A plea for Labour in Brighton and Hove to become an inclusive party of the left

It is said that Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacy was New Labour, and in many regards this is the inheritance that Labour has to overcome.  Gordon Brown had a great opportunity to break with the past by making some big, bold changes, but he fluffed the chance.  So too had (has, just possibly) Ed Miliband.  But rather than announcing something ambitious, he set in train a two year review of Labour’s policies.  That might work for Labour Policy Forum anoraks like Simon Burgess (its national vice chair), it leaves most voters cold and bemused.

But there is another legacy of Thacher – the “enemy within”.  This was a phrase famously coined by the Iron Lady for trade unionists, most notably Arthur Scargill.  She had seen off the Argentinians in the Falklands War, and she turned her sights on the unions.  Under the disastrous leadership of Neil Kinnock, Labour turned on Scargill and then other ‘enemies within’ – Militant, the left generally, and then under Blair, the Brownites.  So much of Labour defined itself as Blairite or Brownite, even though there was not that much in policy terms to separate them.  After the fall of Brown, the primary points of reference related to the Miliband of Brothers, Ed and David.

Labour used to describe itself as a ‘broad church’.  There have always been those on the right (traditional social democrats), the soft left (Fabians), the non-aligned left (in Brighton these even included Christian Socialists), and  Trotskyists (divided into as many sects as there were members).  This mindset persists.  Recently in conversation with me, someone referred to the “Trots” as though they were as unpleasant as their namesake!  Little credit was given to the positive contribution Militant made to the building of the Party in Brighton, and to the success in 1986 when Labour took control of the old Brighton Council.

The leadership of any political party finds dissent difficult, and some times the dissenters can be a right pain in the proverbial. But that is a small price to pay for a vibrant political party.  Labour in Brighton and Hove should seek to become, once again, that broad church, inviting and welcoming anyone and everyone who is left of centre.  Sadly, it is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.  Labour is still licking its wounds from the last general and local elections, viewing the Greens as the new ‘enemy within’.  I cannot count how many times in conversation Labour activists have been quick to attack the Greens in general and Caroline Lucas in particular.  This constant sniping makes Labour look churlish  and sectarian.  Not attractive qualities.

The Greens offer a broad church for those concerned about environmental issues, and attract support and members from former Labour, Lib Dem and even Tory members and supporters.  While this is a strength, it is also a weakness.  The Greens don’t offer an ideological home for the left and socialists in particular.  I am more likely to say “I am a socialist, which is why I joined Labour” that “I am a socialist, which is why I joined the Greens”.  But at the moment most on the unaligned left are not likely to say either.

The Labour Party has failed young people; the Greens are now failing them

Brighton has had, for several generations, a tradition of resistance.  In the 1930s, when Oswald Mosely’s Black Shirts tried to rally in Brighton, there were fierce street battles, and the fascists were prevented from meeting on The Level.  In the 1960s, with the founding of Sussex University, radical student activity abounded, with sit-ins and demonstrations. In the 1970s there were dozens of left-wing and anarchist groups operating in Brighton, based around the old Resource Centre where the Brighthelm Centre now stands.  Punk, New Wave, and Ska music vied with the politics of fascist groups. Feminist and separatist women’s politics was flourishing.

The arrival of the Thatcher government in 1979, and with it mass unemployment, saw Right to Work marches, the People’s March for Jobs, and more fascist activity.  The National Front was active locally, with many of its national leaders living locally. The Anti-Nazi League attracted lots of support from students and young activists, although not from the Militant-dominated Labour Party Young Socialists who supported the less militant Committee Against Fascism.  Militant and the LPYS didn’t support the opposition to the Falklands War, but hundreds of young people did march against the war.  This growing activism created momentum that led to Labour’s assault on the Tories 130 year control on Brighton Council.  Hundreds of young activists had joined the Party and led by David Lepper and Steve Bassam, Labour took control of the Council in 1986 for the first time ever.

