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Tuesday, September 10th, 2013
With the traditional Labour-trade union relationship under strain and increasing disenchantment with Ed Miliband’s brand of socialism, is there space for a new workers’ party?
Ever since the general election of 2010, British politics has been in a very curious state of flux. Public mistrust in politicians runs rampant. After one inconclusive contest, the idea that neither Labour nor the Tories will have a majority of seats in 2015 is now common currency. What will happen to the Lib Dems is uncertain: they will almost certainly be thumped at the ballot box, but could once again hold the balance of power. Next year sees both the Scottish referendum on independence, and the European elections that might see Ukip finishing first.
Which brings us to crafty old Nigel Farage: slightly diminished since his party’s watershed breakthrough earlier this year, but still breathing the mixed aroma of Rothmans and real ale down the Tories’ collective neck, and maintaining the sense that he may stand between David Cameron’s ambitions and Conservative success.
Leaving aside the battles between Labour and the Scottish National party (and, to be fair, its Welsh equivalent Plaid Cymru), one big assumption runs through the picture painted above: the idea that though the Tories are being menaced by a force on their own side of politics, Labour has managed to maintain its dominance of the left. There have been sporadic successes for such figures as the Green party’s Caroline Lucas and Respect’s George Galloway, and an upsurge in leftwing activism – but no real break with an iron rule of politics: that the electoral territory to the left of Labour is a desert.
Across Europe, though, something is definitely up. In Greece, Syriza – AKA the Coalition of the Radical Left, or the Unitary Social Front – is now the second-largest party in parliament, and the main opposition. In the French presidential elections of 2012, the new Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon began the campaign on around 5% of the vote, and ended up more than doubling it. In Germany there is Die Linke (The Left), a rum coalition of hard-lefties and old East German communists founded in 2007, which scored nearly 12% of the vote at the last parliamentary elections. There are also thriving left parties in the Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Portugal and others: all part of the fallout from the 2008 crash and an ongoing revolt against political establishments.
Though it has taken a while, the UK left suddenly now seems to be experiencing its own rumbles of change. Over the summer, Ed Miliband announced the drastic reinvention of his party’s relationship with the trade unions, which he will try to sell to his audience on Tuesday at the Trades Union Congress in Bournemouth. The first response to his ideas came last week, when the 600,000-strong GMB said it would slash donations to the party by 90%.
This was widely interpreted as a ploy intended to push Miliband into rowing back on his plans, but some people read it slightly differently. One GMB source told the BBC that the move “could well be the beginning of the end” for the union’s relationship with Labour, and the hopes of those who dream of a new workers’ party – among them Bob Crow, leader of the transport union the RMT, who views the modern Labour party the way that vegans view McDonald’s – were therefore suddenly raised.
A few weeks before the GMB’s move, I interviewed the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, whose huge union was at the centre of the controversy about candidate selection in Falkirk that first sparked Miliband’s reforms, and once again exploded over the weekend. Though he is broadly positive about what Miliband is trying to do, McCluskey talked more openly than ever about life beyond Labour, claiming that the party could be on the verge of a watershed debate and a possible split-off on its left, akin to the creation of the SDP in the early 1980s.
If the Tories won in 2015, he said, “I fear for the existence of the Labour party. None of us know what would happen after a defeat of that nature. And it won’t necessarily be the normal process of the leader stepping down, and a new leader taking over.” Could he rule out Unite walking away from the party? “I wouldn’t rule anything out,” he said. “In extraordinary times, extraordinary things happen.”
They certainly do – and now, a new political party is about to be born. Created by a gaggle of disillusioned lefties including the film director Ken Loach, Left Unity claims it already has the support of around 10,000 people. Its founding conference will take place in London on 30 November: its initial supporters include not just Loach, but the renowned “weird fiction” author China Mieville, and Roger Lloyd-Pack (AKA Trigger from Only Fools And Horses), as well as scores of activists and trade unionists. The people behind it say they support “a new political formation which rejects austerity and war, advocates a greater democratisation of our society and institutions, and poses a new way of organising everyday life.” Some of them are also talking about Labour facing “the threat of its own Ukip”.
“The GMB’s move was very shrewd, it was very useful,” says 28-year-old Salman Shaheen, a member of Left Unity’s national co-ordinating group, who has previously put in spells of activism for both the Greens and Respect, and has recently been punting around the Ukip comparison. “It’s saying: ‘If you’re not listening to us, we’ll reduce our funding accordingly, and maybe look at other campaigns.’ That’s not to say they’re going to throw that £1.1m they’ve taken away from Labour at a smaller leftwing party. Of course not: other parties need to prove themselves before they can attract that kind of backing. But we’re reaching out to the trade unions, and I hope we can attract union funding as time goes on.”
