Labour, Neoliberalism and the Future

Categories: Features

Jonathon Shafi looks at the war emerging between Unite and the Labour Party over candidate selection in Falkirk. He argues it is a moment of great significance in the history of the party, as the neoliberals appear to have gained complete control.

The recent turmoil that has engulfed the Labour Party with regard to the selection process in Falkirk represents far more than a media storm which will blow over. This is a profound moment in the history of the party. It is the consolidation of the neoliberal core at the heart of New Labour, and the confirmation of the trade-union movements distance from power within the party they created.

The sight of Miliband scrambling to distance his party from Unite, to the extent that the police have been called to investigate and long standing Labour trade union officials suspended is appalling. The fact that it is by someone who is only Labour leader because of trade-union votes makes it even worse.

Now is the time to win the argument that “reforming the party from within” is a failed strategy with no future. But to win it, we need to be clear that the current crisis is not about Ed Miliband. Leaders, it can be argued, can be replaced. Individuals, it can be posited, do not speak for the whole party membership. The track record of war and privatisation of New Labour is often pinned on Blair, and with good reason, but there is a wider framework around which the trajectory of Labour has been set: neoliberal consensus. It is the same neoliberal consensus that has seen social-democratic parties across Europe capitulate to austerity. Understanding this neoliberal consenus is the starting place in understanding why there is no hope for the left and the trade-unions within Labour.

Neoliberalism and the British state

Neoliberalism has lead to a fractured, poverty ridden society. Life is precarious for many millions of people in Britain. Not only is it a deeply unjust economic order based on privatisation and a massive upwards redistribution of wealth, it has created a social crisis. Unemployment, inequality, the opening up of what should in any civilised society be protected rights such as health care and education to profit making enterprises are all combined with a massive democratic deficit. Just a millions lead lives of temporary, low paid employment, so to are millions locked out of formal politics. Formally, we have little to no control over the major decisions that affect our lives.

We live in an era of counter-reforms, were the gains of the post-war era like social housing, a welfare state, NHS, and so on are being decimated, removed all together or privatised. The government is constantly seeking ways to get private companies to do their job and in doing so transferring wealth from the public purse into the hands of a tiny – and extremely rich – elite.

Such a society relies on its leaders and those who furnish it ideologically to force people to turn inwards. Immigrants are the real enemy, or maybe its single mothers, or the feckless work shy, people with disabilities shirking job opportunities, the hooded youth menace, or it’s the Muslims. All of these are deployed as ideological levers to create horizontal tension between working people and to offset vertical tension between the people and the governments, corporations and City elites.

That is also why painfully obvious retorts to the Tories are never uttered. Why not talk about the corporate lobby financing political parties? Surely unions composed of millions of members, are more legitimate funders. Why have they attacked universalism under the pretence of the need for cuts, but never talk about taxing the rich? Why are a quarter of Tory donors on the Sunday times Rich List? They never put these questions because to do so breaks with everything around them.

Westminster has built around it an army of lobbyists, business networks and think tanks. Big business operating in Britain work under ‘TheCityUK’ umbrella which ensures that Westminster works as the political arm of the corporate world. Its advisory council makes this self-evident. To name just a few: the Managing Director of Ernst & Young, Managing Partner of KPMG, Co-Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs International, CEO of Deutsche Bank UK, CEO of Canary Wharf, Managing Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The list goes on. Organised, well funded and with a tight relationship with the institutions of political power. This is UK PLC.

Seamus Milne sums it up clearly:

The real corruption that has eaten into the heart of British public life is the tightening corporate grip on government and public institutions – not just by lobbyists, but by the politicians, civil servants, bankers and comyrporate advisers who increasingly swap jobs, favours and insider information, and inevitably come to see their interests as mutual and interchangeable. The doors are no longer just revolving but spinning, and the people charged with protecting the public interest are bought and sold with barely a fig leaf of regulation.

The UK system looks more and more like the US, with parties that represent different strains of the same elite agenda competing to be the one that manages the affairs of capitalism. The emphasis is on parties of governance, as opposed to parties of representation. Understanding the parties of the British state in this way, it is easy to see why there is an unprecedented fall in trust in the central institutions of governance in Britain with less than a quarter of Britons trusting national government, less than a fifth trusting parliament and fewer than 15 per cent having any confidence in the press.

The two referendums on Scottish Independence and the EU add to this sense that the British state is in a state of confusion and paralysis. It is not a democracy, when Scotland has elected only one Tory MP and yet the key powers still reside in Westminster. The rise of UKIP in England and a back bench Tory rebellion has force the EU referendum onto the agenda. Each of these pose serious challenges. In particular, Scottish Independence can’t be allowed to happen because it will be a rejection of neoliberal orthodoxy because Scotland has something England doesn’t: the SNP. The SNP have themselves a hard neoliberal wing. But their primary output into the public mind is related to welfare provision, access to education, a rejection of Tory austerity, opposition to war and trident and so on. There can be no other evaluation in the context of a Yes vote other than that it is a vote against being run by Westminster where social change, formally, is seen as not possible.

