Whilst there will be no shortage of efforts to apportion blame for the electoral defeat of Labour an indisputable factor was the PLP’s participation in the four year witch-hunt against Jeremy Corbyn. Symptomatic of the rage of sections of the PLP against the membership for having the audacity to elect Corbyn, was the case of Angela Eagle and the brick which was said to have been thrown through her office window, ostensibly by Corbyn supporters. On the back of this ‘incident’ she helped the rabid anti-Labour media to paint his supporters as thuggish bullies. “Call off the dogs”, she said. The only problem was that there was no brick thrown through the window of her office, there was only a cracked window in a shared stairwell. Yet Eagle never apologised for her falsehood. She and others in the PLP gave credence to the lies of the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph. They facilitated the witch-hunt against Corbyn.
Behind this hostility was a fundamental contradiction between the aspirations and views of the membership and the majority of the Parliamentary Party which was still gripped by the neo-liberal virus of New Labour. After all, one of the key reasons for Corbyn’s victory was the outrage of members at the PLP when Harriett Harman was temporary Leader. Labour abstained on the welfare reforms, the ‘hostile environment’ against the poor and the disabled. Blair had adopted the Clintonite ‘tough love’ which ‘incentivised’ people who were dismissed as scroungers. The abstention was rooted in this reactionary New Labour policy. Only 40 Labour MPs voted against the reforms.
That such a weak creature as the Labour left was able to win the leadership election was a reflection of the bankruptcy of Blairism, made obvious by the global crisis of capitalism. Although it didn’t receive much attention Gordon Brown’s statement in his interview during the recent election campaign was significant. “The neo-liberal consensus was wrong,” he said, admittedly somewhat belatedly. This consensus was the bedrock of New Labour’s politics.
Faced with the ongoing global crisis, with another crash likely sooner rather than later, and deteriorating environmental conditions, the tinkering which most of the PLP seems to want, is the equivalent of playing the fiddle whilst Rome burns. Some of them, such as Gareth Thomas want “moderation, and patriotism”. Others a “progressive patriotism”.
Heaping all the blame on Corbyn is just a convenient excuse. The election of Corbyn was a necessary means of beginning to break from the politics of New Labour. Yet there was no thorough-going critique of New Labour.1 Not long after Corbyn’s first election I was at a meeting in Bracknell where John McDonnell spoke about the ‘good things’ Labour did in the public sector. This may have gone down well with those still attached to New Labour but it was a travesty of the truth. It was the New Labour government which opened up the NHS to the private sector, sought to eradicate council housing, promoted the growth of the private rented sector by tax breaks to buy-to-let landlords. The deregulation which was de rigueur under New Labour was one of the contributory factors to the Grenfell Fire disaster. It introduced austerity into the NHS with its £20 billion cut just before the 2010 election. The global crisis which resulted from neo-liberalism destroyed the political foundations of New Labour. That was why its supporters lost so heavily in the two leadership contests. They had no credible political perspective.
Let those nostalgic for those good old days (when the Sun supported Labour) explain why it was that after the first four years of government there was an historically unprecedented 12% fall in turnout at the 2001 general election, to 59.4%. Here was the beginning of the ‘disaffection with Westminster politics’. The scale of this fall can be measured by the fact that in the previous 21 general elections the turnout had always been over 70%. There was a widespread sentiment that it was difficult to tell the difference between the two major parties. There was a large scale exodus of Party membership because they could not stomach New Labour’s neo-liberalism and the partnership with the US war machine.
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