Labour leadership - how did it come to this?

By Bernadette Meaden
July 12, 2016

As she launched her leadership campaign, Angela Eagle said of the Brexit vote, "This vote was a message from millions in our country who felt no one had listened to them for a very long time. For many, it was a howl of pain." This was no doubt true. But surely it wasn’t just the government they felt had not listened to them - it was almost the entire political class, including the party in which Ms Eagle has been a prominent figure.

The disconnection between the Labour party and the people it was traditionally founded to represent perhaps began as a consequence of Tony Blair’s Third Way. This ideology, which was designed to transcend the divisions between left and right, seeming to offer the best of both worlds, had obvious attractions. But it was arguably based on an illusion, an illusion similar to George Osborne’s assurance in 2010 that we were all in it together – just before he disproportionately targeted poor people and poor communities for swingeing cuts. As one critic put it, "the Third Way is no more than a crude attempt (rather a successful one thus far) to construct a bogus coalition between the haves and the have nots – bogus because it entices the haves by assuring them that the economy will be sound and their interests are not threatened". Electoral success came because this was a Labour party which posed no significant challenge to Capital.

The illusion offered by the Third Way was that there was no real conflict of interest between big business and finance (Capital) and ordinary people (Labour). We could trust big businesses and banks to act ethically, so it was sensible to lighten the burden of regulation, and we could trust them to treat their workers fairly, so there was no harm in weakening the powers of trade unions.

Over time, many politicians in the Labour party, specifically set up to defend Labour against the often ruthless power of Capital, gradually became at best neutral, moving away from unions, the low paid and the disadvantaged, as they strove to be seen as ‘pro- business’ and ‘aspirational’.  But as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” The elephant of global business and finance had its foot on the tail of the workers, and the party formed to defend the workers, by taking the Third Way, seemed to remain relatively neutral.

Whilst some laudable steps were taken which benefitted people on low incomes, like the national minimum wage, working tax credits etc, the balance of economic power was shifting further and further towards rich individuals and companies. An ever decreasing share of national wealth went to workers, whilst an ever increasing share to went bosses and owners. We arrived at the point where workers were expected to be grateful for a zero-hours contract or casual agency work, and anyone condemning such exploitation was condemned as anti-business. 

Meanwhile, the Conservatives encouraged the view that shirkers and scroungers were making a lifestyle choice, to live in luxury on the contributions of hardworking taxpayers. Seemingly afraid of being labelled ‘the party of welfare’, Labour did far too little to oppose this view. Indeed it often seemed that on this issue the Churches provided more opposition than the Labour Party. Low paid workers were subtly encouraged to resent people who were unemployed, sick or disabled and, more recently, migrants. As the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, these scapegoats served to distract people from the real injustices in our economic system.

Welfare reform, a process both parties have engaged in, played a big part in this process. For the poor and disadvantaged, and particularly disabled people, it has been like being on trial for years, with both sets of lawyers prosecuting, one slightly less enthusiastically than the other.

As a result, large numbers of unfortunate people felt completely abandoned by politicians. It was often difficult to tell, when politicians spoke about benefit claimants, whether it was a Labour or Conservative MP talking. Labour shied away from being identified with the poorest in society, who were increasingly portrayed as largely responsible for their own poverty. As Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Rachel Reeves said in 2015:"We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we're not, the party to represent those who are out of work… Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people."

Labour could have made the case that in the modern 'flexible' labour market, many low paid workers relied on benefits, and insecure work meant that many workers would at times be unemployed. It could have built an alliance between the sick, disabled, the unemployed and an exploited workforce to defend the welfare state. But it chose not to.

Again, austerity which disproportionately targeted the poor went almost unchallenged, as Labour politicians ran scared of being labelled ‘deficit deniers’. They had a perfectly good case ; the crash was a global banking crash, not Labour’s fault, their spending had not been excessive or outrageous, in fact George Osborne had pledged he would match it ( video  ) Bu whilst Labour supporters tried making this case on social media, Labour MPs were relatively silent. Even though austerity was condemned by many respectable economists, Labour took the path of least resistance and became apologetic and ineffectual.

So – many people felt completely abandoned by mainstream politicians. People on low incomes suffered most from austerity and welfare reform, but nobody was clearly articulating a coherent explanation of why they were suffering, or a credible alternative. People began to accept explanations put forward by the right wing press and UKIP, that scroungers, migrants and the EU were the cause of all their problems. This I believe, explains many votes to leave the EU.

And then came Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and people who believed that the Labour Party had abandoned them felt that here were politicians who genuinely cared about what happened to them. John Mc Donnell put a lot of time and energy into backing the WOW petition, which called for a cumulative impact assessment of all cuts affecting disabled people, which the government disgracefully refused to do. For this he earned the profound gratitude of many disabled people, and many who were not disabled but simply cared about human rights and social justice for their fellow citizens. That partly explains the passion with which some people support Corbyn – besides supporting his policies, they simply found a politician who genuinely seemed to understand and to care, after years of feeling abandoned.

In her leadership bid, Angela Eagle said, “How on earth do we bring hope to parts of our country that feel they have been neglected for years?” She could make a good start by trying to understand why so many people felt abandoned by her own party.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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