Labour Fails to Listen by Jean Calder

Labour had a disastrous general election. Activists believed polls indicating they were neck and neck with the Conservatives. They are now reeling from the shock of failing to win target seats such as Brighton Kemptown and Hastings – and of losing leading politicians like Ed Balls

John Woodcock MP, chair of the influential Progress group said the party would need to examine what went wrong. I’d suggest the answer is simple. Leaving aside the wisdom or otherwise of pursuing an economic policy of ‘austerity lite’, Labour was arrogant, took the electorate for granted and failed either to explain or to listen. There were several examples of this. I’ll mention just a few.

Since Labour’s 2010 defeat, the Conservatives and their media supporters have repeatedly accused Labour of ‘trashing’ the economy by overspending. It would have been possible to provide simply-worded and honest replies to these accusations – and to have reproduced them on leaflets, in interviews and on websites – but, inexplicably, Labour’s leaders chose not to do this. As a result, the Government successfully persuaded the public that Balls and Brown ‘spent all the money’ – and a golden opportunity to educate the public was lost. Up until the 2015 election, David Cameron regularly reminded voters of arch-Blairite Liam Byrne’s mocking note, left for the Treasury team, that said no money was left. Instead of condemning Byrne’s letter and excluding him from the leadership team, Ed Miliband foolishly kept him on his front bench, appearing to endorse his view – and allowing Byrne’s colleagues, by association, to take the blame.

Labour focussed its election campaign on the NHS. It rightly attacked the Conservatives’ expensive re-organisation, but failed to acknowledge, or apologise for, the dreadful failures in care standards that happened on its watch, not least in Mid Staffs and in Wales, and the terrible breach of trust that this represented. It condemned the Coalition government for excessive NHS executive salaries and pursuit of private sector service delivery, but did not apologise for its own past complicity in both. Finally, fixated by it’s commitment to spending ‘responsibility’, Labour found itself trapped in the ludicrous position of offering less money for the NHS than the Conservatives and attacking them for promising too much.

Labour said it planned to reduce immigration, but I doubt people believed it. Voters knew that, when in power, Tony Blair had enthusiastically pursued uncontrolled European immigration and that this undercut working class wages and put pressure on housing and services. Ed Miliband’s arrogant refusal to countenance a referendum on Europe flew in the face of his stated commitment to controlled immigration – and to democracy. He placed the free movement of cheap labour – and the profits of some businesses – before the rights of British people, particularly women, who were most likely to be low-paid or using public services.

There has for years been a whiff of corruption around Labour – ruthlessly exposed by newspapers such as The Times and Daily Mail – which Labour’s leaders have not addressed. They have ignored growing evidence that some Labour-dominated councils have tolerated instances of corruption, including electoral fraud, manipulation of school governing bodies and organised exploitation of teenage girls.

It’s true that no party has yet acted effectively against electoral fraud, especially in relation to misuse of postal votes by ‘community leaders’ and heads of households. However, there is a widespread view that, in some parts of the country, Labour has actively encouraged or at least turned a blind eye to this – partly because it feared accusations of racism, but mostly because Labour’s candidates have been the primary beneficiaries. This is despite the fact that such practices may have disempowered and effectively disenfranchised thousands of women. When, in late April, the Election Commissioner found that Lutfur Rahman, the independent former Mayor of Tower Hamlets, had been guilty of “corrupt and illegal practices” and ordered the 2014 mayoral election to be re-run, Christine Shawcroft, a long standing member of the Labour Party’s NEC, condemned the judge and addressed a public meeting in Rahman’s ‘defence’. This was just days before the General Election. Shawcroft’s action may have appealed to some voters in London, but sent a terrible message to the rest of the country.

Despite the Labour Party’s theoretical commitment to gender equality, there has been no coherent explanation why, under the Labour government, there was such reluctance to investigate either the organised abuse of teenage girls in northern and midlands cities (despite early warnings from former Labour MP Anne Cryer) or associated allegations of collusion by some Labour councillors. Similarly, the party has refused to acknowledge its apparent unwillingness, when in power, to confront harmful ‘cultural’ practices, such as FGM and forced marriage – or to challenge the blatant gender inequality inherent in the operation of sharia courts. In the days before the election, undecided female voters were hardly likely to be impressed by photographs on twitter and in newspapers of prominent Labour MPs addressing a gender-segregated political meeting – nor by the party’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, who defended their actions. The fact that Conservative-supporting newspapers like the Daily Mail publicised these matters, did not make them any less true or significant.

