The Politics of Panic and Failure

Despite what Alan Johnson says, the rise of Corbynism is a symptom of New Labour’s failed legacy, claims ERNIE JACQUES.

You don’t have to be Mystic Meg to work our why some prominent and outspoken Labour leaders are a bit miffed. People, young and old, disillusioned by the current Labour establishment, are joining the party in droves, wanting a say in the election of a new leader. So the Blairite wing of the party are in panic mode and have turned on the electorate, suggesting they are clowns who don’t know what they are talking about, are in need of “heart transplants”, are just a bunch of fifth columnists, or are juvenile and delusional.

Mystic megJohn Mann MP wants the election suspended because, he claims, the ‘hard left’ (a loose, ill-defined notion) and Militant-like subversives have hijacked the voting process. Former home secretary Alan Johnson has joined the bandwagon, urging Labour Party members to “end the madness” of Corbyn-mania while turning on those trade unions who had the temerity to recommend him as their preferred candidate.

“What I’m puzzled by is why it should come from trade union leaders whose members benefited so much under the last Labour government,” wrote Johnson in the Guardian on 4 August.

Well, if Johnson repeats this statement often enough he may actually believe it, but hundreds of thousands of trade unionists and working people who lost their jobs certainly won’t. These people are now part of a growing precariat – without stable employment who through no fault of their own find themselves unemployed or working on temporary, zero-hours and minimum-waged contracts.

This social phenomenon can be linked back directly to deregulated labour markets and privatisation, started under Margaret Thatcher but continued by subsequent governments and pursued with alacrity by the Blair and Brown administrations which Alan Johnson served in.

As a former general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) Johnson ought to know full-well that throughout these New Labour years of trade union ‘benefit’, the percentage of employment costs paid in wages declined dramatically, while the share of national income going to capital grew exponentially.

It was Labour’s business-friendly, trickle-down economics that gave the green light to an avalanche of public service cuts and outsourcing programmes which speeded up the decline in union membership and collective bargaining arrangements and facilitated the atomisation and exploitation of large numbers of vulnerable jobseekers.

In the name of modernity and efficiency, Labour played a key role in restructuring the UK economy, leading to the fragmentation of the working class, and helped create the unbalanced and plutocratic casino-type society we live in today.

Labour’s legacy

Labour’s legacy is not a one nation and inclusive society, but a society shaped like a hideously misbalanced pyramid, made up of:

  1. a wealthy few
  2. a professional middle class, enjoying relatively secure employment, decent incomes and good working conditions, but which is shrinking fast
  3. a new under-class of what professor of human development Guy Standing calls the precariat – a growing number of employees and self-employed contractors who have little or no job identity, career prospects and opportunities, and are without many of the employment rights (holiday, sick and redundancy pay, pensions and protection from management dictates and bullying) which trade unions won over many decades and previous generations took for granted.

These people are forever struggling to pay their way, feed their families, pay the rent, meet the challenge of un-manageable debt, and stave-off eviction and homelessness. It’s a long way from New Labour’s 1997 promise that “things can only get better”.

While it is true that the Blair and Brown administrations did introduce some social democratic and progressive policies, such as the national minimum wage, tax credits and Sure Start, these proved to be mere sticking plasters, far outweighed in their effect by:

  • the cost of the ghastly and illegal Iraq war that left the middle east in turmoil and at war with itself, with millions dead and tens of millions homeless and destitute, plus swarms of refugees seeking refuge in Europe
  • wage cuts, privatisation and outsourcing of jobs
  • the private finance initiative which has enriched big business immensely while indebting our hospitals and schools to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds.
  • the deregulated banking system, riddled with bad practice, miss-selling, corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance, for which the tax-payer (all of us) picked up the bill, while those responsible got huge bonuses and became super-rich.
  • Quantitative Easing, or printing money and injecting billions of pounds into a broken banking system that further enriches the wealth of asset holders, bond and currency traders, non-dom owners, money launderers, tax avoiders and all those whose greed and illegal behaviour caused the financial crisis in the first place. This money is now either salted away in tax heavens or re-invested in property, pushing up house prices and rents, leading to an exodus of the impoverished from the cities, towns and communities they grew up in.

In 2010 George Osborne wasted no time building on this neoliberal agenda, using the fiscal deficit to privatise faster and further, to attack the welfare state and to make the working poor, the unemployed and the disabled pay for the greed, illegality and hubris of the City, big corporations and their political accomplices in Westminster.

