Saturday, 22 May 2010

Do we care who leads the Labour Party?

Lord Heseltine said on telly the other day that it didn't matter who led the Labour Party, though his preference would be for Ed Balls (easiest for the Tories to beat).

This reminded me of my own feelings after the Tories' defeat by New Labour in 1997. There was a lot of media fuss about their leadership, and my reaction, and that of everyone I spoke to, was: "Who gives a toss?" The Conservative Party seemed hugely irrelevant. It felt possible at the time, and for long afterwards, to hope that it was in terminal decline, and that, if we just ignored it for long enough, it might simply disappear.

Do we actually still need a Labour Party? If we ever get proportional representation, a quite different party structure could be envisaged, in which the more liberal-minded social democrats in the Labour Party were absorbed into the LibDems, and the radical left merged with the Green Party. This would leave the illiberal authoritarians of the Blunkett/Reid cast, who need a new Authoritarian Party, in which quite a few Tories would also be more at home. The more libertarian-minded Europhobes on the Tory right ought to be in UKIP.

One of the most difficult problems with the Labour Party is its trade union link. I cannot see what trade unionism has to do with social democracy. Much trade unionism seems to be about maintaining differentials, which is pretty much the precise opposite of equality. BA cabin crew, for instance, understandably want to keep their relatively well-paid jobs, but that is of no concern to the rest of us. I don't really see why I should care if BA goes bust. How does the promotion of sectional self-interest assist the cause of a fairer society?

The unions do make a certain amount of noise about poverty, but that applies only to certain notoriously ill-paid trades like cleaning and catering, where jobs are often precarious and unionisation is weak anyway. I presume that most of the real poor are not working at all.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that, for Labour politicians, the main purpose of the trade union link is simply to provide funding for the party. Quite why the trade unions still think this worth their while, when Labour governments nowadays are so deaf to their demands, is one of the great mysteries of our time. It is difficult to feel convinced that the phrase "The Labour movement" still contains any rational meaning. It is a hollowed-out vehicle that has been running on empty for a long time.

Still, as things stand we do have a Labour leadership contest, which those of us who are no longer in the party can watch from outside for its curiosity value. The best news is that Hattie Half-Bake isn't standing. It is bad enough that we have to put up with her as acting leader for the next few months. As for TV's Diane Abbott, I can't quite imagine her as Prime Minister but at least she will surely liven things up a bit. I was sorry that Jon Cruddas decided not to stand.

TV's Ed Balls would be a disaster. (His wife is at least as clever, and might have been marginally less obnoxious, though she shares his infuriating penchant for never answering the question being asked.)

The rest seem much of a muchness, so far. Perhaps the debate will illuminate their differences. None of them seems to me much like leadership material. The only person who comes across on the telly as a reasonable and competent human being is TV's Alan Johnson -- but he isn't standing, either.

1 comment:

Harry Barnes said...

I accept that Trade Unions often display sectional interests - yet numbers of these pursuits have passing if limited justifications. But the Trade Union Movement is at its best when it pursues common interests, such as concerns for workers' rights and its support for the general well being - including matters of international solidarity. In my links section (but not in alphabetical order) click into "TUC International", "ToUCstone", "Eric Lee" and "Labour Start".

Whatever the party political developments are on the left, I would look for a body which had sound Trade Union links - perhaps a reformed Labour Party which could attract some of the elements you cover. The difference between us is that you are a social democrat and I am a democratic socialist. Although I recognise that within the Labour Party I am now part of an endangered species.