British Labour’s Liberal Sickness

The British Labour party is well known for its infighting, rancor and classic left right divisions. Both the popular and so called serious press never let us forget that. Yet for all that Labour has managed to keep itself together, albeit with a fluctuating membership and activist base. Its position in Scotland is another question.

At such times, certainly since Tony Blair soared to near heavenly heights of popular ascendency followed by his own version of The Fall there has been the usual call from the left. “Labour must return to its working class and trade union roots.”

Now that Labour is back in opposition and with a relatively new leader it appears to be time to start this show all over again. This time it is not a clear rerun of previous episodes. Left and right are words many commentators and their informers have dropped. To be fair, terms like hard left, Trot and Stalinist do occasionally seep through the press.

As some such pundits might say, “the narrative has changed.” Electability is what now most tickles their collective fancy. Electability or more particularly, unelectability, is mostly associated with Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

It is undeniable that the Labour Party was birthed by the country’s main trade union body, the Trade Union Congress. Others present and active were the Independent Labour Party, the British Socialist Federation, and the Fabian Society. Although not always acknowledged in the origins of the Labour party, non conformist Protestants, particularly English Methodist played an important role. But the daddy of this newborn soon faded into the background.

A view held for much of the later part of the 19th century was that the Liberal party was the best breadwinner for Britain’s toiling masses. After all, some Liberals expressed social concerns and importantly, had a presence in parliament. The agricultural and industrial revolutions had passed. So too had the Chartists, a radical working class movement demanding parliamentary reform. But as the 19th century closed, discontent with the old fueled a new confidence that the cause of labour could best be represented through its own party.

And so the Labour party was born and named in 1906. But some liberal genes were passed on. Perhaps the non conformists didn’t spread the word from Exodus 34:7 about, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth [generation].”

Starting in the 19th century the term Lib Lab became associated with electoral agreements between the Liberal Party and the Labour Representative Committee, one of the forerunners of the modern Labour party. Throughout the 20th century Lib Lab pacts and agreements proliferated in both national and local government politics.

Such pacts were thought to be the best deal Labour could get under the prevailing circumstances. “Anyway, it keeps the Conservatives out” ran the logic. How often are we told that at the end of the day politics is about compromise? Nobody has to be a super skeptic to work out that some of Labour’s elected representatives scream compromise with a conviction that makes you wonder if compromise wasn’t always their primordial condition.

Recent Labour party history shows us that this liberal gene has been passed on and is displaying a malignant determination to destroy.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair now prefers to represent himself on the lucrative lecture circuit. His replacement, Gordon Brown, joins other worthies such as Ben Bernanke on a panel advising the international investment business, Pimco. Former Labour government Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, flitted the House of Commons for the ermine swathed House of Lords. Probably more to his liking, he has found a place on the board of financial services company Morgan Sanely. Labour’s present shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, has a solid record of backing war; invasion of Iraq, bombing of Syria, support for British submarines carrying Trident nuke missiles.

Time has not cured this liberal sickness. Since the 18th century it has mutated from freedom of the individual which is blind to class divisions caused by accumulated capital. In its present neoliberal incarnation 90% of us are not immune to the self seeking interests of global businesses and live with the cultivated threat of perpetual war.

This is what confines the British Labour party to the trauma ward of unelectability, not Jeremy Corbyn. In today’s Britain there is still an embodiment of the Dickensian toiling masses. The low paid, the unemployed, cultural and ethnic minorities, the “squeezed middle”, women paid less than men for equivalent work, the people disadvantaged through physical and mental health issues.

It’s not often said in polite company but treatment for this body politic may go beyond “back to the roots”, restorative therapy. Radical intervention in the form of de-selection of potential parliamentary and municipal candidates is one option. Elected representatives subject to recall by the bodies that sponsored their candidacy is another. Political parties sometimes split. That can lead to rapid or protracted terminal illness for those that go and sometimes those that stay.

A period of hard decisions looms for Labour’s new supporters and members. For the party’s long suffering left it’s a testing time. Which course of therapy will they opt for? The risks are real and not for receding; prolonged opposition in the hope of being better prepared for future battles, a surge of support from the 90% or electoral obscurity.

Labour with the sick liberal gene is no antidote for an aggressive neoliberal malaise. At best it only prolongs the agony by occupying an allocated sick bay in government. The 10%ers are desperate and spoiling for the fight. Here’s hoping the rest, under whatever party name they choose to mobilize, can more than match that.

Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.