I started to write this note a week or so before the second Labour leadership result was declared. Despairing of much of the exchanges on social media between erstwhile comrades and “friends”, and questioning of how quickly positions, loyalty and affiliations were both personalised and trashed. I tried to distract myself with a little self-indulgent reflection and the periodic questioning of my own beliefs – which I think for most reasonable do? (I have edited and re-edited heavily since this time seeking to remove emotive language and observations – and for now at least removed many references to recent “local difficulties”.)
Thirty – yes thirty – years ago I joined the Labour Party. I was 17, and I had reached this point by way of the personal tutelage of many writers but mainly George Orwell since I was about 14. A keen student of all things historical but suddenly I was equipped with tools to assess, challenge and critique. I did attend a few meetings in Canvey Island Labour Club but to be honest they were dull affairs and no one took time to invest in the few young people who did attend. Meetings contained nothing of the political debate and education I hoped for and sadly, from my experience very little has changed in this time.
I think the startling thing to me now is how profound an effect George Orwell’s writing had on my political development, and remains so influential today. Certainly “challenge”, perhaps cynicism, and a healthy dose of common sense are part of my intellectual tool kit. My profound rejection of tyranny and intolerance in all it’s guises but also a distrust of the state as a representation of progressive or democratic intent is a key legacy. In a western democracy it should be considered an inefficient beast for delivery at best, elsewhere it leads through all spectrum of political colours to plaything of a despot. At all costs the state’s role should be diminished and not strengthened, we should encourage localism – and democratic ownership in the delivery of goods and services including co-operatives, social enterprise and social partnerships.
At sixth form college I was delighted by the opportunity to broaden my debating skills, it was in stark contrast to most of the classes in school. I have very fond memories of my A level years, for many reasons, but above all else I found myself at the start of a process of self-appraisal and challenge of my beliefs that continue to this day. Up until this point I had an insatiable appetite for reading both fiction and non-fiction but while I was firmly fixed on learning, my free time was firmly invested in teenage love and life experience above real politics – and without encouragement from the party this was to expected. During early debates and discussions I mostly found myself by default defending from the Left. Whilst this was not an expected or unwelcome position, but actually I often found myself to be staking positions which I did not necessarily fully endorse but felt it was important to be made in the absence of others willing to make such points.
I would often later reflect on what I had said to consider what I really did believe – Stalin’s relationship with Hitler, and the Russian revolution was always a good topic especially the Kronstadt rebellion(a game changer for my views). I think at this time I was probably – philosophically at least – a communist. Not a revolutionary but what I saw represented within the European Parliaments, one of the idealists who went to Spain in 1936. I was content to be considered as a “Lefty” – my history tutor described me as “a socialist with a cutting edge” (because of favour of military intervention to support liberal causes) – although still surprises me how few other motivated students there were at the time. I was no agitator, always a democrat.
My personal circumstances meant that university was not an option. But the workplace gave me an introduction to trade unionism; providing me with some many positive experiences, essential life skills but also my first experiences of tribalism and cliques. As is often the case for many, a combination of enterprise and fortune meant that I became a very young but enthused union official equipped with an office, facility time and a committee of the equally bewildered. We were idealists; committed and in awe of our responsibilities – and we worked so very hard to learn quickly and fulfil our responsibilities.
When I started work it was the time of the Miners Strike. Absolute admiration for the workers but never trusting of Scargill and his ultimate motivation. I do not accept the argument for not taking a national vote and remain convinced this was ultimately the politicalisation of a just industrial dispute – and whatever the rhetoric ultimately agnostic to the suffering it was inflicting. I struggled with this. A child of Thatcher, my secondary education often delivered through temporary teachers, shared and damaged text books delivered in leaking and cold “demountable” classrooms, but aghast at what seemed the Left alternative. The 1987 Labour election manifesto sealed the deal for me. I can recall buying a copy in WH Smith and reading it over and over. Idealistic and unspoilt I was genuinely impressed not just by the programme but what I saw of the integrity and sincerity of Neil Kinnock – and heard THAT speech. Until very recently never felt the need to join any group or division, I have always supported a range of people of all affiliations based upon their authenticity as well as certain policy positions. I thought Kinnock’s front bench was indeed the first of a series of really good teams reflecting all of the Labour Party, and my benchmark for measuring others which followed. Until 2015 I had never felt the need to identify with or support a Labour grouping (and then it was a safe refuge) but I was particularly taken with Robin Cook and Clare Short.
I can still recall at this time being drawn by industrial organisation in Germany since the war. The presentation of worker and management committees still appeal to me, and would make more sense once I had started work and started to understand the dynamics of good leadership. When I joined the civil service in the late 1980s meeting with your trade union representative was still a formal part of your induction week – it was no surprise that I would join but it was that I would rise to Branch Chair of Patent Office within a few months. Although I was satisfied that the state capitalism of China and Russia was not socialist in it’s design or delivery, still it was clear that the inherited system of Stalinist collectivism could never match what the West could provide in choice or meet demand. It was enterprise and endeavour which quite literally provided the menu, and only a motivated and incentivised supply chain can truly satisfy our appetites.