The Falkirk crisis underlines the problem of political representation. At present, through Westminster there are millions of people who cannot have a voice because there is no party that can represent the views of those who want an alternative to austerity, privatisation and war. They are up against three party establishment. Labour have undermined their votes, and more than that they have publicly undermined their on base on too many occasions now. A crisis for the Labour party is itself a crisis for the regulation of the British state. To ensure neoliberalism remains all encompassing it is necessary to allow for either Labour or Tory to be in power while pursuing effectively the same agenda. The crisis of political representation is not a permanent one. There comes a point where the contradictions in the political system cannot be spun. There can be a future beyond the ‘1%’.

Falkirk: eye of the storm

Unite campaigned to get trade union members to stand as MPs with hopes of grappling at least something back as far as political representation is concerned. They are accused of packing selection meetings and of recruiting trade union members under the Union Join scheme, some of them allegedly unaware they were joining the Labour Party. It has to be said that while unsure of the specifics, you would imagine that if you cast a vote in a Labour selection process, you might assume you are infact a member. In any event, Unite are furious and deny any wrong doing.

What we have seen ensue in Falkirk has brought to the surface underlying tensions which up until now Labour have managed to smother. And so worried are they of Tory attacks, so tied into neoliberal orthodoxy are they now terminally intertwined that the Guardian reports on Miliband considering the possibility of a historic break with the unions:

One senior party figure said Miliband will only clear the air – and protect himself from Tory attacks that he is the unions’ plaything – if he breaks the links with the trade unions that founded the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900. This grew into the Labour party after the LRC won 29 seats in the 1906 election.

The former cabinet minister said: “We need to have a commission that looks at the union link. All the general secretaries need to sign up to it. We need to get to a place where you simply have one category of Labour party members. There should no longer be a formal union affiliation.

Of course this hands the initiative completely to the Tories but then again, they are locked into doing this, it is the neoliberal way. Mcluskey coming back to Milibands claims of corruption and cowering to Tory jibes says: “The Labour leadership is now being caught up in anti-union Tory hysteria. I am as amazed as everybody else is at this.” It is breathtaking, but hardly surprising. It makes absolute sense in context. This is an absolutely critical moment. As Owen Jones tweeted: Unions founded the Labour party to give working people the chance of a political voice. The vultures circling want that shut down for good.

Public ruptures are emerging. Some of them are generational and illustrate the terminal decline of Labour recruitment from the youth of the union movement. This is particularly the case in Scotland. Not only is the Scottish Labour party running on empty in terms of emergent leaders, MPs, councillors and activists, they are in league with the Tories in ‘Project Fear’, as Better Together HQ call themselves, to shut down any hope Scots have of a more equal, better future outside the British state. Now with Miliband in all-out war with McCluskey, how much more are trade-union members going to take before they demand that they stop giving money to those who are sticking the boot into them?

The future

The issue is set to polarise further: McCluskey has to defend his union and Miliband has to triangulate Cameron. There is immediate questions and more long-term questions. Immediately: what are the other trade-unions who fund Labour, GMB and UNISON for example, doing to show solidarity and support for Unite? What is Unite’s strategy within Labour now given that it will be ten times as difficult now to get their people in as Labour candidates? Long-term: is the trade-union movement going to allow itself to be attacked by all and sundry in the Labour leadership from now until the general election, and potentially booted out by the neoliberals who have the bit between their teeth? Or are they going to reassess their approach towards political representation, and start seeing the obvious conclusion that they must seek alternative avenues for political representation?

For those of us outside Labour, we should do everything possible to break the neoliberal consensus. The left can legitimately claim to be the only people who have policies to transfer wealth and power from the rich to the poor. We are willing to say capital doesn’t have the best interests of people at heart. That’s very easy to say to most people you might meet in your work or your friendship circles. The difference is transferring that into political power.

In Scotland, winning a Yes vote is hugely important in the process of social renewal and change. Bearing in mind the analysis of the alliance of the City and political parties through Westminster, rejecting the British state is a good place to work from. The independence movement, that is growing and organising in its various ways across Scotland on a mass scale, does not just disappear after September 18th 2014. The mass sections of it that seek a just society that thinks beyond the terms of the market, towards renewable green jobs, a strong welfare state and so on will campaign to ensure that is delivered. The process of developing a mass alternative is a difficult one, but it is one that the neoliberals at the top of Labour are thrusting upon all of us whether we like it or not.

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