Thursday, 18 February 2010

Three ages of Labour

Over at A Very Public Sociologist there is a debate on the prospects for Labour following the author's resignation from the Socialist Party to join Labour. I like the blog, and I like the extremely honourable way in which Phil has left the SP without any of the personal vindictiveness that usually seems to characterize these divorces on the Left. In fact he gives a very fair and honest view of life in the SP and his reasons for leaving. 

But I still think he is wrong about the prospects for Labour. Very wrong. There's no end of serious analysis of this over in the comments section at AVPS  - and I'm not going to add it here. But I will offer a very personal view of my own experience of Labour's trajectory over the past thirty years:

As a child I grew up in Staines where the (then) industrial belt of West London meets Surrey suburbia. It was a pocket of white working class affluence wedged in between poorer and more ethnically diverse Hounslow and more leafy middle class Runnymede. Mum and Dad were Labour people - at various times, party activists, trade unionists, school governors and local councillors. None of this seemed particularly political, it just seemed natural. Although as the seventies gave way to the eighties it did dawn on me that Labour people were the ones who had values, who cared about the health service and education and who weren't snobbish or aspirational yuppies. But when I discovered politics properly as a teenager it seemed natural to rebel against my parents so I was involved with CND and briefly flirted with the YCL.

By the time I came of age politically with the Militant, I was a student and Thatcherism was at full swing. In Cambridge the Labour Party was all pervasive and I was immersed in it - serving for a brief stint on the CLP executive. Any local campaign or activity was swamped by familiar faces from the local party. Going to the monthly GMC meeting the delegates from all the trade union branches in the city attended and actively participated - in fact you could pretty much meet the entire local labour movement in that one room. The only exceptions were a few old Stalinists from the CP and some sectarian nutters from the WRP who had a base at the engineering factory. Strange to think of it now, but the SWP were largely absent.

Fast forward to the present day and life in Tottenham. In the twenty odd years I have lived here, which conveniently parallels the whole rise and dominance of New Labour, the Labour Party has become invisible. After a succession of local campaigns and disputes I simply cannot recall having seen a Labour Party banner or any other visible presence. In fact  here they are the natural party of government; more often than not they represent the 'authority' against which the campaign is directed - whether it's the poll tax or the closure of yet another council service. In fact whenever a Labour activist (and I'm not sure that is even the correct term these days) is seen, they neither look nor sound like the people around here. They are invariably white middle class interlopers in an area that is solidly working class and officially the most ethnically mixed part of the country.  There is also a constant transitory trickle of SWP members, largely students, and a more constant hardcore of anarchist activists. Neither is rooted in, or really representative of, the local community. At the moment there is only a handful of Socialist Party members. That is what 'a vacuum on the Left' looks like up close.

I was never expelled from the Labour Party, I just left - it seemed natural to do so after the focus had turned elsewhere by the time of the poll tax campaign. My last connection with Labour was severed when my parents - now in their eighties - resigned from the party in disgust at what it had become. Why anyone would even consider travelling now in the opposite direction defeats me.

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