While north of the border, a powerful charismatic female leader was seen to carry all before her, Labour leaders continued to patronise women and take them for granted – as they had for the previous five years. The party placed little emphasis on the fact that young women were more likely than young men to be unemployed and that women were the primary victims of austerity policies, experiencing increased poverty, exploitation, sexist discrimination and violence – while continuing to bear primary responsibility for child- and elder-care. Instead of empowering women and girls and setting out what a Labour government would do differently, the party’s male leadership largely ignored them. When occasional parliamentary debates on female equality or violence took place, Labour’s male leaders took themselves off on visits to factories, to be photographed in macho poses and hard hats. In debates about youth unemployment, education and training, females barely featured. And when the Labour party commissioned a report on ‘Older Women’ it took two years to publish and then failed to consider the needs of anyone over 70. I know I wasn’t the only one to laugh, at the start of the election campaign, to see the party send out female MPs in a bright pink bus to ‘listen to women’s concerns’ – when it was far too late to do anything about them.

The truth is that if Labour is to rebuild, its leaders and activists must learn to confront its failures and listen to the people, female and male, young or old, powerless or powerful – not because the party wishes to appear well, or to recruit, exploit or manipulate the individuals involved or solicit their votes – but because what they have to say is often true and usually of value.

Only when Labour learns to respect the people, will it be fit to govern them.

Jean Calder

13 Responses

  1. Jean – a good piece. Not 100% accurate but sets the debate going forward.

  2. Many thanks Jean for your reflection – very much appreciated. Let us hope that some of the local Labour Party members reflect on your comments and are provoked to do something about the many challenges implicit in the text. I won’t hold my breath.

  3. I do feel that with the inevitable move to the right, that may happen sooner rather than later now the shackles are off, Labour has a chance to draw clear lines between themselves and the Tories. What is needed now is strong leadership.

  4. I have clicked into the suspended Brighton Politics blog from time to time since 2012 and wondered….

    Only with the Brighton & Hove News article now do I see it revived!!!

    But, oh, woe!!!

    Would that these wise strandings from Jean Calder had been widely seen and read BEFORE we cast our votes…..

    The whisperings about Labour and vote manipulation are something I was aware of before 2007…. My own experience of the Labour-run BHCC council pre their 2007 savaging by the voters (to some extent over the King Alfred redevelopment scandal) haunts me now.

    I actually FEAR the incoming Administration and a return to the council meeting behaviour of that era. One or two of the newly elected Labour cllrs are very much from that cynical, sneering and brutal pre-2007 mould. Do they possess the motivation to change?

  5. Good piece and welcome back BPB.

    I’d highlight two other mistakes. Firstly, spending the post 2010 election period in a extended bout of navel-gazing, allowing – as Jean says – the lie about Labour having caused the financial crash to gain traction.

    While a period of reflection is now necessary , this shouldn’t be at the expense of pointing out the government’s shortcomings. The Tories won this election more or less by default, on a lower share of the vote than they have ever won a majority on before. They failed on their own key indicator of success – deficit reduction – by a country mile. Of course this makes Labour’s failure last week all the more reprehensible (and regrettable).

    Many might disagree with my second point, but I think it was a big mistake for Miliband to rule out any kind of deal with the SNP. Many would have wondered how on earth he could hope to carry on a government without dealing with them – so some kind of statesmanlike response along the lines of ‘I’ll talk to anyone if it will give the country stable government’ would have taken the sting out of the Tory warnings about ‘chaos’.

  6. I agree with most of this piece, but I have a major problem with one paragraph, and one phrase in particular – “the rights of British people” – sent a shiver down my spine. Surely the only rights British people have are *human* rights – the same rights that the immigrants have – so why should British people be favoured over non-British people? (NB we could, in any case, probably have a long debate about what those terms, “British” and “non-British” actually mean, but let’s not go there just yet).

    If there is a problem with the number of people in this country and a shortage of basic facilities to support those people, then surely any debate about the issue should be couched in terms of population control, not immigration. By that I don’t mean restricting the number of children people can have, but just looking at the problem as a whole and not seeing it as the fault of one particular section of the population. Such a discussion should surely include questions such as why genuinely affordable houses are not being built; why council houses are not being built; why there is such a huge number of empty houses which could be occupied; and whether there is a net shortage of housing across the whole country or whether it is just a local problem in some areas; and how to solve these problems.

