25 April 2007

The Labour Party Leader

One of the key campaigns of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the 1970s was for the constituent units of the Labour Party (constituencies, trades unions and MPs) rather than the Parliamentary Party to elect the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party. In the thirteen years from 1981 to 1994, the electoral college was used five times: 1981 Healey (as deputy leader against Benn), 1983 Kinnock, 1987 Kinnock, 1992 Smith and 1994 Blair. In the thirteen years since 1994 there have been no elections. In 2007, if Brown gets his way, he will be crowned without opposition from either a Blair acolyte or the hapless John McDonnell from the left.

Of course every institution of the Labour Party (Conference, NEC) has been de-democratised marginalised or both, so an election per se would assume significance, which is precisely why Brown is out to scupper it.

Vladimir Derer and his colleagues from the CLPD intended the electoral college as a means of empowering the rank and file, but instead the new system has had two negative effects. First, following the 1987 Benn/Heffer challenge to Kinnock, the rules were tightened to require 12,5% of Labour MPs to nominate a candidate rather than the previous five percent; thus without a large-scale coordinated rebellion among Labour MPs an election is impossible. Secondly, the non-regular use of the electoral college means that a leadership election would hit the Labour Party like an earthquake, destabilising Labour whether in opposition or in government. Thus, in practice, the effect of the electoral college system has been the opposite of what was intended; it has led to the strengthening of the leader. It was easier for the Tories to remove Thatcher than for Labour MPs to kick out Blair.

I would suggest three reforms, which would be required by law. First, the positions of leader of Party, leader of the Parliamentary Party and the post of Prime Minister (or prime minister designate) should be separated. Second there should be regular mandated elections for all three positions. Third, there should be time limitations on holding these offices. We don’t want a cult of personality of Blair, Brown, Cameron or anybody else.


21 April 2007

Defeatism and New Labour

Several writers recently (e.g. Ross McKibben LRB, Martin Jacques The Guardian) have elaborated the defeatism thesis to explain the failings of New Labour. In essence, the argument is that Labour’s fourth election defeat in 1992 propelled the leadership (after John Smith’s death in 1994) to replace social democracy with Daily Mail policies: no tax and spend, further commercialisation and a repressive agenda on crime – i.e. remoralising the poor through punishment. All this was intended to garner and retain the votes of so-called Middle England, and thus secure the repeated election of Labour governments.

The defeatism thesis contains more than a grain of truth. Yet it is hard to explain the right-wing Blairite New Labour agenda merely as the policies of electoral opportunism. The sycophantic relationship with George Bush and the Iraq war never had middle class backing. Middle England makes use of, but has never fallen in love with, faith schools. PFI is widely seen as the financial swizz that it indeed is. The repressive agenda (from identity cards to speaking CCTV cameras) goes way beyond assuaging middle class security concerns.

Defeatism didn’t simply involve Labour throwing policies overboard so it could reach port; defeatism enabled an new authoritarian captain to take on new cargo, turn the ship around and sail backwards.


The defeatism thesis that McKibben, Jacques and others are putting forward is the belief in the Labour Party leadership by the early nineties that any Laborite reformism, however moderate, could not win an election for Labour. Hence the invention of New Labour and the choice of Tony Blair as leader in 1994.

I basically agree with this argument, but I go on to make the point that many of Blair’s policies, e.g. Iraq, are governed not by electoral calculation (as the defeatism thesis would suggest) but by a specific policy agenda adopted by Blair et. al. to move politically rightwards, irrespective of public opinion.

In essence, what was a first a compromise or tactic of moving rightwards became a raison d’etre for New Labour.

18 April 2007

Comfort and Violence in Britain

I have just spent five days in England visiting Surrey, West Sussex and Hampshire; and apart from the security rigmarole at the airports, everything seemed orderly and comfortable. Yet of course the BMWs on the leafy lanes is only one side of the coin in Europe’s most socially unequal society, which also boasts the continent’s highest per capita prison population.

Interior Minister Reid is fearful that the House of Lords may throw out provisions in his bill to turn over discipline in private prisons to security companies (Meccas for sadists and bullies); he also expects opposition to his plans to privatise probation work. At the same time The Guardian newspaper carried a photograph of the Basra hotel worker who was tortured to death by British forces. No soldiers could be convicted because of their veil of silence over the issue. While rank and file solidarity might be expected, the fact that their commanders are not at the very least expelled from the army is a telling indicator of the government’s attitude.

11 April 2007

The House of Lords - The simple solution

Unfortunately, the simplest and most democratic option for the House of Lords is not currently on the political agenda – abolition. If people are worried about the unrepresentative nature of the House of Commons, the obvious step is to elect it by proportional representation.