The Labour establishment’s solution to the Tory government is, basically, ‘no change’, a view echoed in Gary Kent’s article on this website, ‘Get Real: Corbyn and the Delusional Left’. But, in Jeremy Corbyn, we may actually get a Labour leader who is anti-Trident, committed to sensible defence without nuclear weapons, a leader who will not send UK citizens to fight foreign wars at the behest of a US president.

We may get a leader who wants to re-nationalise rail and utilities, who is willing to use the state to invest in public services, offering a living wage, good working conditions and quality community services, who may create NHS and education systems that eschew the toxic influence of the private sector and big money. Such a programme seems attractive to me.

Some, such as shadow chancellor Chris Leslie on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, question the affordability and inflationary impact of such a programme. But maybe he should consider why we can print £375 billion for the benefit of the City but cannot afford to invest public money in education, quality job training programmes, community services, social housing and infrastructure projects, which could pay rich dividends in job creation, and in regenerating deprived towns and neighbourhood communities across the UK.

It is for these reasons that Jeremy Corbyn is changing the political landscape, connecting with and offering hope to young, old and non-voters who have long since despaired that balance, fairness and social justice is achievable via the Labour Party.


See also:
‘The Revolt No-One Saw Coming’, by David Connolly
‘Get Real: Corbyn and the Delusional Left’, by Gary Kent
‘Labour’s Leadership Election: A Problem Foretold’, by Will Brown


  1. Jonathan Timbers
    18 August 2015

    I agree with Ernie when he says that one of the reasons Labour became unpopular is because people lost job security and pension entitlement even whilst public services were expanding. However, his pyramid misses out a number of layers between 2 and 3. This includes occupational group c1, now by far the biggest of all the sub groups: “Supervisory, clerical & junior managerial, administrative, professional occupations”.

    This group moved towards the Tories in large numbers in 2015. In the marginal seat in which I live, the undistinguished Tory MP who was re-elected – against a young anti-Trident left winger and trade union official – is a former PC World manager. In other words, he is a representative, an embodiment, of that class.

    Whilst I am not entirely happy with Cruddas’s report on why we lost the election, in terms of either methodology or analysis, it does help to explain why that class voted Tory and why some people did not vote at all (and by and large that was not because Labour wasn’t radical enough).

    A lot of not particularly highly paid or educated people see it like this: “[Labour] want to take from hard working people and distribute it more evenly to the poor on benefits.”

    If Labour wants to win again, it has to find a way of tackling that attitude.

  2. Harry Barnes
    18 August 2015

    Ernie: I will give some suggestions on how to start overcoming some of the problems you outline, although my approach may be too cautious for you. I would seek to keep adding bit-by-bit in order to make advances and also seek to keep blocking powerful influences in society who will try to get round any changes we are able to make.

    On Tammy Hall tactics in the Labour Party, a modest counter-tactic would be to ensure that any newly selected parliamentary candidate had lived in the constituency they were seeking to represent, or in a neighbouring constituency for, say, the previous three years – and have a record of local Labour Party activity. We have a mobile society, so perhaps we should not extend that period too far.

    In establishing a fairer electoral system, we most also appreciate that having a specific constituency MP (especially one drawn from the area) can have advantages to the electorate in having what should be a reasonably accessible representative to turn to and to push. The Germans have a two-tier voting system. Half of its representaives are elected under a first-past-the-post method, then these are topped up in a way that produces an overall proportionate result. This is one of a number of voting methods which need our serious consideration. Perhaps it could be varied to meet our circumstances.

    This government has got rid of the important Select Committee on Constitutional and Political Matters, which could have been pressed to investigate such matters. We need to press for its re-establishment (especially as I used to make written submissions to it).

    We can change the parliamentary rituals, but we also need to be sure that the baby (which needs to grow up) is not thrown out with the bathwater. Away from ya-booh times (although mixed up with other rubbish) there are some first rate bits and pieces in the Commons. These are ignored by the media.

    They emerge on the floor of the Commons, in Westminster Hall debates, in Select Committee investigations, via moving amendments on the floor of the Commons, or at the Standing Committee stages of Bills, by pursuing Private Members Bills and even by making a careful use of questions (it does not have to be all yah-booh). Even Early Day Motions (which back-bench MPs can submit at any time and are dismissed as parliamentary graffiti), can have their uses.

