Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Unite v Simpson And Woodley

As my exams draw to a close, I find myself pondering at least one court case. And I find myself wondering why, if you wanted a reason why the Labour coalition never happened, you would look any further than last week in the High Court.

Political parties have to have a fundamental idea around which they can coalesce. This would normally, of course, be an ideology, but it doesn't have to be; ideologies are generally better producers of narratives, but as UKIP have shown it is possible under the right circumstances to achieve a narrative without one.

Where this gets incredibly messy is that the idea has very little basis in fact. It is more than anything an article of faith; what matters is that you believe that your idea fits your party. The gravitational effects on the idea are of course considerable; the effects of time and personal loyalty pull peoples ideas around and together, while the occasional political earthquake highlights the differences in ideas in the same party and drives them apart.

The effect of time is most clearly seen in the Tories, who now have a real divide between their young, vaguely libertarian urbanites and an older, suburban, palaeoconservative core. To some extent this works because the younger group will grow into the older one, in others it functions because the ideology itself, while strong, continues to reassess itself.

It was that reinvention that sustained liberalism and thus the Lib Dems, albeit at the cost of its illegitimate offspring, libertarianism. Mind you, it has been the Lib Dems who have been most exposed to the earthquakes; social democracy in the 80's, the civil liberties agenda in the 00's...

But one of the standard pearls of political wisdom is that it's easier to oppose and it's here that the current political earthquake will damage us, if at all; for those for whom not-Tory, not-New Labour was their idea, the coalition may pose questions. But to define oneself as only against Blair is to misunderstand the other idea, or to fail to ask the pertinent question; what is the Labour Party's idea?

As a law student, I'd say that contractually the Labour Party is whatever the unions want it to be. Then again, in 1900 when those contracts were formed, there was a fairly clear ideological basis to the broader labour movement. But as socialism failed across the world, whether in its communist implementations abroad or its democratic ones at home, that ideological basis faded, eventually dying in the flames of Thatcherism and the rubble of the Berlin Wall.

If the idea was dead, however, what was to replace it? At the very least you needed something to blame that didn't involve the ideology having failed; admitting that is like saying Santa Claus isn't real, it shatters the illusion. In the end, five factors held the Labour Party together in its darkest hour. The cautionary tale of the SDP and the entrenchment of the two-party system in an old media world contributed, but I suppose the truth of the matter is that everything was overtaken by events.

After all, never has a government gone from victory to defeat quicker than John Major's. From the moment David Cameron walked out of the Treasury ten steps behind Norman Lamont, the Conservatives were doomed, though that didn't stop them piling on the self-inflicted wounds. Either way, you have to conclude that John Smith would have won in 1997.

But then, that's the great political what if, perhaps of all time. The questions are endless; how many seats would he have won? Would we now be calling it a Portillo moment? The variables are endless, and in any case it's difficult to see how radically different the policy would have been; Brown would still have been Chancellor, Blair would have been a key source of ideas in the Cabinet, Clause Four would have survived but it's not as if they'd have done anything about it...

Nevertheless, at that moment in the summer of 1994, the Labour Party was given a choice unlike that any party had perhaps ever faced; with victory assured, all it had to worry about was its idea and how best to express it. And what was the idea they chose?

Anything's better than the Tories.

It's instinctive to try and look for an ideological basis for New Labour, and God knows Blair tried with the Third Way. But by 1994, the unions (as the contractual partners in all this) were sufficiently shellshocked by the success of Thatcher's vitriol toward them and the failure of their reciprocal fury that it must have seemed almost trivial to say that anything was better than the Tories.

And so New Labour came to pass. For a foolhardy few it may have been a Munchausenian fantasy, a passionate belief in a non-existent ideology. But for most, whether jumped at with the fervour of a drowning man or begrudgingly accepted as necessary but irrelevant to one's own socialism, the only purpose it served was to beat the Tories.

It might not have mattered; just because the Labour Party was rallying around not-Tory didn't mean they had to express that idea in practice. But in a wonderfully synergistic confluence, the Labour Party got exactly what it deserved; the boy king Blair and his Somerset, Mandelson.

I've written before about how New Labour turned to quantum government, using spin (that quantumest of concepts) to justify not doing socialist things by showing how, by the political equivalent of the sum over histories, the things they did inched them towards a socialist ideal; that picture on the cover of the Labour manifesto was only inaccurate in that they put it at the start and not at the end.

In accepting that idea, however, New Labour, perhaps inadvertently, accepted its corollary; once you've established that anything's better than the Tories, it doesn't particularly matter how much better it is. That's not to say they needed to put so much effort into proving just how similar to the Tories they could be, of course...

Nevertheless, it is in that psychology that the impossibility of a Lib-Lab coalition was founded. Perhaps some part of the Labour hindbrain understood that the Lib Dems were the only practical non-Tory option in town, but it was overcome. On the one hand, by basing themselves on non-Toryness, Labour set themselves up as arbiters of what a non-Tory world looked like; presented with alternative ideas for such a world, they could not process them.

On the other hand, despite their belief in Blair's theory of a century of the left thwarted by the Lab/Lib divide, when the time came to forge that progressive alliance Labour had spent so long not needing to be progressive that they had entirely ceased to be so; never was a truer word spoken than Alex Wilcock's "58 MPs is not enough for a progressive alliance" speech at special conference...

We shouldn't forget in all of this the malign hand of Mandelson, but equally he isn't relevant to the longer term, it being so rare for British politics to throw up such a political sociopath. Nevertheless, as one of the few people in the Labour Party clever enough to understand all of this, it is instructive to note that he's done nothing to provide an alternative to the current Labour line, that everything is evidence of us not being progressive and that the coalition will crush us and restore Labour to its "rightful" place. But then, maybe he also understands the greater problem for Labour's immediate future.

All defeated governing parties struggle to understand why they've lost; most, indeed, believe they've done nothing wrong. When you have an ideology, eventually you can see how you deviated from it and how it deviated from what the country needed. But what do Labour have? How can you learn that you didn't do enough to not be the Tories when you've told yourself that anything is better than them?

The one thing that could save Labour is that contractual relationship with the unions, but as I said at the outset, all you need to know about where they've got to could be found at the Royal Courts of Justice last week. There they will have found the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls deliberating over the provisions of s231 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of both Unite's cause and BA's legal strategy against it, what this case proves is that thirteen years of bankrolling New Labour did sweet fanny adams for the trades unions. If they'd blown that money on crack and whores it would have been one thing, but far from pissing the money away, Unite and their colleagues golden showered it on the Labour Party and still got nothing for their troubles.

With that sort of record of incompetence, it seems unlikely that the unions will be staging an eleventh-hour rescue of their political brethren. Indeed, unless Unite's members take my titular advice and sue Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley for their clearly negligent use of their union's funds, the future for the Labour Party looks pretty bleak...

1 comment:

Richard Gadsden said...

You ask how John Smith PM would have been different from Blair PM.

I suspect these differences:

He would have indulged Robin Cook more. If I cross my fingers and hope that whatever prevents Smith's heart attack also prevents Cook's, then Blair will be happily enjoying being a more illiberal Home Secretary than Michael Howard and won't be interfering in foreign affairs. That probably means no UK participation in the Iraq War.

Smith was much more interested in constitutional affairs than Blair - he was a signatory to the Claim of Right and a major figure in the Constitutional Convention.

I expect we would have had an elected Lords and elected Regional Assemblies in England by now if Smith had served six or seven years as PM.