The fight is on for the soul of the Labour Party, and it’s about much more than Jeremy Corbyn [OPINION]

Steve Topple

The ‘purge’ of members and would-be supporters of the Labour Party has been gathering pace. As The Canary has reported, people are being rejected for innocuous tweets. Decades-long, fee-paying members are being denied a vote in the leadership election. It has even extended to trade union bosses, elected councillors and high-profile activists.

But this isn’t a result of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party has a long history of contempt for its members and both the working and precariat class, at home and abroad. As celebrated film director Ken Loach said in an interview about Corbyn:

We have at the moment a leader in the Labour party who has done what no other Labour leader has done: he has actually stood alongside people on the picket line, as leader, which no Labour leader has done, I believe, in the whole history of the Labour party going back over a century. Certainly not Kinnock, Blair and that grubby shower and I don’t think Attlee did either. Attlee sent in troops to break strikes.

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It is this which sets the current leader apart in Labour’s history, and it is why this leadership election is a fight for the soul of the party.

Was ‘New Labour’ really that new?

Tony Blair’s New Labour undeniably brought many positive changes to the UK. The minimum wage, Sure Start centres, increased numbers of doctors, nurses and police officers – New Labour achievements, to name but a few. But much of this was marred by less commendable actions between 1997-2010. Blair and Brown’s failure to rebuild the power of trade unions is still being felt today; in fact, they probably made matters worse. And the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) undertaken by private company ATOS has been cited as forcing ill people back to work, and been linked to countless deaths and possible suicides.

This all appears strikingly similar to the Labour Party nearly 100 years ago. Its first Prime Minister and apparent ‘socialist and pacifist‘, Ramsay MacDonald, was prepared to use troops against striking trade unionists in 1924. When a general strike broke out in May 1926, MacDonald commented in parliament that it had “nothing to do” with the Labour Party. And, in a similar vein to WCA and ATOS, it was under his government of 1929 that forced labour camps were established.

Called “Instructional Centres“, they were the equivalent of today’s much-maligned “Workfare” scheme. Over 200,000 men whom the government deemed had been unemployed for too long were forced into these camps. Interned for three months at a time, they worked 10-12 hour days, breaking stones, building roads and cutting down trees. If they refused, their benefits would be stopped. Ironically, it was only after the Labour government fell in 1932 that these camps became voluntary.

But it’s not only the thinking that underpins policies where resemblance across the history of the party can be seen.

“Like human vermin … polluting and corrupting everything they touch”

The attitudes of Labour MP’s towards the public have changed very little in over 100 years. The common theme is a basic contempt for working class people. Tristram Hunt told students at Cambridge University’s Labour Club that:

You are the top one per cent. The Labour Party is in the sh*t. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward. The way you serve the Corbyn leadership is to be as dissenting and creative as possible.

Chuka Umunna seemingly has the same, elitist attitude. On a social media site in 2006 (before he was an MP) he commented on nightlife in London, saying: “Most of the West End haunts seem to be full of trash and C-list wannabes”. He said in 2015 that no one is “too rich to be part of our party”, echoing Peter Mandelson’s “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” sentiments. But this attitude existed in the party as far back as the 1900s. As Will Crooks MP demonstrated.

Crooks was the fourth member of the Labour Party ever to be elected to parliament. He won the 1903 by-election in Woolwich after serving as Mayor of London for two years. A committed trade unionist, Crooks knew all about the suffering faced by the working class. He himself lived in a Victorian workhouse for part of his childhood. But seemingly this meant very little when it came to his attitude towards the poorest in society.

Various records exist of his comments about the working and precariat class. After a striking rail worker was refused a meeting with their constituency MP, Crooks said:

There is only one fitting description… they are almost like human vermin. They crawl about, doing absolutely nothing, except polluting and corrupting everything they touch. We talk about the liberty of the subject [the person]. What nonsense! What a waste of words!

He also seemingly had the same attitude towards his own constituents:

A mother came to my door, and cried for an hour, asking me to sign a paper to the effect that she was a fit and proper person to have her daughter home. She threatened suicide if I did not sign it. I made up my mind that that would not be at all a bad job, so I would not sign the paper.