Now that Labour has vowed to “work within” George Osborne’s spending plans up to 2016 and grown fonder of the rhetoric of austerity, Shaheen talks about a “gravity swell” that could favour a new party. Though the Greens “are doing some great work out there”, he says it’s time for a force “with a more radical manifesto … I want to see a party standing up for old Labour values: a party by and for workers. And I don’t think we have that at the moment. So when Left Unity came along, I thought: ‘This is worth one more shot.’”
How does he feel about splitting the left vote – as happened when the SDP broke away from Labour in the early 80s – and thereby making the Tories’ lives much easier?
“The fact is, Labour is not offering us what we need,” he says. “If we want something different, we have to stand up and fight for it and build it. Otherwise we’re never going to have it.”
Even if you end up with a very nasty Tory government rather than a Labour administration that might have its faults but would surely be preferable?
“Yeah. The point has come where many people feel that that’s something they’re prepared to do.”
Kate Hudson came to Left Unity after tumbling from the long-defunct Communist party, into the Labour party, on in turn to the Communist Party Of Britain, and from there to Respect – for whom she initially stood in last year’s Manchester Central byelection, before George Galloway’s views about Julian Assange and rape (”not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion,” he said, elegantly) pushed her out. She’s also the general secretary of CND. “The intention of Left Unity is to engage very widely with the British population, and to speak to people who’ve become disillusioned with Labour and no longer feel they have a political voice,” she tells me. “We’re not orientated towards seeking the support of already-existing left activists or people already involved in left groups, or even people who are primarily trade unionists. We want to get out to a new audience.”
Among the people who signed a recent letter to the Guardian publicising Left Unity’s first manoeuvres was the broadcaster, poet, children’s writer and education campaigner Michael Rosen, a veteran of the non-Labour left. “I got involved because those of us in this position have waited 50 years or more for Labour to rediscover some of the spirit of 1945, and it’s never happened,” he says. “And for those of us who have moved around various groups on the left … well, I think the time’s up for that as well in many respects – they seem to keep playing the same gramophone record. So this seemed like an interesting initiative, with people trying to say: ‘Well, there must be unity, and there must be some basic principles.’ It’s all to be thrashed out. It’s early days. But there are possibilities there.”
And is he comfortable with the idea of some kind of leftwing equivalent of Ukip? “No, not really. That’s Westminster talk. Ukip, by and large, are still banging a single issue and then using immigration as a lever to get votes. It’s very dangerous to sit around and talk about that. So, no, for various reasons, the left shouldn’t start talking like that.”
It may not need to. Just to prove that politics is getting ever more complicated at speed, a one-time founder of Ukip itself is now aiming at starting a party of the “centre-left”, committed not just to EU withdrawal and the repeal of the bedroom tax. New Deal is the brainchild of Alan Sked, the former LSE professor who now thinks Ukip has become unconscionably rightwing. At the weekend, he told the Sunday Times he would stand against Ed Miliband in his Doncaster seat, while another so-far-unnamed recruit would challenge Nick Clegg in Sheffield. On the face of it, this is not much for Labour to worry about; then again, that hasn’t stopped people before.
In recent years, challenges to Labour have been a regular feature of UK elections, but never really amounted to much, thanks partly to the far left’s apparent belief in an age-old socialist maxim: why have one party when 59 will suffice? In 2001, the electorate was offered the chance to support the Socialist Alliance, who managed to bag a titanic 0.2% of the vote. Four years later, a challenge to Labour was mounted by the Respect Coalition, who got George Galloway elected in east London and come second in three other seats – but split in 2007, when Galloway fell out with the Socialist Workers party. Respect carried on – but went through another convulsion, when Galloway’s comments about Julian Assange and the nature of rape led to yet another split.
Elsewhere, there are a multitude of parties: the enduring SWP (recently torn apart by its own rape scandal), the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Labour party (founded and led by former miners’ leader Arthur Scargill), the Alliance for Green Socialism, and more. Following the fate of these groups can feel a bit like an eccentric game rather than anything political: it might be a good laugh, but it doesn’t actually count for much.
Left Unity claims to be aiming higher, but it is not the only organisation hoping to bring the non-Labour left together and give Miliband a fright. Since 2010, members of the SWP, the Socialist Party, the Scottish group Solidarity and scores of trade unionists have been involved in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), whose modest highpoint thus far came in 2012, when the Trotskyist political veteran Tony Mulhearn stood to be mayor of Liverpool and got 4,792 votes: a mere 4.86% of the total poll, but enough to beat both the Tories and Ukip. Its nadir arrived in February this year at the Eastleigh byelection, when a candidate called Daz Proctor got 62 votes, finishing two places behind a candidate representing something called Elvis Loves Pets.
