The Labour Party – sifting through the wreckage

Will activism become a cottage industry?

By Paul Halas

The news that the selection process for prospective Labour candidates is to be changed to allow yet more Tories to represent the party will surprise no one. It is only the latest increment in Keir Starmer’s drive to make the party a safe place for venture capitalists, oligarchs, tax-dodging corporations and those who deliberately confuse the distinction between criticism of Israeli apartheid with prejudice against Jews. If anyone reading this article actually believes Starmer is doing a good job stop now: you’re either complicit in his charade or terminally gullible.

The idea of Labour as a force to bring about democratic socialism is a wonderful fantasy, an illusion, albeit one that many of us dared to believe in between 2015 and 2019. But in spite of saying democratic socialism on the tin, it ain’t in the contents. The party of the working person has always been infiltrated and occupied by the right, even although there have been a few glorious examples of socialist advances being forced through – despite all the obstacles. The post-war Atlee government gave us a wonderful legacy (that the neoliberals have diligently destroyed over the past forty years), but following him was Hugh Gaitskill and a sharp swing back towards the centre. Harold Wilson’s centre leftism was always under attack from right wingers in the party, as well as the establishment, and he ended up sidelined by Sunny Jim and Bushy Healey. Michael Foot fought a constant battle against his own party plus the weight of the media (Private Eye’s nickname for him, Worzel Gummidge, certainly caught the public imagination), while Neil Kinnock declared open warfare against the left.

There was a national sigh of relief in 1997 when the tired old Tories were swept away by Tony Blair, whose dynamic platform of not being a Tory produced a sense of national euphoria… until of course the penny dropped that actually he was a Tory. Okay – one could argue that he was at least a One Nation Tory, that we got Sure Start centres and some more dosh went into health and education, but creeping privatisation continued unabated, cronyism was almost as rife then as it is now, we were lumbered with PFIs here, there and everywhere, and inequality, which had been rising since 1979, just carried on rising. We all know the quote, Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s proudest achievement. He was, and is, a Tory.

As is Keir Starmer. Surely any illusions about him have now been swept away: he represents the establishment 100% and is making absolutely sure that the Labour Party is a socialism-free zone – even at the expense of bankrupting and sinking the party out of sight. The sorry mob at the helm now resemble a low budget caper movie, getting the old gang of bastards back together: Blair, Mandelson, David Miliband, Campbell, and given the chance I’ll bet they’d dig up Margaret Thatcher too. Add to that many of the kindly apparatchiks who helped scuttle two general elections and you have to conclude that the dark side has won. Good friends of mine are still saying stay and fight. Sorry. It’s over.

A great many activists and former members, especially those like me who joined the party because of Jeremy Corbyn, now find themselves disenfranchised, rudderless and quite frankly depressed. From having no faith in party politics, to becoming highly energised, card-carrying party workers, to losing that faith again, all in a few short years, is a hulluva trip. For a while we believed a mainstream political party could and would usher in a fairer, more sustainable society. But it turns out that was just a dream some of us had (to quote Joni Mitchell).

For many like me becoming a party member was something of a culture shock. I’d never been part of any sort of organisation, having led the sheltered life of a freelance story-writer, and entering a hierarchical, structured set-up like the Labour Party was a strange experience. But I quickly got with the espirit de corps, did my best to be a team player, was happy cannon-fodder. What always struck me as odd, though, was that in amongst all the fund-raising, leafleting, arranging lifts, meetings, getting stuff printed, all the activities part and parcel of belonging to a CLP, nobody seemed to be talking about politics. Yes, politics in terms of personalities, myriad rues and regulations and various snippets of gossip and personality clashes, but not political ideas – not the big issues. The only times we were officially sanctioned to talk politics was when we were out canvassing or running stalls – a wonderful and eye-opening experience. It’s as if that stuff was above our pay grade. Sure, those of us on the left socialised and discussed these matters (and boy, so did those on the right), however, such talk never seemed to be an integral part of CLP life. Bureaucracy rex. But still, we were buoyed by the idea that as members our voices counted, and collectively we could steer the party towards our goal of a more equitable society. Ha! Now look where we are.

