No, Labour can’t “just win”

Picture of Rhea Wolfson, a young white woman with below shoulder length brown hair, wearing red glasses and a bright red jacket, holding a sign saying "Vote Labour". Two South Asian men are walking behind her.One of the candidates standing for the Labour party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), having replaced Ken Livingstone on the centre-left slate, is a lady called Rhea Wolfson, who came to my attention today when someone retweeted a tweet she had posted about having received anti-Semitic abuse (I had a look and it was serious stuff; Nazi references about vermin and taunts about gas chambers, for example, not angry remarks about Israel). I discovered that she was on Corbyn’s side of the party and there was a post by “Guido Fawkes” drawing attention to an article she had written for London Young Labour (now deleted) which suggested that winning the 2020 election should not be Labour’s main priority. Fawkes summarised her remarks by saying “the Corbynista candidate for the NEC says there is no point in winning elections if it means compromising your purist values”. I don’t see it that way at all.

The deleted article is cached here and there is an article in a similar vein, still up, at Left Futures. Fawkes quoted a couple of passages from the LYL article:

Is winning in 2020 the priority and if so, what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it? My belief is that winning 2020 should not be the priority of the Labour Party. This belief comes from a further belief that the Labour party is a movement above and beyond anything…

I’ve read quite a lot recently statements in the realm of You change opinions from inside government- why don’t the left understand that? and whilst there is some truth there, my fear is what happens in reality (as I think is exemplified by Liz Kendall’s campaign) is that you have members who continue to say that as we sit in government. Those policies got us elected becomes these policies will keep us elected and we end up with the reality that is a Labour government, unrecognisable from its values (and its members) and a reality where the only opinions that get changed are our own.

I’m not in the Labour party and don’t intend to join any time soon (my views on Israel would get me thrown out pretty quickly in the current climate, for starters), but like most people in England I recognise that the only alternative to a Tory government as of 2020 (assuming some crisis doesn’t ensue to bring about a general election sooner) is a Labour one. However, I do agree with the sentiment that we cannot just elect right-wingers “because they’re electable” because we need to know what we want to get elected to do. Just replacing the Tories is not enough if you promise not to reverse any of their major policies of the past six years. They also have to face up to their mistakes and understand how to avoid repeating them.

I read the Guardian’s Long Read earlier today. It was about illegal gangmasters in north Cambridgeshire who exploit migrant farm labourers from eastern Europe. We all know that the debate over Europe and immigration centres on the mere fact that Labour allowed eastern Europeans to freely live and work in the UK, and not on why they did this and the effect that it’s had on the parts of the country involved. However, they also allowed casual gang labour to flourish, with hours and pay that were only acceptable to the desperate:

One of them [a group of locals] had been a land worker in the past, when there was still an Agricultural Wages Board to make sure people received a living wage and decent breaks. “I preferred being outside, so I didn’t mind it. It was head down, arses up, half-seven till half-three, and an hour break for lunch because that’s what a man could manage. Saturdays and Sundays were off.” But he reckoned it was inhuman work now.

“It’s the big farm businesses that have ruined this town, with their cheap labour,” said the older of the two men. “British workers would do those jobs, but it’s the way they pay them, the way they want them, that’s the problem.”

The woman in the group had worked in another food factory, where she had been team leader. Working patterns had switched from five days a week with overtime at weekends to rolling 12-hour shifts, four days on, four days off. “The work got harder and harder, and more and more agency people came in – foreigners. Don’t get me wrong, some of them were good hard workers, but I went home off one shift and when I came back on the next, they were still there. How can that be legal?”

If you look at a map of the 1997 general election results, you’ll see that East Anglia is still mostly blue but Labour did win a couple of rural east Anglian seats, including the Norfolk/Lincolnshire borderlands around King’s Lynn, just north of Wisbech where the events detailed in that article happened. Labour hasn’t been wiped out in the big towns (e.g. Norwich and Cambridge, though they’ve lost Ipswich and Peterborough) but the major challenge to the Tories in places like Wisbech now comes from UKIP, not Labour (UKIP came second in that seat in 2015 as well as in several neighbouring constituencies). This country is now on the precipice of leaving the EU, with disastrous consequences, in large part because Labour forgot about the workers while in government.

How? Because they decided that the needs of business for cheap labour and supermarkets and their urban consumers for instant produce outweighed the needs of ordinary people to decent jobs in their own communities, jobs they would have done (regardless of all the talk about “British are too lazy to do farm work”) if the conditions were decent. They also presumably calculated that the parts of the country affected by these matters wouldn’t vote Labour in 2005 or 2010 even if they had in 1997, and that restricting immigration would lose them left-wing votes in places like London to the Liberal Democrats or Greens. It was an example of how New Labour abandoned working people (of course, their dereliction of their northern ex-industrial base is a better-known example) in search of business approval and the middle-class suburban vote, and we are now all paying the price, and threatened with still bigger losses.

This is why Labour cannot just stick Blairites back into the leadership and expect them to win again. It is not 1997 and none of them have the charisma Blair did then, and the Tories are still not quite as discredited or divided as they were in 1997. Today’s Blairites are not fresh-faced young reformers but tired old hacks touting a strategy that worked once. I don’t agree with purity politics, but it’s no use saying “we can’t transform society unless we’re in power” without knowing what kind of transformation you want to make. I fear that they just want to join the race to the bottom, and appeal to the worst in people, and the transformation can wait.

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