There are plenty of people from trade unions involved in TUSC (indeed, insiders claim that TUSC candidates have been helped by donations from local branches of big unions affiliated to Labour). At next year’s local elections, they are aiming to field around 400 candidates. The idea that this skeletal organisation might be the foundation of some ambitious new party, though, seems doubtful. “We’re not saying that TUSC is the finished formula, by a long shot,” says its national agent, Clive Heemskerk. “We could just be a herald of what’s to come. If there was a serious move by big trade unions to form their own party, we’d welcome that. But in lieu of that, there are still battles for us to fight.”
One person who isn’t nearly so cautious is the RMT leader Bob Crow, a member of TUSC’s national steering committee. To nobody’s great surprise, his union was expelled from the Labour party in 2004, after some of its Scottish branches affiliated themselves to the far-left Scottish Socialist party. Since then, the RMT has given money to a handful of parties on the non-Labour left, as well as establishing what an RMT spokesman calls “close political working relationships” with Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens.
Now, Crow has responded to Miliband’s plans for the Labour-trade union relationship and the discontent they have sparked by loudly encouraging other unions to start working towards a new party, a call he has been in the habit of making for several years. Some people at the top of the big unions tend to respond to such talk with groans rather than serious interest. As they see it, even if such unions as the GMB finally split with Labour, the chances of them founding a new party remain slim. But, not entirely surprisingly, Crow is sticking to his guns.
“Over 100 years ago, my union and most unions supported the Liberal party, and they were told: ‘You’ve got to stay in the Liberal party and turn it around,’” he tells me. “They broke with that and formed the Independent Labour party, because the Liberals weren’t representing people that were working, unemployed, and in social deprivation. They set up the Labour party. And I think, 100 years later, what trade unions are realising is that the three main parties all support privatisation, all support anti-trade union laws, and all support, from time to time, illegal wars around the world.”
Miliband’s recent moves on Syria, it seems, have not counted for much at all. So when does Crow think a New Workers’ party might materialise?
“I don’t think it’s imminent, like next week. I think what it is, at the end of the day, you can’t just go out and say, ‘I’m forming a new party.’ People are saying to themselves, they’re not getting value for money from the Labour party … I think, eventually, people will turn around and say, ‘Well hang on a minute – no one’s representing our class of people.’ And they’ll come together and say, there ought to be a new political party – a new party of working people, unemployed, pensioners. All the people not being represented, but the majority of people in this country. That’s the significance of it. They’ll come together and form a political party that fights on behalf of working-class people.”
What does he make of Left Unity? “Well, it’s another group of people. Good luck to ‘em. But there’s not enough people on the left to start having two or three campaigns. There needs to be one party, speaking on behalf of workers.”
Beyond the insistence that any new force will have to grow out of the unions, exactly what Crow has in mind is unclear. These are still early days, perhaps. But his basic conviction is obvious: despite the failure of all those previous attempts, Britain is due a new party of the left, and sooner or later, it will get one. “It will happen,” he says. “When it’s ready to happen, it will.”
Tuesday, September 10th, 2013
The so-called ‘Prince of Darkness’ aims to spread sweetness and light in Hull, bringing back jobs and steering bid for city of culture
It’s a Friday afternoon in the transport hub known as Hull Paragon Interchange, and Peter Mandelson is admiring a statue of that local icon Philip Larkin, while paying tribute to the poet’s singular view of life. “He’s quite interesting about sex,” he says. “He said the thing about sex was it was too good to share. He also said, oddly, that sex is a bit repulsive – like asking somebody else to blow your own nose. And he’s sort of right in a way, isn’t he?”
At that instant, a woman clocks the famous visitor, and pays him a backhanded compliment. “You’ve really changed your image,” she says, with an air of surprise. “You’re a very attractive man.” He cracks a smile. “Perhaps we’re not going to just see the transformation of Hull, but the reinvention of the Prince Of Darkness.”
Perhaps we are. In February this year, Hull city council appointed Lord Mandelson to the role of high steward. The post was created in 1583, and fell into disuse during the 1970s, but has now been revived, along with the role of high sheriff, a post awarded to the former Tory minister Virginia (now Baroness) Bottomley. In the case of this former business secretary and EU trade commissioner, his title has a whiff of the hereditary principle: between 1956 and 1965, its holder was his grandfather, the esteemed former Labour high-up Herbert Morrison.
