The crisis of Britain’s institutions is one of the labour movement too
The Scotsman, November 23rd 2013
One of the defining characteristics of the Labour Party through the ages has been its moral dimension – its indignation at the inequities and injustices of a rotten, economically and socially divisive capitalist system.
It has critiqued this via its early socialist, radical and religious roots – more Methodist than Marx, more the Bible and ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’ than ‘Das Capital’.
As politics and society have changed – the post-war consensus, Thatcher, New Labour – these strands have weakened but remained. There was a hope amongst some that post-Blair and Brown Labour would recover its core principles and purpose and make the case against an economic, social and political system which has clearly lost its way.
Events have proven to be a bit trickier than that. The crisis of British capitalism, its traditional establishment and the world of clubland and ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ are deep rooted. The forces of new capitalism and its brash elites in the City, hedge funds and outsourcers, has proven even more anti-social, selfish and brutal than the old one.
The problem though is much more acute. The crisis of British capitalism is also one of most aspects of society encompassing the political class and system and with it the Labour Party and labour movement.
This has all become clearer in the last few weeks. New Labour’s aim under the dual monarchy of Blair and Brown was always to bury traditional Labour and socialism; in Blair’s words, ‘the forces of conservatism’. With this intention they embarked on a Faustian pact with the City and globalisation and set out to create a new progressivism: pro-Atlanticist, pro-European, pro-business.
Now the latest victim of New Labour has become clear – the idea of Labour Britain and the culture, morality and ethics of the labour movement. Labour Britain was a set of ideas about a more collective, fairer and more just country aided by the power of the state, central planning and enlightened experts. Its thinking could be seen in the creation of the NHS, New Towns and the Open University.
This week the crisis of the Co-op can only be seen in the context of this wider set of changes. The Co-op was once one of the mainstays of working class towns and communities the length and breadth of the country. It sold inexpensive and affordably priced products from insurance to funeral services, while producing a dividend for its eight million members.
The cumulative effect of the eras of Thatcher and Blair allowed the Co-op to lose its way. First, many working class people bought individualism, and then, in the midst of the banking crash the Co-op bought the Britannia Building Society which contributed to the £1.5 billion capital shortfall revealed earlier this year.
The Co-op’s implosion in the last week runs deeper than the Rev. Paul Flowers, former chair of the bank, and his inability to get to within a factor of one out of ten when estimating the bank’s balance sheets (he said £3billion when it was £47 billion). It signals the demise of a different way of doing banking and of working people doing their finances.
It is an embarrassment for Labour which for all David Cameron’s over the top politicking won’t go away. Labour bank at the Co-op and have received £18 million in loans in the last 14 years, according to Electoral Commission figures, the last loan for £1.2 million was only agreed in March this year.
This comes on top of the Grangemouth oil refinery and Govan BAE shipyard controversies. In the first, the Unite union acted in a way which totally played into the hands of Ineos, the owners. It cast a searchlight into the unattractive politics of Labour’s rotten burghs where a tiny selectorate have the power of choosing a parliamentary candidate and MP for life.
In Govan the lack of innovation of BAE Systems and their failure to diversify was laid bare. There was also the sight of local Labour MP Ian Davidson undermining his constituents’ employment possibilities arguing for a break clause for BAE if independence happens. But perhaps more seriously the shipyard unions have been as conservative as the owners: it is all a far cry from the UCS work-in or Caterpillar occupation.
The labour movement was always about defensiveness and caution more than radicalism but also became about a chasm between words and actions, something exploited by Thatcher and her trade union laws. Barack Obama talked about this, in relation to black politics in ‘Dreams from my Father’, in an argument relevant to organised labour in the UK stating, ‘It was the distance between our talk and our actions … The gap corrupted both language and thoughtful: it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication’. Obama concluded that ultimately this ‘eroded our ability to hold ourselves or each other accountable’.
Some of these problems have been building for generations. Richard Tawney wrote, in the aftermath of the fall of Labour from office and a bankers’ crisis, that, ‘The gravest weakness of British Labour … is its lack of a creed. The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants’.
Tawney was one of British Labour’s and socialism’s towering intellects of the 20th century, and concluded his analysis with this damning indictment, ‘This weakness is fundamental. If it continues uncorrected there neither is nor ought to be a future for the Labour Party’.
Those powerful words were not written last week or in the last year, but in 1932. Tawney was writing about the collapse of the MacDonald Government in 1931 and the Great Depression, but they are even more relevant today.
Ed Miliband’s Labour for all its good intentions on ‘predatory capitalism’ and taking on Murdoch is just another part of the political classes. It doesn’t represent any wider social forces or movement in the way Labour used to; even when it did Labour encountered many problems in how it put its words into actions.
No wonder week in week out some of the elder Scottish Labour figures are left railing against this or that alleged affront from the Nationalists. This generation has lost their mojo and is hurting from it. What this means is that, irrespective of the next UK election, the future for Labour and its chances of reforming Britain look slim indeed.