So, sifting through the wreckage, what are we left with? The ideas Jeremy Corbyn represented are still in our hearts and minds. I’m a bit mistrustful of the sainthood that’s been conferred on him by some on the left, as I’m sure he is, however, in spite of his flaws I’m still very much a Corbynista. But no longer having a national, mass membership political party to fall in with, we have to look at other ways of achieving change. The Peace and Justice Movement is a very positive step in the right direction.

Belatedly I’m bringing up the subject of climate change, as it certainly should be the first item on any agenda (even if I’m 900 words into this piece). It’s such a major deal that many people – and governments it appears – react by throwing up their hands, emitting an existential scream and then carrying on doing exactly what they were doing before. Yesterday the media was screaming we’re all going to die; today it’s back to who’s shagging who on Love Island. It’s as if it’s too much to take in… except it’s really happening. Nationally, the Tory government grunts and makes vague noises about sustainability (while slyly trying to open new coal mines and investing yet more billions in fossil fuels), while Starmer’s alternative Tory Party rounds on the government for its inactivity with all the ferocity of a comatose teddy bear. Internationally we wait for action by India, China, the USA, Brazil and others with great interest. A benevolent world dictatorship could maybe bring about some meaningful changes, but we don’t have that luxury. China could perhaps implement the right kind of draconian measures, but they’d have to drop their “it’s good to be rich” mantra first.

The big elephant in the room, climate wise, is capitalism. A cynic might say that unless going green becomes a bigger revenue source than continuing to screw up the environment the outlook is not kosher. Technology will no doubt play a big role in any solution to the climate change problem, but my faith in this is tempered by the fact that most R&D is now largely funded by the corporate sector, and those people by and large aren’t motivated by a love of humanity. Add to that the fact that we’ve already passed a number of tipping points, and millions of lives are already in jeopardy from the ravages of climate catastrophe, it’s all very, very scary.

Where do we go from here? Governments can and should do far better than they’ve managed thus far. Some are better than others. The EU member states tend to be a bit less crap than we are, Brazil and India are worse (though not on a per capita basis). The question is how much worse do things have to get before meaningful (and I mean serious) action is taken? How many more millions will perish? Will Bangladesh slip beneath the waves? Will the grain-belts turn into dust-bowls? Will melting permafrost unleash billions of tons of methane? Will the Gulf Stream seize up and deep-freeze northern Europe? Will Parliament be any less complacent when the Thames barrier is overwhelmed? I don’t see the end of humanity on the horizon, but I do think we’re going to see a succession of seismic changes – not the least for all the other life-forms that inhabit the planet. People have been warning about this for more than 100 years. We can be awfully slow on the uptake.

Normally doom and gloom articles try to end on a positive note. We don’t want people jumping off cliffs or becoming troglodyte survivalists up in the Boondocks. Many people are becoming more aware that actions have consequences and there are better ways of running societies. Cooperation is growing within communities, and we’re becoming more conscious about how wasteful we are as people and as a society. Green new deals are at last on people’s lips, and at some point it is to be hoped that the great and the good are coerced or shamed into more responsible behaviour. Of course those with a few horses, multiple gas-guzzlers and a darling hideaway in Dorset, who think of themselves as vastly over-taxed and on the verge of penury, will take some convincing, but they’ll have to be made to toe the line.

With the demise of the Labour Party many are taking direct action to improve people’s lives. Community schemes proliferate, (some) unions battle for progress, collectivism is on the rise. Some of the smaller political parties, such as the Socialists and Communists, less tainted by corporate corruption, have powerful voices. We cannot control what takes place in governments worldwide but we can do better on the ground, here. As Candide said, at the end of Voltaire’s classic fable, “…but we must go and work in the garden.”

It would be wonderful to have a Labour Party that battles with the people, for the people and for the environment. That has a grasp of the issues at stake and will take on the might of big business. For the many, not the few. But we don’t – that party flickered brightly and was then extinguished. So we just have to do the best we can. Maybe for now cottage industry activism is our best choice.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

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