“My role is to be an adornment,” he says. “An ornament. But also to be an ambassador and an advocate for the city: to use my sharp elbows and my networks to do what I can to project it, promote its interests and bring investment and jobs. The city has got to rediscover itself and reinvent itself. It needs a series of major transformational moves.”
Two initiatives symbolise what he is talking about: the recently introduced “Hull city plan”, aimed at bringing in £1bn of investment and creating 7,500 jobs – and Hull’s bid to become Britain’s official city of culture in 2017, an honour for which it is competing against Leicester, Swansea bay and Dundee.
Since the decline of its fishing trade in the 1970s, Hull has had rather a faded atmosphere, something increased by deindustralistion and, lately, the effects of the financial crash, symbolised by an apparently huge number of empty shops. Two years ago, it had the UK’s highest proportion of working-age residents who were unemployed, and issues of joblessness and the scarcity of opportunity are still palpable. But talking to people in the city centre, there’s also a sense of unlikely optimism, and the belief that we are now somehow over the worst. Whether this is based on anything concrete is a moot point – “In the paper, they say it’s getting better, and you have to think positive,” one woman tells me – but the feeling seems real enough.
In Britain’s boom years, there was regeneration and redevelopment here. For Mandelson, the big prize is the possibility of a wind turbine plant run by the German company Siemens, which he says is looking 80% certain. Today, though, is all about Hull’s city of culture bid, so he flits around a handful of landmarks, engages with the public in the manner of a seasoned pro and explains what he’s doing in terms so simple as to sound almost banal. “If you’ve been in politics as long as I have, you want to carry on doing something important and relevant. And they gave me the chance, so here I am. It’s no more complicated than that.”
We begin at the city’s docks and make our way to the former fruit market, now the location for a burgeoning local bohemia centred on a gallery, pop-up businesses, a recording studio and rehearsal rooms, where Mandelson watches an accomplished local band called the Hubbards. There is talk of the cultural titans associated with the city: Larkin, the actor Tom Courtenay, David Bowie’s guitar player Mick Ronson, 1980s indie kings The Housemartins, and Everything But The Girl, who came here as students. He also pays tribute to the place’s entrepreneurial derring-do – “What I like about it is the confidence: the buoyancy of the place” – and climbs into the cockpit of a rickshaw, which he almost crashes into a parked car before pedalling away to the nearby marina.
Most of the time, he is in full city-ambassador mode. “Hull would receive a huge lift if it became the city of culture,” he says. “It would be a recognition of everything that’s being done: all the changes that have been made, and the creativity. That’ll still happen if we don’t become the city of culture, but my God – wouldn’t it make it all worthwhile?”
We end the afternoon at the new premises of the Hull Truck Theatre company, a cultural institution of 42 years standing, synonymous with the work of local playwright John Godber. Mandelson watches a rehearsal for a new play called Jumpers for Goalposts, one of whose songs is taken from those kings of northern melancholia The Smiths. Sung by a lone member of the cast, it is a moving hymn to what Hull, with the former Prince of Darkness’s help, is trying so hard to achieve: “Please, please, please, let me get what I want/Let me get what I want, this time.”
Tuesday, September 10th, 2013
Anywhere but Westminster: Hull is aiming to reinvent itself with a 10-year economic regeneration plan and an attempt to become the UK’s next City of Culture. It’s enlisted the help of Lord Mandelson, the ‘High Steward of Hull’
Sunday, September 1st, 2013
The lesson from the Syria vote is that Britons are fed up with Blair-style messianic leadership. It should be binned
The defeat of the government last week may well have been a shining moment for parliamentary democracy, but much of the buildup and aftermath has amounted to a case study in the grimness of modern British politics: what distances the public from Westminster showcased in all its awful glory. It has been an object lesson in why such a large majority of the public could not be persuaded of the case for an attack on the Assad regime, despite no end of voices telling them that this was exactly what the moment required.