    The question of European immigration “undercutting working class wages” is surely a separate, but equally important, issue. Are these employers paying *illegally* low wages? If so, target them, not the immigrants. Even if they are not, are they exploiting the desperation of people in other countries whose lot is even worse than that of people who have grown up in the UK? Surely if immigrants are being paid lower wages than “indigenous” people – for whatever reason – we shouldn’t blame the immigrants for that? What is being done to unionise these workers? (What will Labour do to repeal Thatcher’s anti-union laws so that such workers might be more likely to have union representation ?) Are immigrant workers fully aware of the conditions they will have to live in and the pay they will actually get, before they come? If they are, and they still want to come, they must surely be very desperate to choose such a big upheaval in their lives. If not, shouldn’t politicians who are concerned about the impact of immigration be visiting the countries they are coming from and getting the message across?

    Finally – if, after all that, politicians decide that there should be controls on immigration, it should work both ways. It is surely hypocritical to say that people from other countries should not come here, but people from this country are free to go and live in Spain, or to buy a house in France and “divide their time”. Clamping down on such practices might help those involved to see the issue from a more detached, Europe-wide perspective.

    There is, of course, another interpretation of what you say, which is that Labour should “listen” uncritically to people who are opposed to immigration for xenophobic or racist reasons, or because the tabloid press says so. I don’t think that is what you mean, but if it is, it will simply result in Labour becoming a populist, ideology-free party which people on the left should steer well clear of.

    Finally finally, I think any discussion about immigration should be preceded by a recording of Dennis Skinner’s Commons speech about his heart bypass operation, and all the people who made it happen, and where they originated from.

    • Jim, thanks for your comment. I’ve posted the following reply as a new blog:

      I’ve been interested to read responses to one of my recent blogs, Labour Fails to Listen.

      In his comment, Jim Grozier disagreed with what I’d said about immigration. He wrote: “I have a major problem with one paragraph, and one phrase in particular – “the rights of British people” – sent a shiver down my spine.” He added “Surely the only rights British people have are *human* rights – the same rights that the immigrants have – so why should British people be favoured over non-British people?”

      I find these ideas fascinating. I am an immigrant. I remain immensely grateful to the UK for taking me in in 1972 and for providing me with a better and safer life than I would have had in South Africa. I’ve worked hard since I’ve been here and, like most immigrants, have tried to give something back. However, back in the 1970s I never for one moment thought I had a right to the same services and benefits as British-born people. It simply would never have occurred to me, given that neither my parents nor I had contributed, by our work or our taxes.

      I worked for three years in order to gain what was then called ‘resident status’ and then went to Sussex University as a mature student on a full grant. I will always be grateful for this. However, if the government of the time had decided that immigrants like me needed to work for five or seven years rather than three, because British born people needed the places or because the country couldn’t afford it, I would have accepted it. I wouldn’t have liked it, but it would have seemed to me fair and completely reasonable that the country should look after its own young people first. I’ve never had any difficulty with this notion, though I would expect that after a certain period of legal residence and contribution, rights would equalise.

      It seems strange to suggest that British citizenship should bring with it no rights other than basic human rights. As Britons, we don’t live in a supranational European state or a world without borders. The nation state still exists and so long as it does, continues to confer particular rights and responsibilities on its citizens. This is true in all countries, not just our own. It seems to me absurd to suggest that national governments should, in all circumstances, give equal weight to the well being of visitors or settlers, whatever the hardship this may cause to the people of the host nation.

      Tony Greenstein commented that apparent concern about immigrants’ undercutting wages “has been the staple argument of racists for over 120 years.” He is right, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t in some cases true. My point is that, over several years, an unscrupulous political elite in the UK developed a deliberate strategy of bringing in workers for the purpose of undercutting wages and conditions and undermining unionised labour. Unskilled jobs which could have been carried out by British people were, quite legally, advertised abroad rather than in the UK. Skill shortages were not addressed by a state education and training establishment, which, over decades, failed to prepare indigenous workers for key trades and professions, for example in building, nursing and medicine. One result is an NHS staffed by low-paid agency workers with poor English – and well-paid doctors from abroad, who could perhaps have better served their countries by working at home.

      Jim ended his comment by recalling MP Dennis Skinner’s Commons speech in which he attacked UKIP MPs and referred to what he called his “United Nations heart bypass” operation. He said: “ was done by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, a Dutch doctor, a Nigerian registrar, and these two people here talk about sending them back from whence they came. And if they did that in the hospitals in London, half of London would be dead in six months.”

