Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

The party’s over

by Chris on 23rd April 2017

‘It really is all over!’, was the message I received from one of my oldest friends when I switched on my phone after a day-long meeting on Friday. Fortunately, he wasn’t referring to our friendship. That’s withstood a fair bit over the years like any close friendship has to. Rather he was referring to the re-election of Len McCluskey as General Secretary of Unite.

The italicisation of the adverb is mine. But I knew he meant it because we’ve probably both lost count of the number of times we’ve sent each other the ‘it’s over’ message since 2015. This time, however, he was right and I knew it. McCluskey’s victory represents the complete evisceration of something which had been instrumental in the formation of our friendship nearly 40 years ago.

We met at university during Margaret Thatcher’s first term as prime minister when we were members of the National Organisation of Labour Students. He was rather more successful as a student politician than me though I was to be an active member for far longer afterwards. But both of us remained loyalists in the broadest sense of the word until recently.

Of course, we don’t yet know the outcome of the election though few wise punters would seriously bet on anything other than a resounding Conservative victory. And whatever the final shape of the result, the repercussions within the Labour movement will be as bloody as anything we’ve seen so far. McCluskey’s victory makes sure of that.

His survival in a close contest is emblematic of everything which has gone wrong because it sums up the capturing of the movement by an outdated, self-serving rump. A cabal with no interest in any kind of meaningful or workable response to the political and economic predicament the country has found itself in.

And in a way, although the immediate disappointment of the result was that it was very nearly the other way round, it was actually the eye wateringly low turnout, little more than 12%, which was most telling. It would be laughable if it were not scandalous. A man who in the last few weeks has brazenly put the leader of the opposition on notice was narrowly elected on a turnout, which if repeated in a general election, would represent the end of democratic politics as we know it.

And so for both my friend and me, the sense that it really is all over was nakedly inescapable. It felt as though the very thing which had captured our hopes and dreams as young politics students had finally been snuffed out. Of course, Labour will return a sizeable number of MPs on June 8th, many of them serious people who are every bit as appalled at this state of affairs as we are.

But their main task will be to survey the wreckage and steer a course into unchartered waters if the party’s prospects are to make any kind of serious recovery. And it will take more than Neil Kinnock’s battle with Militant or Tony Blair’s embrace of the Third Way to do it. The truth is that Labour’s claim to be a broad church was always a tad hubristic and that hubris has just died its last breath.

The party has paid the ultimate price for its catholic taste, a revolution within. For all the talk of Westminster coups, the real coup took place when Ed Miliband handed the keys over to Corbyn and his ilk. The hard left had been trying to wrest control for the best part of 100 years and now that it finally has, that broad church appeal is in danger of extending little further than the vestry.

What is to be done? If the party is again to become a vehicle for significant social change, it’s time for those serious about creating broad electoral appeal to stop pretending. They don’t have the remotest chance of achieving that unless they lance the boil of such outmoded politics. Of course for the moment they are largely trapped by immediate political circumstances, though not entirely.

Either way the last chance saloon is right ahead. And what recovery actually looks like I don’t know and neither do I envy them the task. A new party of sorts? As the founders of the SDP were to discover, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It is a terrible irony that this should have happened to Labour just at the point when such politics are otherwise literally dying off. For me, the moment which summed that up more than any other was the death of Castro and Jeremy Corbyn’s risible response that he had been a ‘champion of social justice’ despite his flaws. I had never much cared for the left’s predilection with Cuba because of its dreadful record on gay rights. But as young trade union activist, I had been guilty of going along with it to a degree.

Castro’s death, however, felt almost liberating, enabling me to complete a journey which had started 30 years ago. During a brief sojourn to the Communist Party, I had watched the Berlin Wall fall and faced the fact that a world project whose ideals I’d had sympathy for was justifiably being dismantled. Whatever the instability and paucity in some cases of what happened next, its record was indefensible.

In 1995 Sue Lawley asked Eric Hobsbawm on Desert Island Discs whether he felt guilty about his failure to challenge Stalin’s crimes. Although I was disappointed by his apologism for Stalinism, I was just as irritated by her high-handed political bias on a family radio programme. But the truth is her question was entirely reasonable and his response far from it. In my heart, I knew that then.

Now I watch on as the Labour Party is led by an apologist for Putin and in the grip of people who thought it was acceptable to talk in the Morning Star of Aleppo being liberated. And I weep.

My flat is full of political memorabilia from travels around Europe these past thirty years. An Italian communist party poster carefully removed from billboards and brought home and a woodcut of Lenin which once adorned an East German government building are two particular favourites. I would no more throw them away than spend time regretting my political past.

And I still want the things I wanted when my friend and I engaged with Labour politics in the callowness of youth. But the world has changed around us and while the ends we seek might not be so different, the means have to be. A politics which was shaped by events in Russia a hundred years ago ceased to be of global relevance nearly thirty years ago. But by a perverse twist of fate, its dwindling band of champions in the UK would have us believe that it is still relevant here and now.

It’s not. It’s time to put away childish things.

The party’s over. Really.

  • Diane Dixon

    Very well said Chris. What a sad state of affairs.

  • Mike Homfray

    So, where’s the alternative? Because I don’t see one – for me, the centre I trust less than the Tories, who at least have a cogent ideology which adds up.

    The answer is electoral reform and more parties. Labour can remain a socialist party for those of us who still want that voice to be heard, and a new centrist party can be formed for those who decided a long time ago that they didn’t want socialism, but didn’t have the courage of their convictions.

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