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Electing a loser

As the Labour Party prepares to elect a new leader in July, Mike Freeman sees its prospects going from bad to worse

Following its humiliating electoral defeat, Labour's chaotic leadership election seems set to accelerate the fragmentation of the party and confirm its demise as a serious contender for government.

The problem facing the candidates in the Labour leadership election is that they were all centrally involved in the transformation of the party's programme, organisation and image that led to its defeat. The central justification for all the changes wrought by the Kinnock team since 1983 was that they were the price that had to be paid to make Labour 'electable'. The result on 9 April confirmed that, after all, the new-look Labour Party was 'unelectable'. But having closed off all other avenues and excluded all other points of view, the only possible response from Kinnock's former acolytes is to go even further down the route he charted.

John Smith and Bryan Gould may argue about the details of taxation and fiscal policy, but they agree on the broad strategy of turning Labour into an alternative Tory Party. But, as the election showed, when offered the choice between a real Conservative Party and an imitation, voters will opt for the genuine article.

The succession struggle reveals the dissolution of the old left-right axis around which factional conflict has always been organised in the Labour Party. The candidates do not represent different ideological trends in the party; they are backed by cliques based on personal loyalties and patronage. This is true of Smith and Gould, and of deputy leadership contenders Margaret Beckett and John Prescott. Though they may have different backgrounds outside and inside the party, and they may quibble over tax and the ERM, they are all Kinnockite clones, opportunist careerists, lacking principle or imagination.

Left out

The same was true of the left slate of Ken Livingstone and Bernie Grant. It was widely noted that, while Livingstone accepted the backing of the Socialist Campaign Group, he took a different view on the ERM, on PR and on taxation, on which subject he criticised Smith for excessive redistributionist zeal! Indeed, it seems that the only things on which Livingstone and Grant agreed were that the election procedure was unfair but that it offered considerable scope for attracting publicity. With only 13 and 15 MPs' nominations respectively, Livingstone and Grant could not even persuade the majority of the Campaign Group to support them.

What democracy?

It is true that Labour's electoral procedures are a farce. They confirm that 'democracy' in the Labour Party is simply a cipher for factional advantage. Thus the requirement for a leadership candidate to secure the nominations of 20 per cent of the parliamentary party was introduced in the interests of inner-party democracy, of course; but the real purpose was to block a leadership challenge from Tony Benn after the 1987 election.

The trade union block vote was written into Labour's constitution in 1919 by Sidney Webb to ensure that the trade union leaders, Labour's founders and paymasters, retained control over the vehicle designed to advance their political aspirations. For decades the block vote was used to contain the left and ensure a party leadership and policy conducive to the interests of the labour bureaucracy. Its undemocratic character passed unnoticed in the parliamentary Labour Party, among the Tories and in the media.

Divorcing partners

Now that the labour bureaucracy is no longer protected by the British establishment, and the Labour Party no longer serves much useful purpose for either, the block vote is fair game. An acceleration of the divorce between Labour and the unions appears certain. It now seems only a matter of time before the unions opt to spend their money more pragmatically in specific campaigns, and the Labour Party becomes a permanent minority rump in parliament.

Kinnock's desire for a rapid succession seems to have been grounded in a serious concern that a prolonged leadership struggle might finish Labour off for good. Such stratagems look more and more like a case of postponing the inevitable.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

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