      It was a moving and amusing speech and a wonderful piece of polemic, but Skinner should surely also have asked why our very wealthy country fails to train enough people to staff its NHS. After all, tiny cash-strapped Cuba manages to produce enough doctors and nurses to meet its own needs and has for decades been able to export them, as required, to war zones and disaster areas around the world. I have to ask, if they can do it, why can’t we?

      • You may have been an immigrant Jean but as a White South African one you were privileged, not least in gaining entry in the first place.

        Of course someone who is accepted as a citizen or for permanent residency has the same rights and obligations as anyone else. As you say, after 3 years you went to a good university and received a full grant. The cost was considerable but so what.

        We live in a capitalist society, a society where there is a massive disparity in wealth between the top 1% and the bottom 60%. You are suggesting that Labour pander to the very arguments designed to divide the poor so that they fall into the nationalist trap set by UKIP and the Tories.

        It wasn’t for nothing that Samuel Johstone remarked that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Because if all else fails, reach for the flag. The problem today and the problem the Labour Party is unable to address is one of class. How can those who have nothing throw out the racist and patriotic ideas that tie them to their own rulers and assert their own independence. Why if a working class woman has an extra bed room should she move out when granny dies but Mrs Windsor has a few hundred rooms to spare but noone thinks of cutting the Civil List?

        Your rights and responsibilities should not depend on whether you are British or not but what your needs are, no more no less. If there aren’t enough houses then stop selling them off and start building them, rather than playing off one group against another.

        Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia faced all these attacks. The TUC was in the forefront of demanding ‘anti-alienist’ legislation throughout the 1880’s but gradually, with the Jewish Tailors Strike of 1889 and other militant ventures the more class conscious sections of the working class, led by Manchester Trades Council came out against immigration controls. The campaign to introduce the 1905 Aliens Act was led by the British Brothers League, the precursor of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists.

        Britain is not only the 6th richest nation on Earth but it has a legacy of Empire and a habit of sending its armed forces into places where it creates refugee situations or bombing countries like Libya. Well it should take the consequences of the actions it takes.

        What does it matter if a ‘political elite in the UK’ developed a cheap labour strategy of undercutting wages and conditions by recruiting abroad. In fact they don’t need to do that because they can just set up a factory or call centre in India whenever they want to. capital has always been exportable and in the time of globalisation it is even more so. The idea that we should target immigrants rather than organise them is to play into the racists’ hands.

        Most of the foreign nurses in the NHS, certainly those I’ve met, have perfectly good English and aren’t agency nurses either. Since we don’t train enough nurses or doctors we either employ them or have a skeleton NHS.

        We know why Cuba can train enough doctors and nurses and it’s because it wasn’t tied to the capitalist system and therefore profit was not one of its priorities. It was why Cuba had a lower child mortality rate than its rich neighbour the USA. Britain however is a capitalist country and the question is how to move on. Certainly we won’t see any change if those who were socialists adopt the arguments of UKIP.

        And I look forward to your defence Jean of your remarks on Lutfhur Rahman or a retraction. He maybe a Muslim but he’s more radical than the white Labour politicians who helped bring the election complaint!

      • Please see my new blog “Electoral Fraud and How to Stop It.” Note that I don’t withdraw my comments about Lutfur Rahman.

      • Ah you may not withdraw your comments but I notice you don’t defend them either! Electoral fraud comes with the territory. Question is, even assume it happened, was that the real reason?

        I go with the Irish, whose motto is ‘vote early, vote often’. You can’t get too much of a good thing!!

  7. I am sorry that Jean adopts the idea that ‘the free movement of cheap labour’ deprioritises ‘the rights of British people, particularly women, who were most likely to be low-paid or using public services.’

    This has been the staple argument of racists for over 120 years. Exactly such arguments were being used to oppose the immigration of Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia in the 1880’s onwards. The very same people who opposed the very formation of trade unions, who encouraged police attacks on pickets and any notion of trade union solidarity, wept crocodile tears at the threat that immigrants posed to the wages of ‘British people’.

    Jean’s feminism all too often makes concessions to racist stereotypes and worse. The answer to cheap labour is workers’ solidarity. Has Jean forgotten Jayaben Desai and the women at Grunwick who fought against all the odds for the right to join a trade union and against a management that ruled by fear. These workers were from Pakistan and India and brought over their own traditions of fighting for union rights.