The removal of trade union rights from GCHQ and the fall of the Miners Strike. There was an endless demand to organise and support demonstrations and pickets. It was during this time that I was first exposed to factionalism and ambitions which would eventually remove my personal desire to pursue further trade union activism. My faith in trade unions has never diminished, and I have the greatest admiration for those who work earnestly to lead these organisations, but I found too much energy was invested by some in low trade union office in securing support and personal ambition. I was not naive, and appreciated there will be different groupings, but too often opportunities for progress and unity were brushed over for petty advantage. I salute all those union people who work tirelessly without reward in the interests of the membership, and also the majority of paid officials who work their arses off – so much more would be achieved if there wasn’t the need to look over your shoulder or constantly build alliances. I am certain that the political bullying and shenanigans I observed by the hard Left has shaped my total rejection of their politics. In my experience, and it is a generalisation, those who shout loudest about principles seem to have the greatest difficulty living by them.
I was drawn by the energy and agenda of the SDP – perhaps perfect articulation for my beliefs – but believe that the “gang of four” could and should have stayed and help found some for the changes which would follow a decade later. They were all people I had greatly admired and so it was clear it would take my attention but ultimately not my support. Again I wonder how much of their decision to leave was naked ambition by one or more of the leaders and definitely the vanity of one. The outcome however was the loss of significant talent and ideas and ultimately ensured that Tories would dominate for this decade. I certainly was taken in by the policies and energy of the SDP and possibly it was my active trade unionism that kept me in Labour at this, because every demonstration or picket I never saw the SDP (although concede the odd Liberal Party member (remember them?).
The electoral losses of 1987 and 1992 I found difficult to comprehend, and quite probably a similar feeling of disappointment the failure of Ed Miliband. Unpopular Conservative Governments promoting regimes of public service cuts against back drops of unemployment and poverty – sound familiar? This was set against an energetic and diverse team of motivated people setting out an inspirational vision offering innovation and hope. It remains a truth that outside of the politically motivated I simply do not meet Tory voters, they are indeed a shy bunch but more concerning to me are those many people who choose not to vote. In my experience, which is surely the only honest position, some will claim their rejection is in itself a form of activism but most simply have no interest or investment. Most non-voters I have challenged, on the premise that their passivity is actually a connivance with the sitting councillor/council/government, has so little impression – this is not a fertile ground please note.
New Labour changed the game. I do recall that I felt, and still do, that the premature death of John Smith was a genuine loss to the Labour Party. He would have won the election on a different basis from which Tony Blair did, and most certainly would have lead the Labour Party in a different direction. However, it still also remains true of the genuine delight to see the Blairs in No.10 and I continue to celebrate the many positive changes which were to follow. I never have considered myself to be either Blairite or Brownite – but will always champion this period even though I did allow my membership to lapse in protest at the Iraq War. But however significant and ill-informed this executive decision was, it was the Prime Minister and not the Labour Party which made it. It is one of those sad ironies that the undemocratic Hard Left would seek to take advantage of the now hostile press, and would help Tories propaganda by undermining and diminishing the many achievements of the Blair and Brown Government, and this continue to today.
I don’t support Corbyn. I have never supported Corbyn and his allies. I do not like their politics or the company they keep either domestically or within the many dictatorships and their apologists around world. None of that needed to matter, and I could still have been active and indeed a candidate, except for the hostility of Corbyn supporters locally. My beliefs are a mixed bag, and I am happy to debate and consider challenge of ideas. The Labour Party is at its best when the proposition is radical and widely supported from different traditions within the party, and when people with different identities and beliefs work together. However, I have no tolerance for intolerance, for bullying and the pursuit of domination and control – the past couple of years have been more about personalities than ideas and have no place in a politically progressive organisation. Worth mentioning when I challenged a Corbyn supporter on this matter he responded “The Labour Party is a socialist party not a progressive one”. Good point but wholly mistaken comrade (of some 18 months standing).
The conduct of some individuals is worst I have ever seen, and from others the report similar instances of bullying, marginalization and intimidation have happened across the party. Many incidents have been reported, and together with party’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism, but little done – this has further emboldened the perpetrators believing they have tacit support for their actions. It has been just a few people who have been motivated to act inappropriately, and noted that most have joined in the last couple of years, but many more people have been willing to mitigate, excuse and ignore this unacceptable behaviour – and this above all else which has fractured many relationships and will have damaged many Branches and CLPs for some time to come. My feeling for past 18 months has been if this is how you deal with supporters and activists how can you hope to represent and govern Councils let alone the nation? If you cannot tolerate dissent or challenge, if you are not equipped to consider criticism or compromise, then what are your core values?
Finally, the matter of competence. This will be key to most “swing” voters. They will be looking at your top team and making judgement on knowledge, experience, personal conduct including how they project on media – their competence. Hmm. It is not enough to ask people to vote to save NHS or prevent blood sports being reinstated. It should not stop any of us campaigning on these issues but overwhelmingly people vote on broad range of issues – the party which inspires confidence to DELIVER. To this end it does not matter what the manifesto reads if voters do not believe you have the ability to deliver, or the sincerity of your words. This election, and possibly the next, was determined by those who voted for Corbyn so you need to own it.
The purists who have told me to shut up, to not post personal views on social media(!), who have consistently attacked the achievements and legacy of previous Labour Govts. These are people who have undermined the party and its values. Without power we just protest, with power we change. We don’t have a presidential system of Government and yet this is exactly how the UK conducts election campaigns. The great shame is that a consequence of poor leadership the likelihood is that many very good MPs will lose their seats. Moreover we have condemned many to 5 more years of cuts and hardships, and perhaps Labour in opposition for a generation. Whatever I am, I am not an enabler, I am not a Red Tory.