    In the Commons chamber, I feel that we should have, neither braying like a donkey, nor clapping. What is needed are norms of serious debate – but I accept that these can’t be achieved by rules of procedure. It is very unusual to get braying noises or clapping in committee meetings.

    What is really needed are serious contributions, leading to serious responses. They aren’t made better by noises. A serious contribiution deserves a serious spoken response. The Commons needs to get on with its work and not be seen a a form of public meeting whose audience has no other role than making some form of noise – clapping, cheering, boohing or farting.

    Perhaps we should have a mixure of electronic voting and trooping through a lobby, so people could still troop through a lobby to nobble front benchers (etc) at (say) the main Second Reading votes, but use technical means over the more numerious amendments (etc). But technical voting should be restricted mainly to MPs who are firmly situated in Westminster. Otherwise some would vote from pubs, clubs, flats, homes, the city, the law courts, TV stations, on overseas visits or even worse – although that would still allow voting from Westminster’s bars and the like.

    A mechanism would also need to be found so that the technical voting devices could not just be passed over to the whips. Actually people turn up to vote on items they have not had time to mug up on. At least under the current arrangements, rebels can seek to nobble people saying “have you realised what this one is about ?” This does not mean that the uninformed who turn up are all wasters. They might be deep into committee work, trying to sort out constituents’ problems, finalising their notes for a later speech in the Commons, nobbling people to sign an emergency Early Day Motion, or with a deputation at a meeting to press a case on a government minister. Even if you think most MPs are piss artists, you have to provide arrangements which faciliate those who aren’t.

    Ed Miliband did call for a ‘constitutional convention’ if Labour had won the general election. Gordon Brown has argued that an unofficial convention should still go ahead. Some of the above concerns could be added to its agenda.

  3. Ernie Jacques
    15 August 2015

    I do think your analysis of Labour’s predicament is about right and that whoever wins the leadership election will have one hell of a mess to deal with and without any easy options or guarantee that the party will not implode.

    Again you are spot on, I think, when you suggest that politics involves compromise and that a more inclusive, social democratic society can only come about incrementally and when the electorate wills it. But for that to happen it does need political parties to challenge – often and always – neoliberal economics and Tory spin designed to divide and rule and to justifying inequality and the status quo. And that does mean joining with the SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru (whoever) to vote down the £12 billion Tory welfare cuts.

    For many within the Labour Party (left included) the remedy seems to boil down to picking the right leader be it Kendall, Cooper, Burnham or Corbyn. But hardly anyone suggests that a fundamental part of the problem might be structural and a broken democracy that out-dated and unfit for purpose.

    Constitutional change
    To my mind the crisis of Labour is also a crisis of a flawed and corrupt democracy where machine (Tammy Hall) politics and nepotism (aka Falkirk) is widespread and routine. A corrupt system which allows career driven wannabe MPs and the favoured sons, daughters and friends of past and existing leaders to be parachuted into safe constituencies and foisted on local people who they know and care little about. So we now have now have a bunch of look-a-like MPs far removed from the world of work and the local communities that they nominally represent.

    This bastardised internal democratic process is also reflective of a deeply flawed and undemocratic (first-past-the-post) electoral system and a Westminster Parliament that is rooted in the 17th (OK Harry 18th) century with its archaic language, costumes and rituals overlaid with sycophancy, establishment rules and political patronage and the Westminster gravy train.

    A point well made by 20 year (SNP) MP Maria Black who highly critical of the Westminster museum with its nonsensical rules and silly and inefficient procedures complained:
    “So you’re not allowed to clap like an ordinary person, but you’re allowed to bray like a donkey? I mean, see PMQs, especially the Conservative side, they’ve got this weird noise they do. It actually sounds like a drunken mob.”

    Arrogant dinosaurs who routinely impose change on others in the name of modernity and efficiency but waste hours in division lobbies when the process could be done electronically and in seconds saying: “Are we genuinely saying that the underground can log millions of travellers, day in, day out, without a problem, and 650 of us can’t hit a button? It’s just stupid.”

    Problem is, that given another 10 years in Westminster, Maria might (like many before) go native.