    That was what Jewish workers also did when they came over. They formed unions and fought.

    I also don’t like this insinuation that Labour has ignored ‘cultural practices’ such as FGM because of electoral sensitivities. I know what Jean is saying because she has said it before, that certain Asian men are prone to organise the rape and abuse of children. This is a Daily Mail agenda.

    As I wrote recently, when a white gang did exactly the same, there was little publicity and no mention whatever of the fact that they were white.

    Rape and child abuse is not peculiar to particular communities and to suggest it is is also an attack on Asian women. Jean should really rethink what she is saying.

    Likewise she knows nothing of the judicial coup mounted against Lotfhur Rahman. Christine Shawcroft was perfectly correct to stand up to defend this nakedly racist attack on a democratically elected mayor and Jean should bow her head in shame. Jean used to be a supporter of Irish republicanism and opposed to what Britain had done in Ireland. If she had investigated the matter a little further she would know that the Act used to remove Lotfhur Rahman, the Electoral & Corrupt Practices Act was brought in when Irish people were given the vote. If she were to read the judgement she would see that Judge Richard Mawrey made specific comparison to an Irish case where the successful candidates were barred. I quote from para. 159 of the Judgment:

    ‘The second thing we get from the Irish cases is that the question of spiritual influence cannot be divorced from a consideration of the target audience. Time and again in the Irish cases it was stressed that the Catholic voters were men of simple faith, usually much less well educated than the clergy who were influencing them, and men whose natural instinct would be to obey the orders of their priests (even more their bishops). This principle still holds good. In carrying out the assessment a distinction must be made between a sophisticated, highly educated and politically literate community and a community which is traditional, respectful of authority and, possibly, not fully integrated with the other communities living in the same area. As with undue influence in the civil law sphere, it is the character of the person sought to be influenced that is key to whether influence has been applied.’

    And in para. 183 we learn that:

    ‘Islam, like many other religions, places considerable emphasis on loyalty and obedience: disloyalty to the faith – a fortiori apostasy – is treated with great seriousness. It would be wrong, therefore, to treat Tower Hamlets’ Muslim community by the standards of a secular and largely agnostic metropolitan elite.’

    Well this was the attitude of the British colonists who, it would appear, Jean is aligning herself with. I hope it is done out of ignorance.

    Yes 150 Muslim clerics issued an open letter backing Lotfhur, but was this undue spiritual influence?

    Consider that Lutfhur had built more affordable social housing than anywhere else in the country, had replaced the full education maintenance allowance after the government abolished it, expanded a living wage requirement for all contractors, and allocates a £1,500 grant to every university student. It was the first council in the country to ban contracts with firms that blacklist trade unionists, absorbed all cuts to council tax benefit, refuses to enforce the bedroom tax, and has avoided many of the cuts to vital services, such as libraries and youth clubs. Lutfhur Rahman has also openly embraced LGBT activists and is no Muslim Fundamentalism.

    The reason why the Labour left, including Ken Livinstone have supported him, is because it is a corrupt and right-wing Labour establishment, backed by the Tory Party locally and in the form of the detestable Eric Pickles (an arch Zionist) nationally who have attacked him. I’m really sorry that Jean wants to hitch her bandwagon to these creatures.

    Lutfhur stands in the tradition of George Lansbury and the Poplar Councillors, which was in the area now represented by Tower Hamlets.

    There’s nothing in Jean’s criticisms of Sharia courts that couldn’t be said about courts of the Jewish Beth Din. Both are all-male affairs.

    Immigration controls are racist by their very nature. The race may change but the message remains the same. People are not worried by immigration (who actually knows what the figures are amongst these worried souls? or who knows what the benefit rates are when they moan about ‘scroungers’?) but they are set up to compete for disappearing social resources with incomers. Affordable social housing is disappearing because of the sell off of Council and now it would seem Housing Association houses. Very few houses are being built. But global capitalism and the EU means whether anyone likes it or not there is free movement of labour. The answer lies in abolishing capitalism not turning to racist solutions.

    • What a load of ultra-lefty, sexist nonsense, Tony. And yes to lunch. You’re paying!

      And by the way, I still support self-determination for the Irish people.

      I’ll respond in more detail later, when I have the energy.

      Jean x

  8. Sexist? Hardly. I will be interested to see how you reconcile opposition to British racism against Irish people with support for similar nay identical attitudes to Muslims.

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