Entry from May 17, 2010

At first glance it seems very odd that John F. Burns’s New York Times article on the in-fighting in the British Labour party in the wake of its election defeat should show us the scorecard and the players in such detail while doing almost nothing to describe the political differences between them. We learn, for instance, that the party is divided into “Blairites” and “Brownites” — except where it isn’t — and that there is, distinct from both factions, a left-wing contender for the leadership, Mr Jon Cruddas, “who argues that the party must return to its old working-class, labor union base.” Mr Cruddas isn’t given much of a chance as Mr Burns appears to regard the contest as being between David Miliband, of the Blairites and Ed Balls of the Brownites, though he is extremely sketchy about what the point at issue between the two might be, apart from loyalty to their respective eponymous patrons. Mr Blair is said to have been “ousted” by his party on account of having backed the American war in Iraq; Mr Brown to stand for “old Labour” and its resentment “about the party’s move away from its trade union base.” How he differs from Mr Cruddas in this is not specified.

This may seem a pretty superficial analysis of the points at issue but, if so, that is not entirely Mr Burns’s fault. Within the Labour party as well, there are powerful forces that wish to cast the leadership struggle in terms of superficialities. The return to Labour’s “trade union base,” for instance, is a snare and a delusion for all but the trades unionists themselves. De-industrialization has left the trade union base fatally weakened and now dominated, as it is in the U.S., by public sector workers. They derive their power from their dominance within the party but also from a large client-sector of the population consisting of the officially and unofficially unemployed and those on disability benefit to whose needs they are supposedly required to minister. But even when you put the public sector workers and their clients together and add in the left-wing élite it’s not enough to make a majority. “Old Labour” as idealized by Mr Cruddas and possibly Mr Brown is really better represented by Mrs Gillian Duffy who, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, was described by Mr Brown as a bigot.

For a better idea of what is going on, you might take a look at a piece by Janet Daley in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. Ms Daley finds the key to Labour’s past and future in some uncharacteristically frank remarks by Jack Straw, who served in a number of offices of state in both Mr Blair’s and Mr Brown’s governments:

In order to recover, he said, Labour would have to get back the votes of “decent, hard-working families” who felt that “we had not been listening enough on issues such as immigration, benefits and fairness”. Every word of this statement is significant. “Decent” implies not feckless or irresponsible. “Hard-working” means not choosing benefit dependency as a way of life. “Families” suggests people who are maintaining more or less stable relationships in which to raise children. In other words, Mr Straw is acknowledging that Labour had come to be associated with the interests of people who were irresponsible, not hard-working and had no commitment to family life in any sustainable form. Most importantly, he presents this observation in the context of “fairness”. He recognises that the meaning Brownian Labour gave to that concept was not one that would be recognised by most voters, ie, taking money away from people who have worked hard in order to subsidise the lifestyles of those who have not.

Gosh! How I wish I could believe this. But I’m afraid Ms Daley’s analysis, accurate though it is in its essentials, is marred by wishful thinking. Jack Straw and maybe even a few other “sensible losers” may be momentarily chastened, but I wouldn’t give any but very long odds on the permanent adjustment of the Labour ideology to accommodate this morning-after insight. The power of the élites for whom, as for Gordon Brown, Mrs Duffy is simply a bigot is too great — and not only in the Labour Party either. You can’t imagine her or her presumptive idea of “fairness” finding a natural home among the Cameronian Tories or the Cleggite Liberals either, which is what allows the discussions of Labour’s future to go forward without any mention of her and her disenfranchised kind. What they need in Britain is a tea party movement to put the fear of God into their élites as it has been put into ours. But to the Brits that would probably smack of “enthusiasm” and look merely déclassé. More and more, Lady Thatcher and her amazing historical moment both appear to be aberrations in British history and never likely to be repeated.


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