The Labour Party has much in its history of which it can be justifiably proud. The early activists who first gained a foothold in local politics, and then in parliament, bravely implemented some very radical ideas against fierce resistance.
The ambitious reformers who founded the Independent Labour Party in Bradford worked tirelessly in their community for years and were eventually rightly rewarded with the trust and the votes of people that they lived and worked amongst. We owe much to the selfless work of those who created the first council houses, decent education for the children of working people, the NHS and countless other initiatives such as the Equal Pay Act.
The party also has a long history of leaders starting out with admirable ideals and then getting captured and neutralised by the very system they had wanted to change. Ramsay McDonald was brave enough to be one of the very few MPs anywhere in Europe who spoke out against the madness of the first world war from the outset. His honest refusal to endorse the pointless slaughter of working people resulted in vicious attacks on him from many of those he was attempting to save.
Within less than a decade, millions of those who had once condemned him as a traitor voted his party into office; a fair reward for courage and honesty. To the astonishment of the entire party that had seen him start out as such a staunch radical he quickly got used to the trappings of power and ended up betraying his own party to lead a government that eventually consisted mainly of his former Conservative rivals.
More recently, Tony Blair demonstrated to us the ease with which a Labour leader can talk a good game in opposition only to deliver much disappointment in office. The last Labour government succeeded in doing some good things and genuinely provided better funding for public services than they have received for the decade before or since. It also launched an invasion of another country on the basis of an outright lie, promised us it had put an end to boom and bust just before the biggest bust in decades, and introduced flawed and costly measures such as the private finance initiative.
Blair might possibly have started out with the most sincere of intentions but quickly became captured by the establishment. Now he is back and advising Keir Starmer on what Labour should do in office. In a recent interview in the New Statesman he revealed some of that advice. Blair is busy telling Starmer that he mustn’t increase funding for public services and that Britain should avoid costly measures to drive down CO2 emissions at home because one year’s rise in China would outscore all our efforts.
Worryingly, Starmer appears to be listening and turning these ideas into party policy. He has begun delivering lectures to the mayor of London about not implementing clean air policies and has announced that he will continue the Conservative policy of capping benefits for people who have more than two children.
Mollifying the electorate?
Instead of telling voters the truth about the damage of Brexit, Starmer is busy echoing Conservative false promises that it can be made to work. Up and down the country honest Labour activists are being hounded out of the party or denied the opportunity to stand for office. They are being replaced by those who will stay quiet whilst the leader refuses to accept decisions of the party conference on important issues like proportional representation.
It is tempting to believe that much of this is just a case of a wise and far-sighted leader who doesn’t want to scare the electoral horses before he has succeeded in dumping this current dreadful government out of office. A lot of party members understandably want to believe that once he gains office Starmer will suddenly become more ambitious and the party will be able to show its true radical colours.
That is a possible future. Yet leaders rarely become more radical once they take office and often become more cautious and more reluctant to stand up to well-funded lobbyists and Britain’s powerful media. Right now, Starmer is showing more signs of being the first Labour leader to sell out before he enters office than of being the bravest of souls when under fire.
When he was seeking to gain the leadership of the Labour Party he was quite prepared to back a referendum on the reality of Brexit, supported radical reform of the House of Lords and the voting system, and made much of backing a green new deal. Now he can’t even bring himself to support striking nurses and any shadow minister who dares to stand on a picket line faces disciplinary action.
Whence national renewal?
No one wants to see an incoming government crash and burn by pursuing economic policies that are as irresponsible as those of Liz Truss, Boris Johnson or David Cameron. There is a real shortage of revenue funding around and a genuinely serious problem of inflation impacting on the cost of living for ordinary working people.
It is, however, in moments of crisis when clear thinking is needed about what to invest in and how to re-engineer our economy and our society. We need the strength of mind and the strength of ambition to invest in transformative policies if we are to break out of the cycle of decline we’ve inherited from the Conservatives.
Can we really be confident of achieving the scale of change that is needed to deal with an increasingly chaotic climate, crushed and weakened public services and a badly damaged environment when the potential next prime minister starts out with the ambition of becoming like Blair?
Those early members of the Independent Labour Party were often accused of wasting votes that should have belonged to the Liberals but persisted because they believed that working people needed an independent voice. The situation now is very similar. We are at the start of an existential environmental crisis that needs clear thought and leadership from those who can be relied upon to implement a clear vision.
If you vote for a leader who is timid in opposition don’t be surprised if that person turns out to be timid in power.