The Poll Tax created further momentum and support for the Party peaked in 1990.  But within two years all was lost when the Brighton Labour Party was closed down as part of Kinnock’s witch hunt against Militant.  The Party has never properly recovered and young activists today are few and far between.  The anarchist and fringe left groups have gone.  Small, marginalised groups have emerged, but they are characterised by sectarianism and an inability to organise and mobilise.  Some young people have maintained their political awareness, but mainly in single-issue campaigning.  More often than not, they have become disillusioned and disengaged.  And who can blame them.

The Labour Party in government betrayed the heritage that brought advantage to many of its leaders by introducing tuition fees and saddling generations of graduates with years and years of debt.  Housing is a major concern and so too are job prospects.  The Greens, who should be in a position to harness the anger, aspirations and idealism of young people, are showing themselves to be poor organisers and somewhat elitist, in spite of the success of Caroline Lucas.  A question the Greens must answer is: why are talented young activists like Tom French in the Labour Party and not part of the next chapter of the Green’s march forward in Brighton?

The Labour Party has failed young people, the Greens are failing to capitalise.  What a failure by both.

The policies of Milton Friedman are being implemented by the ConDem Coalition, and Labour isn’t even paying attention

I’m finding it hard to blog these days.  What is happening nationally is too depressing and Britain and the Left are sleep walking into the restructuring of British society.  No, I don’t mean the Big Society.  I don’t even mean severe cuts to public services.  No, something more fundamental is happening. 

Labour and media pundits agonise over aspects of government cuts, and Labour leadership candidates are obsessed about positioning themselves against each other.  Meanwhile the economic extremists in both the Tories and Lib Dems (David Laws having been in the vanguard and he will no doubt remain influential before returning to the Cabinet) are embarking on a programme of privatisation, dismantling the welfare state, and (in due course) tax cuts.

If anyone has read Naomi Klein’s brilliant ‘The Shock Doctrine’ will recognise that what is happening in Britain today comes directly from the philosophy of Milton Friedman.  Klein explains the concept of ‘Disaster Capitalism’ where there are “orchestrated raids on the public sphere” in the wake of a disaster or crisis, the crisis at this time being the near collapse of the banks and the ensuing economic crisis which is being used to justify just about anything.  And the Labour Leadership contenders fiddle while Britain is burnt.

Friedman wrote: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.  When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”.  Klein say that “some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas”.  Friedman believed that once a crisis happens, it is crucial to act swiftly to impose rapid and irreversible change before society slips back into what he describes as the “tyranny of the status quo”.

Friedman wrote that “a new administration has some six and nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity”.

The ideas of Milton Friedman are alive and well and thriving in the Conservative Party and on the right of the Lib Dems.  Both Cameron and Clegg worked for Moneterist ministers in Thatcher’s government, and their economic philosophies have evolved since then.  The only difference is that their presentational skills have also developed to ensure that they are seen as ‘compassionate’.  But the political and economic intentions are just the same.  David Laws gave the game away when he said that he wanted the cuts he proposed to send shock waves throughout Whitehall. 

The Welfare State is being dismantled before our very eyes.  Education (as in the USA where Charter schools are taking over) is being privatised through the acceleration of Labour’s Academies programme.  In due course the NHS will be privatised.  And Cameron and Clegg’s friends (and also those of Blair) are ready for some very rich pickings. 

And the Labour leadership contenders continue to fiddle.

‘New’ style Tory candidates are just fresh faces fronting the same divisive, Thatcherite policies

The Guardian Weekend colour supplement has profiles of eighteen ‘new’ Conservative candidates from around the country.  It reflects that amongst the Tory ranks will be more women, gay and non-white MPs.  David ‘Dave’ Cameron points to these candidates to show how much the Tory Party has changed.