  4. Harry Barnes
    14 August 2015

    Ernie: Mine might be a rather crude analysis, but let us compare the positions of Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn. Andy could be seen as coming out of the soft left tradition – although I admit that he is very much a soft-soft left. Jeremy is certainly part of the hard left. In fact, he is the hardest-left person that you can find within the Socialist Campaign Group. If the stance of one of these is seen as a thesis, then the other’s stance is the anti-thesis. What is clearly needed is something better than either of these offer – a synthesis, which takes the best from each and ditches the worst. A synthesis which points in the direction of democratic socialist norms, whilst spelliing out the difficulties which need to be overcome via tough, careful and gradual (but persistent) efforts.

    Unfortuneately, there is no candidate who stands anywhere near the position I have suggested. So what is the best option? Do we go for Andy and look for bits and pieces where we can stiffen his resolve? Or do we go for Jeremy and make him face up to the tasks in front of him? Tasks which will mean that there will be a need to tac and manouvre? Then if it is to be Jeremy, will the PLP divide or even fall to bits? And will its destruction be a good or bad thing? Could things be built out of the collapse? Or is it more feasible to have Andy in the leadship and hope that Jeremy’s campaign has advanced democratic socialist sentiments within the Party – which can then be used to drag Andy somewhat in our direction?

    And do we just have “the gruel of neo-liberalism, a 17th century voting system and our Westminster parliament”? We still have something of a residual welfare state (however messed up it is). There wasn’t much of a voting system in 1600s and the Chartists and the Suffragettes did help to achieve an electoral system which helped us to advances via the 1945 Government (and by other bits and pieces for a while afterwards). It is becoming a mess now and the two-party system is creaking. After all why should the SNP have nearly all the seats in Scotland with only half of the votes? But even a UK Federal System would require a UK Government, parliament and civil service; even it you moved everyone to York.

    The problems we face are massive, but there are no easy solutions. Corbynism isn’t the answer. Yet I could still finish up voting for him, as the best of a bad bunch. Yet whoever wins, they will merely help to define our problems, rather than resolving them.

  5. Ernie Jacques
    14 August 2015


    You make important points about the challenges facing a social democratic Labour Party. And while it’s unlikely that Westminster Labour will unite behind a left wing, anti-austerity leader, we also know that despite all the warm words, marketing spin and talk about Labour values, neo-liberalism doesn’t work and is a horror story writ large. It seems Labour’s establishment and career politicians love democracy as long as the plebs vote the right way and do as they are told.

    So for me (who hasn’t got a vote) that rules out (in order) Liz, Yvette and Andy, which leaves Jeremy Corbyn as the most decent, likeable and social democratic candidate and, by far, the least worst option. What is striking is the negativity and sheer panic of the Labour establishment, mirroring its performance during the Scottish referendum campaign and we all know what happened north of the border.

    Personally, I think even Mystic Meg would have problems conjuring a one nation, fair and inclusive pudding from the gruel of neo-liberalism, a 17th century voting system and our Westminster parliament.

  6. Harry Barnes
    13 August 2015

    Ernie: It must be great to have your enthusiams; first for the SNP and now for Jeremy Corbyn. And with you, I certainly want the Labour Party to move in a democratic socialist direction. But we need to face up to the massive problems which are involved in advancing our case.

    The power of capital now operates on a global basis and has substanial influences over popular opinion in responding to passing events. I accept that this has to be challenged, but how?

    Then if you could move to socialist and co-operative forms of public ownership, who do we have to operate these and in what ways? We once had elements of an (imperfect) public service ethos which functioned in the running of public industries and in avenues such as the civil service. Workers shared common communal and industrial experiences, before areas of coal mining and manufacturing were allowed to disappear.

    This isn’t a case for surrender, but for thinking out approaches which will advance our cause. An educational system which faces up to social concerns in a questioning (and not a dogmatic) way seems to me to be a top need. We also know that we can’t make advances towards justice and social equality in any specific areas and then just leave things, for capital will find its ways around blocks that are placed in its way. People need to be constantly on the alert to ensure that improvements aren’t nibbled away at – and that the next (gradualist?) stage of advance is then put into place.

    The values which Corbyn has unleashed with those who are solidly behind him are important. But he needs to show that the road towards them has to be carefully worked. Many of his proposals can only be long term objectives and the groundwork has to be mastered over time to achieve them.

