Thelma Walker writes: When did the destruction of the Labour Party I supported for nearly 40 years really begin?
Could it be the ‘New Management’ of the current Labour front bench? They certainly believe their shift to the right will save us all from the ‘Trots’, the ‘Tankies’ and the ‘Corbyn cultists’. Yes, I’ve been labelled all those things – socialists who remain in Labour are seen as ‘barnacles on the boat’. Starmer and Co are of course present at Labour’s deathbed, but those who know history realise that Labour has rarely offered true democratic socialism in its over 100-year history and its actual decline began under Kinnock and – I would suggest – continued with the Labour victories from 1997 onwards.
Blair’s victory in 1997 followed 18 years of Tory, neoliberal rule. The British public was restless and ready for change. Labour’s electoral success was an opportunity for radical, transformative policies: public ownership, a fully comprehensive state education service, investment in health and social care. Three terms of opportunity for real, transformational change were largely lost, in my view.
We may discuss the success of Sure Start or a million fewer children in poverty, but Labour didn’t deliver what was possible. They didn’t end child poverty and they could and should have done.
Yes, Sure Start did begin to improve multi-agency working and support vulnerable families. As a Headteacher at the time, I witnessed how it all began. Even that good work, however, was not embedded, properly evaluated, or delivered alongside significant investment in the welfare state.
It was Blair’s Labour that introduced PFI contracts, binding health, education and public services into debt still being paid off by cash-strapped local authorities, decades later. They also brought in Academisation, removing local authority oversight and taking away local community assets.
The legacy of the invasion of Iraq remains the albatross around Blair and his supporters’ necks. So many innocent lives lost and so many millions of people displaced from their homes. Establishment honours, or the few remaining Sure Starts, will never give Blair, or his then front bench, redemption.
Margaret Thatcher said that Blair was her ‘greatest achievement’ and we now live with her legacy. With the return of New, New Labour who are advising the current LOTO, we see the same style and strategies, but as I learned through my Headships, you cannot use the same style of leadership in every school or community; political leadership too has to adapt to societal, environmental and economic change.
The world has changed massively since 1997; we’ve had 12 years of austerity, we face a climate emergency, a Covid pandemic and now the threat of a world war. All these crises have exposed massive inequalities, and a lack of democracy and accountability in our political system. Unlike the Blair years, the younger generation in particular, savvy on social media, see through the spin and soundbites. They are living with the consequences. The mainstream media, still a sinister influence for establishment messaging, is no longer the only voice and new and emerging left platforms are growing in number and influence.
The ‘new management’ of Labour under Starmer and Co is currently offering:
a predominantly right of centre Parliamentary Labour Party, many of whom were actively working against Corbyn-led Labour from 2015 to 2019;
expulsion of lifelong Labour members, councillors and Constituency Labour Party officers;
proscribing of specific left campaign groups, previously welcomed as members of the Labour movement;
advocating a shoot to kill, ask questions later policing policy, whilst naming and shaming drug users.
The disrespect towards striking workers and general lack of support for union members has now resulted in cuts to funding from Unite, the disaffiliation of the Bakers’ Union, threats to cut funding and pull their support from ASLEF and GMB. Crisis? What Crisis? say loyal Starmerites, yet Labour is now so right-wing that a hard-right Tory is warmly welcomed as he crosses the floor to join the Labour benches.
Flag-waving and jingoistic rhetoric are the order of the day for the New, New Labour defence policy. As with Covid measures, Labour is often in agreement with the government on defence and many proposals are to the right of the Liberal Democrats. No wonder over 200,000+ members have left the party over the past two years. Labour seems to be constantly running to keep up with the populist policies of the Johnson government. On many occasions abstaining, when they should be challenging and opposing, or even supporting and voting with the government. This is something that, I believe, will come back to haunt Labour at the next General Election.
Democracy itself is under threat in Britain. The government has already prorogued parliament and threatened the powers of the judiciary. Ministers have broken, and been found guilty of breaking, the ministerial code, with few consequences.
Legislation currently moving through Parliament includes:
the Nationality and Borders Bill to, strengthen and reinforce the hostile environment created first under Theresa May;
the Elections Bill which even the Electoral Commission is campaigning against. A Bill which in effect delivers voter suppression in the demand for photo ID, which of course will prevent those without a passport or driving licence from voting – the most vulnerable in our society;
the Overseas Operations Bill;
the Police, Courts and Sentencing Bill will result in our right to protest peacefully being taken away and police powers increased.
What we are not witnessing at present, is the Labour front bench opposing effectively. A recent vote in the Commons saw Labour whip to abstain on a Bill to cap pensions and benefits. A small number of Socialist Campaign Group MPs held on to their integrity and voted against the government, to the great shame of the Labour leadership.
Nelson Mandela said, ‘To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity’. The fact that there has been no comment from the Labour front bench on the recent Amnesty International report declaring Israel an ‘Apartheid state’ and that, according to the Amnesty report, Palestinians are being ‘systematically deprived of their rights’, speaks volumes about the change in Labour’s foreign and humanitarian policy.
