An English Labourman Replies.
Last week Dave Cohen wrote An English Labourman Speaks. He wants to continue the dialogue and here responds to the comments it provoked.
When I wrote a blog for Bella Caledonia last week I didn’t know what to expect. In fact, I wasn’t that sure what I thought even after I’d finished writing it. I appreciate that so many of you went to the trouble to read my piece, and comment on it.
Your answers to my questions were illuminating and helpful. I’d say the main thrust of your responses was this: The political engagement of the nation last summer was bigger than any single party (“an idea that goes beyond party politics” said kininvie), intense and largely brilliant. As J Gedd said, “I would think that most people in Scotland experienced, as I did, the surge of political engagement as something wonderfully unexpected. Suddenly it seemed that flourishing around us was a movement which jaded old souls like myself had thought impossible.”
What many said was that the SNP were catalysts, but “the political parties didn’t do it. The political parties cannot do it, in England any more than they can in Scotland,” to quote Simon Brooke, and said in similar fashion by yesguy, golfnut and Kevin Lynch.
This obviously presents something of a challenge to me in England. If the SNP, who are currently enjoying a wave of popularity, are not doing this on their own, then how can a party like Labour that’s struggling in the polls hope to achieve anything approaching this?
They can’t, was the reply of many. Several responses gave an analysis of what’s wrong with Scottish Labour. A number, notably Drew Campbell, goldenayr, Jim Bennett and several others (see * at end of this article) wrote about why Scottish Labour – indeed, all Labour – is so unpopular.
The fact so many of you felt it necessary to tell me why Labour is no good means I obviously didn’t state my position clearly enough. At no point did I suggest Labour is ready to become the party so many of us in England still believe it can be: the nearest I came to saying that was that so far Ed’s leadership has offered glimpses of what Labour can become. It took real courage to attack Murdoch (to the horror of the old guard), even more Dacre, and to break with 50 years of slavish acceptance of American foreign policy. But I’m aware those moves alone are not enough.
So what is the way forward for the progressive left in the rest of the UK? I liked the idea first raised by paulmilnepoetry, then Alastair H, of a ‘Yes’ for England campaign. And of course it doesn’t need to be Ukip, Anton and Alex, in fact it’s the opposite. Reclaiming the flag for the left has long been an ambition of mine, but it’s hard to convince people you’re not on some jingoistic crusade. Also, I’m not sure England as an entity or many of its regions are united by that same sense of antipathy and legitimate grievance as the Scots. There are pockets of non-Ukip self-determination in the north and south-west of England, some genuine feelings of injustice, but our regions have never had anything forced on them to match, for example, Highland Clearances or the poll tax.
This historical antipathy (as explored by mikeyboy and MBC) also helps explain why in England we have so far been unable to translate the enormous sense of outrage against the coalition’s austerity policies into something coherent. In addition, the ability of the coalition to help direct people’s anger onto alternative scapegoats, notably immigrants and the EU, has siphoned off much anger.
Thanks to ‘Kinnock’ for articulating it, I guess what I’m looking for is a nationalish, social democratic movement. It’s a shame many of Kinnock’s valid criticisms sat next to a number of unnecessary insults (I was aware of some flag waving during the campaign, for example, but wasn’t picking up on social media that this was the main thrust ), because it makes the criticisms so easy to dismiss. I get that many of you are not yet ready to accept that at the moment in England, Labour and the Greens (and possibly Lib Dem members) are the only people who can deliver this.
A few of you imagined that I speak for the English Labour Party. I don’t, I’m just a bloke who sometimes votes for them, and happens to live in an area of London where a totally moribund party was brought back to life two or three years ago by a bunch of interesting dynamic young people. My support for Labour at this point is an accident of geography. If I’d been living in Scotland I’d probably have joined the SNP, or in Brighton, the Greens.
These people, my Labour neighbours, have all reached the same conclusions you have – the current system in Westminster is broken, it needs a complete overhaul, let’s start with massive decentralisation of taxation powers (as dickybeau suggests), then quickly follow that with abolition of FPTP (which Miliband wants), and the House of Lords. They also believe in limiting economic growth and implementing big environmental changes.
And there are thousands of them up and down the country. One respondent here described Labour as a hollowed out husk, which is probably true in Scotland, and describes the Tories and LDs in England perfectly. But across the UK thousands of people are knocking on doors on behalf of Labour.
You may be right that they are deluded, they’d be better off joining the Greens, Labour is finished for good. But many, like you, have been galvanised by green politics, Occupy, and indeed your own socially progressive movements.
Many of you repeated your own reasons for despising Scottish Labour, and for hating UK Labour for attaching themselves to the Better Together campaign. Nothing I said contradicted your view, what I’m trying to do is acknowledge it happened, and find a way forward.
That’s another reason why I’m finding this so painful to write: I see the very point at which a truly large, UK-wide, cross-party movement towards social change might be possible, happening just when those we can learn most from – you – are too busy organising your own revolution. Of course the prospect of independence is exciting for Scotland, imagine what that same spark, hope and energy could create across the UK.
You don’t need to explain to me why you dislike/despise/disown the Labour Party. I know that.
I would ask you to look beyond your opinions, valid as they are, and read what Jon Cruddas has to say (see here). I don’t expect you to agree with everything, or to believe that Labour can deliver, all I can tell you is this is where Labour thinking – as in the leadership, as well as the members – is now.
You may – and do – say that Ed’s failure to break entirely with Labour’s old ways, his inability to break every link with old Labour/new Labour and to totally embrace devolution, is a weakness of leadership, and you may be right.
But thanks again, I hope we keep talking because that really is the only way forward, and I’ll leave with my favourite response, thanks for this from Headstaethefire: “Good luck pal.”
*Doug Daniel, lawrenceab, Pam McMahon, Corporatist Hell, ecruden, Valerie rooney, bjsalba, MBC, Dan Huil, CJK, Kenny, FrankM, Annette, Alastair H, Th, John, Hilary Finch, thomaspotter2014, Donald Urquhart, Arthur Thomson, Dale, Bill Andersen, IAB.