Party cannot be rescued, but whether or not I am right, the best outcome will be a result in the leadership and deputy leadership elections that demonstrates that we want to see a change of direction.