Recent polls show that Labour has lost well over 400 council seats since 2020. Loss of members means not just loss of funding but loss of hard-working activists. As an experienced campaigner, I know that to knock on doors in all weathers, you need to really believe in why you’re doing it and who for. For those of us on the left who had that belief and hope in 2017 and 2019, the current Labour Party is without vision and does not inspire hope.
Almost 16 million people did not use their vote in the last General Election. The turnout in most of the recent by-elections has been between 40 and 50%. Many in our country believe that there is no one listening and no one who will make their lives better Trust in politicians is at an all-time low and I can see why. So what is the answer for socialists in Britain? Is there now somewhere else to go? I believe so. As socialists we are part of a movement and we are coming together.
As founder and current Chair of the People’s Alliance of the Left (PAL), I realise it will always be a struggle to bring, what has historically been, a splintered Left together. Our alliance is currently an organisation of like-minded socialists. Members include leaders of campaign groups, unions and new and established radical left political parties. Many are former Labour members.
Currently, the political parties involved are Breakthrough, Left Unity, Northern Independence and TUSC. We have a shared progressive policy platform in our agreed memorandum of understanding (MOU). Each party, however, maintains its own distinctiveness. The parties have their own electoral strategy but aim to cooperate, wherever possible in forthcoming elections, with wider PAL member support for the named socialist candidate.
Our alliance is not about narcissists or egos, it is about working together with the shared goal of achieving a future socialist government.
Our opponents criticise and deride what we are aiming to do, but every political party started somewhere and we now see the successes of political alliances, internationally. Socialist candidates are having electoral success, in some European countries, and especially in the countries of South America.
We do, however, have to learn from where the Left make mistakes too. In the French Primaries currently ongoing, a split between the left groups and centre-left has meant no Left candidate will go forward. The idea of the People’s Primary, I believe, was a good one, and gained over 400,000 votes but it was too little too late and individual egos – as has happened in the past and is at times a current challenge – meant it was doomed to fail.
With the current First Past the Post voting system, the two-party equilibrium of Labour and Tories, Westminster over-centralisation and the control of the mainstream media, the challenges seem overwhelming. But as an alliance we can change the political narrative, pushing to the Left just as UKIP pushed to the Right over Brexit. At the next general election there may not be a clear majority, so there is the chance for just a few socialist MPs to have influence and have a significant impact.
Last November, I was in Brussels as a delegate at the European Forum. It was a privilege to join comrades, not just from Europe, but from across the world.
The conference was opened by Pierre Laurent, Vice-President of the European Left Party. He spoke about the need for a new environmental and social pact with no return to austerity economics. He spoke of peace, brotherhood and humanity.
Heinz Bierbaum, President of the European Left Party, emphasised the common struggle against the growth of the far-right in Europe and creeping militarism. A number of speakers, including Bierbaum, criticised COP26, held in Glasgow for a lack of direct action to address the climate crisis.
Chloe Meulewaeter from the International Peace Bureau, spoke about the need for disarmament and reducing the ballooning level of military spending. She pointed out a 1% world wide cut in military spending would fund covid vaccination for the whole world. A 10% cut would fund universal education.
As I write, Putin’s forces have invaded Ukraine and NATO is imposing sanctions on Russia and supplying arms to Ukraine. There is the real and imminent threat of world war. Peace negotiations must continue because without compromise on both sides, the situation will escalate and could, with nuclear powers involved, reach an unthinkable conclusion.
The man of peace, Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour leader, was given a rapturous welcome from delegates at the European Forum. His speech included a reference to a proposed European Youth manifesto, which would include economic, social and creative policies. ‘We can have bread and roses too’, he declared.
Natalie Bennett, former leader of the English Green Party and representative of the Green European Foundation, spoke of the problem with the Westminster establishment. It is the need to end the centralisation of government in Westminster, the need for regional investment and autonomy, and the break from the control of neoliberal politicians and big business interests which is the goal of the PAL alliance. The work of the European Left Party and the conferences being held, are of such great significance in building international solidarity.
I have had first-hand experience as a Labour MP from 2017 to 2019, of how the Parliamentary Labour Party works. Frankly, it is an anachronism and not fit for purpose. The Westminster Bubble is a reality and there is so little understanding from most MPs about the reality of the daily struggle for the majority of people in our country. Many (not all) just serve themselves, their egos and their careers. This is why the need for electoral and constitutional change is of such urgency.
Britain has the most over-centralised government in the developed world. We need not only constitutional and electoral reform but also social and climate justice. The PAL alliance is in its infancy, but our voices are growing stronger and we can push for radical reform outside of Westminster. We can also offer socialists across our country an alternative to the establishment parties. Socialists now have a choice and somewhere to go.
As we watch the terrifying events in Ukraine escalate, it is as if the world is holding its breath. If the current crisis is teaching us anything, however, it is the importance of working across borders to achieve peace and avoid future conflict. Together, as socialists, we can build an international movement to deliver a fairer, greener, more equal society.
Thelma Walker was Labour MP for Colne Valley from 2017 to 2019. She served as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
This article was first published on the Public Reading Rooms website and is reproduced here with the permission of the author