It was this “othering” of the poorest and most vulnerable in society that was encapsulated by the Labour Party’s oldest think-tank, the Fabian Society, and its fascination with the faux-science of eugenics. The project to breed impurities out of the nation was an obsession for much of the intellectual class in the last century, and the Fabians endorsed it fervently.

Harold Laski, Chair of the Fabian Society from 1946-48 and Chair of the Labour Party from 1945-46, wrote an essay The Scope of Eugenics in 1910. He passed comment on the variances in the number of children produced by “143 entries from ‘Who’s Who'” magazine and Harvard graduates, versus the “mentally defective“. This was a catch-all term, used to describe “idiots”, the “feeble-minded”, the “morally defective”, criminals, unmarried mothers and drunks. In other words, large swathes of the poor. He noted that:

Extreme emphasis must be laid on the danger of breeding from the unfit at the expense of the fit… The different rates of fertility in the sound and pathological stocks point to a future swamping of the better by the worse. As a nation, we are faced by racial suicide… The parentage of the fit must be encouraged, the propagation of the unfit must be prevented… The time is surely coming in our history when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself.

This seeming disregard for those deemed ‘lesser’ than them extends to MP’s attitude to people abroad, as well as at home. The Labour Party’s imperialist history is often as far from socialism as you can get.

Solidarity, as long as it’s not international

One of the essences of socialism is international solidarity with other workers. As academic and author John Molyneux said of Karl Marx’s involvement in forming the First International socialist group: “it established the tradition of internationalism and of international organisation at the heart of the working class socialist movement”. But socialist internationalism has invariably been ignored in favour of imperialism by the Labour Party.

Little explanation is needed, for many, of Blair’s legacy from the Iraq war. Motivated by the key drivers of oil, geopolitical dominance in the Middle East and the ever-increasing military-industrial complex, it’s a stain which seems unwashable from the Labour Party. But imperialist foreign policy in the party is nothing new.

Clement Attlee is perhaps Labour’s most celebrated Prime Minister. He achieved remarkable feats after the end of WWII: the creation of the NHS, development of the Welfare State and an unrivalled house building programme, all of which we still see the positive effects of today. Sadly, many of these undoubtedly wonderful achievements were, in part, at the expense of people living in the British Empire.

The UK was pretty much bankrupt after the end of the second world war, so the money for these endeavours didn’t magically appear out of thin air. Some of it was borrowed from the US under the Anglo-American Loan agreement, which would be worth around £41bn today. But half of this then went on policing the fading British Empire.

The so-called Malayan Emergency, which lasted until the late 1950s, saw British troops put down a communist-inspired revolt in Malaya, part of the empire. It also saw the deaths of over 5,000 civilians. As the website Crimes of Britain explains:

The ‘Malayan Emergency’ as it’s known was secretly described by the British Foreign Office to be ‘in defence of the rubber industry’ [a valuable commodity] … Curfews were in place, schools closed, hundreds of thousands swept into prison and labour camps, where they were punished with food reduction. The hacking of heads, limbs and ears was the norm. The Batang Kali massacre of 1948 for instance saw the British Army slaughter twenty-four people, before burning their village. All of this to drain the country of its wealth to benefit Britain and fund Attlee’s social reforms.

The Attlee administration’s post-war colonial developments in Africa are often overlooked. While progress was made in terms of social and health policy, this was often just a ‘sweetener’ for continued colonialism. As Charlotte Lydia Riley describes in her thesis Monstrous predatory vampires and beneficent fairy-godmothers, Britain’s interests in Africa were merely to serve their own goals. These were namely the extraction foodstuffs, luxuries, such as cocoa and tobacco, to boost morale among the war-ravaged UK population and industrial materials. Furthermore, Attlee presided over mass programmes of forced resettlement, population control and used military force to stop independence movements in the Gold Coast and Nigeria.