    Then if he becomes leader, how does he propose to take an alien PLP along with him? I know that the soft left capitulated to Blair for parliamentary advancement. Will those in the Blairite tradition in the PLP just do the same to get on side with a hard left Corbyn? Or will it be that after the 12th hour, he will shift his ground? For instance, his past anti-EU stance has now started to sound a little bit more like my traditional position – stay within the EU but try to democratise it and get it to take up a social agenda. Then what will the consequences of him winning the vote be? Will it split the Labour Party and will this be a bad thing?

    I have not yet made my mind on how or whether to vote. All I know is that Liz Kendall is completely outside the frame. For fellow comrades with doubts, these varied responses to our call for ‘Manifestos Of Intent’ by the candidates might be worth an examination –

  7. Jonathan Timbers
    12 August 2015

    I am full of joy at the thought of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign torpedoing the ambitions of the other candidates. I am sick of professional politicians, whose politics is restricted to administrative changes in the public sector but who have nothing to say about the economy.

    Corbyn is the only candidate who says he will tackle the weaknesses in the UK economy, so in effect, he is the only serious contender in this election.

    Corbyn’s economic plan depends on closing the deficit through growth. He says some very perceptive things about the weaknesses of British capitalism and the need to reform it. But whilst my heart may be aflutter, my head is sending out warning signals.

    Without private sector investment, his plans will flounder. He refers to £93 billion worth of corporate welfare. Some of this expenditure is basically bribes but a significant proportion (£44 bn) is for tax reliefs for capital expenditure, which are needed to promote the investment behaviour Corbyn wants to support. The figure itself comes from a Guardian article, based on one report, so this is hardly a rock-solid figure. I worry about the sustainability of an economic plan based on such flimsy foundations.

    Corbyn and his supporters are increasingly unclear about renationalising utilities. At the moment, I can’t tell whether renationalisation is a commitment, an aspiration or, according to John McDonnell, actually a by-product of an expansion of community-owned micro generation projects: “Energy would be socialised from below by the massive expansion of renewable energy production and supply by local communities, local authorities and co-ops on the successful German model, removing the monopoly of the big six energy companies.” (J McDonnell MP, Guardian, 11 August). It’s interesting that this article was published the day after economists reckoned it would cost a Corbyn government £124 bn to renationalise the utilities – in other words, MacDonnell’s article signals a climbdown by Corbyn’s campaign.

    I am actually encouraged by this. If Corbyn can adapt, he may do good.

    But he needs some business on his side because the HSBCs of this world will do everything they can do to destabilise a Corbyn government, if one was ever elected. And the last thing he needs is the threat of capital flight from the UK when he needs to convince people he can create enough growth to extinguish the deficit.

  8. gary kent
    12 August 2015

    I was surprised to see Ernie write that I echo the Labour establishment and advocate no change when my essay, mainly focused on other issues, mentions the attractions of the Blue Labour approach: workers on company boards, decentralisation, manufacturing, apprenticeships, valuing vocational work and education, and more. As for Iraq, opponents of the 2003 war should accept that the survival of the Kurds is a big bonus.

  9. Barry Winter
    12 August 2015

    Like Ernie I was dismayed by Alan Johnson’s piece, and here’s the letter I wrote to the Guardian in response:

    “Alan Johnson’s support for Yvette Cooper as Labour’s next leader and his critique of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign makes for lively reading (Journal, August 5). However, using Labour’s history to justify his argument is misguided. His rather romanticised version rests on wobbly foundations.

    “True, as he says, next month is the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death. But Labour was not the first party to support extending the franchise to women, as he claims. Before Labour was formed, Hardie and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) advocated votes for women. Nor can we neglect the leading role played by the women’s movements themselves.

    “Moreover, Alan oversimplifies how the Labour Party was founded. He mentions only the trade unions, neglecting the presence of the Fabian Society (initially lukewarm to the idea) and the ILP. Hardie and the ILP had long engaged in an uphill struggle to persuade the trade unions to co-found the party. Before that the unions showed a strong loyalty to the Liberal Party, to Lib-Labism.

    “As for his claim that the unions prevented Labour from drifting to extremism, well it depends what he means. For many decades the unions’ block vote, controlled by a handful of men, backed the party leadership and was used to thwart the membership’s wishes. Hardie was sometimes in despair about how the party was controlled from above: not least when it backed Britain’s involvement in the First World War.

    “Perhaps it’s time for Labour to take its past more seriously, warts and all. A start could be made by rewriting what passes for history on its website. Put bluntly, it’s toe-curling.”

    It was not published.

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