If you watched last Thursday’s Commons debate, you may have thought as much, as the prime minister punctuated his speech with a handful of ad-libbed jokes, and plenty of MPs indulged in the usual boyish knockabout. By that point, one Downing Street insider had already couched events in the requisite gravitas by telling a Times journalist that No 10 and the Foreign Office thought Ed Miliband was “a fucking cunt” – and, if Labour sources are to be believed, the prime minister had boiled down his view of Miliband’s position to the less-than-profound accusation that he was “letting down America”. Not quite the stuff of Lloyd George and Churchill, then: rather, a witless few days at the Eton tuck shop, with all decorum and statesmanship mislaid. At this week’s prime minister’s questions we will find out whether there has been any shift of tone: it would certainly be an idea.Last week, the way that the dependably off-key Nick Clegg boiled down any push for international agreement to the banal matter of a “UN moment” hardly helped. But from the public’s perspective, probably the most bamboozling moment had already come, when Tony Blair once again decided to pipe up in support of military action. Time was, a former holder of high office associated with a policy failure as howling as the Iraq war – who also oversaw Bashar al-Assad’s pomp-laden visit to the UK in 2002, and even considered giving him an honorary knighthood – might have clocked such obvious echoes of his own fall from grace, and decided to stay quiet. But, as evidenced by yet another contribution over the weekend (”At some point we will realise this is one battle, it is crucial to our security and we have to take sides,” he wrote in the Sunday Times, his gift for the most reductive analyses of complex problems apparently undimmed), Blair is still possessed of a terrible chutzpah. By way of a support act, Alastair Campbell last week claimed that any failure to launch missiles at Syria would be “hugely irresponsible and highly dangerous”: not for the first time, satire has been proved well and truly dead.
The central point here is not about the merits or demerits of the case for military action, or the unimaginable suffering of ordinary Syrians. It is about whether we any longer have a political establishment that can credibly speak to the public – or even their own parties – about the gravest affairs of state, and take people with them. Certainly, among Tory MPs, Downing Street’s bungling of last week’s vote and Cameron’s failure to put together a convincing argument have been blamed on the fact that people in government are simply too inexperienced.
In the states, the Washington Post has quoted Lt Gen Gregory S Newbold, director of operations for the joint chiefs of staff in the buildup to the Iraq war: “There’s a broad naivety in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve,” he says. Replace “American” with “British”, and the point sounds even stronger.
So yes, all this is about the legacy of Iraq, but it runs wider and deeper. People are not daft. They surely sense that syndrome whereby wan career politicians get far too excited about a new world of Cobra meetings, intelligence briefings and the like, and mislay most of their judgment. They well understand one of the central tensions of modern politics: the fact that as everything has become more and more presidential, the people at the top have become less and less convincing. Not for nothing do they buy into the idea of brave and noble service personnel being serially let down by the people in charge, something now so firmly built into the culture as to be immovable.
The problem is that all this threatens an eventual tragedy – because even if the approach to Syria that the UK has so messily adopted turns out to have been the right one, sooner or later another crisis is going to hove into view, and policy may well be messed up by a problem that will not go away: an inadequate Westminster elite facing a public split between hostility and indifference.
Some of this is about the absence from frontline politics of age and experience, a point crisply dramatised by the moment last week when fortysomething frontbenchers were frantically making the case for a strike, while greying former military chiefs expressed their opposition. It is telling that the list of 30 Tories who rebelled against the government are full of MPs whose backgrounds are very different from the usual stuff of Westminster CVs (witness the high-profile involvement of the GP-turned-Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston, perhaps the Commons’ most impressive backbencher).
But this story is also about a Westminster culture that has long since run its course: so-called sofa government, endless briefings by potty-mouthed advisers, the idea that being prime minister often amounts to either completely ignoring your party or defining yourself against it, and supposedly communicating directly with the public. Recent history suggests that this course tends to result in something rather different: sooner or later, speaking for no one but yourself.
This is what Tony Blair bequeathed to British politics, and it needs to be binned for good. His style of leadership was once neatly encapsulated by the SNP leader Alex Salmond as a thirst for “the great crusade, the last battle: he needs to be at the centre of events, where he’s risking all – one crusader on his horse, charging into the enemy”. That’s what Cameron tried to approximate last week, without Blair’s awful gifts, and the result was a thin re-enactment of New Labour’s worst aspects, staged to no one’s benefit.
Which brings us to Miliband. As well as the insults hurled at him last week, government sources have now accused the Labour leader of “buggering about”, and “flip-flopping”, while his own people have insisted that he never put a deal on the table involving support for an attack on Syria, and consistently tried to remind Cameron of the importance of the UN and international law. Another interpretation is that if he was even tentatively in favour of a military strike, he acknowledged the views of both his party and the public, soon warning against the dangers of what he calls “reckless and impulsive” approaches.
We know his view of the Blair legacy is sceptical, at best; it’s also pretty obvious that presidential grandstanding simply wouldn’t suit him. But for such an archetypal product of the New Labour era, whose frontbench team hardly departs from the same stereotype, convincingly pushing towards any new kind of political leadership will be an onerous task. Still, herein lies a hint of what might start to repair the chasm between politics and the public, and actually make foreign policy immeasurably more effective – not pretend messiahs astride white chargers, but humility, caution and the ability to listen.
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