Silencing dissent in CLPs

Over the course of the current Labour leadership election, all Constituency Labour Parties (CLP) were barred from having meetings. Several have also been suspended; as The Canary previously reported, Brighton and Hove was one, where members believed it was because they elected a pro-Corbyn leadership there, and Angela Eagle’s Wallasey CLP is another.

This attitude from the PLP towards members was encapsulated in the case of Reg Prentice MP. In 1975 the committee in charge of his CLP in Newham North East tried to deselect the then Cabinet Minister Prentice over his lack of support for the 1972 National Dock Workers strike. The CLP saw this as further evidence that Prentice was too right wing, and failing to represent Labour values. The party machine came down on that CLP like a tonne of bricks.

Party leader Harold Wilson accused the CLP of “betraying the principles of tolerance and free speech for which our movement has always sought” and he and the PLP attempted to crush the ‘rebellion’. The media labeled them as ‘extremists’, ‘bed-sit revolutionaries’, ‘members of the Trotskyist Militant’, ‘unrepresentative of the Labour voter’, ‘enemies of democracy’ and ‘hard left’.

All of which will sound remarkably familiar to Corbyn supporters today (along with SNP and independence voters in Scotland).

So what happened last time? The establishment failed. Prentice was eventually deselected. He went on to defect to the Conservative Party, serving in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet. Meanwhile, Bill Chapman, a member of the CLP committee responsible for Prentice’s deselection, went on to be Mayor of Newham.

A social movement, seeing the world differently

The history of the Labour Party shows empirically that the people in the powerful upper echelons of its structure literally look down upon those below. Why? Numerous reasons, most probably. Entrenched social attitudes; fear of people deemed ‘radical’ by those treading a centrist track; concern over the loss of power; general snobbery; a conceited view that ‘they’ know best and the dread of being flung off the gravy train all may factor.

I often hear and read Labour members and supporters give a stock response when it comes to criticism of the party. That ‘any Labour government is better than a Tory one’. There is no denying this, nor would it be fair to try and make out that Labour governments have been intrinsically bad. It would be ludicrous, in fact, as they haven’t. Even Blair did a lot of good things on social policy.

But a return to the consensus of the past would in no way be a move forward. With a Conservative government veering further to the right a rerun of Blair’s ‘Third Way’ would, once again, set society back years. It would fail to reverse the damaging results of the Conservative project, and once again create the conditions for the next one.

Labour lost 5 million voters between 1997-2010. Their neoliberal consensus and unbridled fervour towards the financial services industry was fundamental in enabling the financial crash of 2008. And Miliband’s shock defeat showed that it’s no good claiming to be left wing while presenting policies such as freezing child benefits for two years. A Labour government just for the sake of it is an argument that no longer washes – and it’s all that those opposed to Corbyn are offering.

The mass of the Labour membership are now tired of putting up and shutting up. As are the working and precariat classes outside of the party, if Brexit was anything to go by. It seems that Corbyn’s platform, a whiff of something real, has rendered them unwilling to hold their nose and vote for the status quo – in part due to his commitment to breaking with the top-down, snobby and elitist consensus of his own party. As I previously wrote, he plans to end the stranglehold that corporations have over policy making, and give the power to members. He has made overtures about re/deselection of MPs by CLPs. John McDonnell has publicly called out the ‘purge’. And as The Canary has reported, Corbyn’s Digital Democracy plans may well shake things up in the party. Members can finally be in the driving seat; maybe for the first time in the party’s history.

Corbyn said on the 23 July:

We are a social movement and we will only win the next general election because we are that movement of people all around the country who want to see a different world and do things very differently … some people say that isn’t how politics is done, and that it is solely what happens in parliament that is important … [but] changes come because people want those changes to come and Parliament has to be influenced in the way those changes come about.

And it is this sentiment which both scares the Labour Party elite and invigorates its members, in equal measure. This enthusiasm and excitement must be carried through by his members and supporters, past the contest and right to the 2020 general election. Because if Corbyn is to win, the message must be spread far and wide, on both physical doorsteps and ones on social media. And for me, the message is clear: ‘It’s your Labour Party and your country. How would you like to run them?’

Featured image via Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons

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