Amongst those fighting marginal seats is Louise Bagshawe (Corby and East Northamptonshire), the author of chic-lit novels: “I’ve always been a die-hard Thatcherite”. Also featured is former GMTV presenter, Esther McVey (Wirral West), media barrister Joanne Cash (Westminster North), failed Brighton politician Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford), Philippa Stroud (Sutton and Cheam) who wants to strengthen families, ex-BBC producer Charlotte Leslie (Bristol NW) who has “never liked authority stamping on what individuals want to do”, and Keeley Huxtable (Birmingham Northfield) who has “always believed in a small state and giving people power over their own lives”. Dom Raab (Esther and Walton) likes the Conservatives’ commitment to “defending our freedom as a nation and ending the creeping mission of the European Union”.

Most of this sounds like Thatcherism, anti-Europe, pro-small government, tax cutting (and therefore public spending slashing), and ‘giving people power over their own lives’ … but only if they can afford it. The faces are certainly changing amongst the ranks, but the philosophy remains the same, and the leadership is Oxbridge.  Cameron remains a toff, and the legacy of Thatcher will be reflected through these, the latest of her children.

I almost forgot Charlotte Vere (Brighton Pavilion).  A fresh set of policies? A break from traditional Tory values?  “I have been a Conservative all my life.  It’s about having a strong sense of social responsibility, a view that opportunity is for everybody, believing that a more effective government is better than a bigger government – and ideally paying as few taxes as possible”.

Defending the Greens Record of Campaigning

I have received a robust defence from Green Amy Kennedy of the Green Party’s record in campaigning against the closure of post offices. (see “Greens have been conspicuous by their absence in any campaign to save any single [Post Office)”. She writes:

“When the Brighton & Hove PO closures were announced in October 2007, Greens cllrs were appalled to find that no less than four of the six doomed B&H sub-POs were located in our wards (Trafalgar Street in St Peter’s & North Laine, Elm Grove in Hanover & Elm Grove, and Preston Circus and Preston Road in Preston Park).

“Subsequently, Brighton & Hove Greens were the only political party locally to call a public meeting to try and hold Post Office Ltd to account (http://www.carolinelucasmep.org.uk/2007/11/28/greens-fight-post-office-closures/), which was held on 6th December 2007 at the Friends Meeting House.

“The meeting was Chaired by Peter Crowhurst (North Laine Community Association), and the panel consisted of Caroline Lucas, Selma Montford MBE, David Bull (then Conservative PPC for Brighton Pavilion) Gary Herbert (Post Office Ltd), Malcolm Butler (Postwatch – consumer watchdog), and a CWU rep (sorry, name escapes me). Invitations were also issued to local Labour MPs, but in the event this offer was not taken up.

“Green councillors also organised petitions in all the condemned B&H POs (including the two in Hove), amassing several thousand signatures, in addition to supplying free template letters for customers to send to Post Office Ltd, Postwatch, and their respective MPs. We sent the original petitions to Hazel Blears MP (then CLG minister), and forwarded copies to PO Ltd and Postwatch.

“Needless to say, the axe fell regardless, thanks to the Labour government’s relentless drive to introduce “efficiency” into public services, regardless of the (not necessarily intangible) cost to communities. I have to say it was pretty ironic watching Nancy Platts running around trying to “save the Post Offices” when (if I recall correctly) both David Lepper and Des Turner voted for the proposals to close the B&H sub-POs, and hundreds like them across the country.

“We are still working to try and progress an “Essex model” at local authority level, so watch this space. And we have and will continue to picket with the CWU. So it’s not fair really to suggest that Greens aren’t doing anything to protect post offices and public mail services”.

Thanks, Green Amy. I stand corrected regarding the campaigning of the Greens.

She is right about the role of the Labour government in driving through post office closures. It truly is the Labour version of the Poll Tax. And given reference to the Poll Tax, now that was a real campaign. Not only did we ultimately get the Poll Tax thrown out, we brought down Margaret Thatcher.

Notwithstanding the activities of the Greens, Nancy Platts and others, post offices closed, remain closed and is unlikely to be a massive part of the general election. The campaign has not been successful.