It's the policies, stupid

by Liz Davies
The Morning Star

The knives may be out for Gordon Brown, but LIZ DAVIES warns that new Labour's takeover condemns us to more of the same.

IT'S impossible to miss that Labour MPs are turning on Gordon Brown. Not because of his policies, but because they think that he's going to lose Labour the next election and they'll be signing on.

The attack itself is all in code. An aspirant candidate writes an article without mentioning Brown's name.

Cabinet ministers deny that they are considering their futures. A whole army of spin doctors and political columnists waste their breath, ink and our time spinning the codes under the pretence of deciphering them. What's wrong with some straight talking?

One Labour MP did talk straight, over a year ago. When John McDonnell attempted to stand against Brown, he did so openly, announcing his candidacy months in advance, campaigning at the grass roots of the Labour Party and trade unions and standing on a manifesto crammed with policies that would have turned round the Labour government.

Labour Party and trade union members responded well. But the media froze him out and 308 Labour MPs mouthed platitudes about party unity as they nominated Brown and prevented a leadership contest. Just over a year on, some of those 308 MPs are among Brown's most vociferous critics.

It has to be said that Brown is embarrassingly inept. On the surface, it's a combination of indecision and an obsession with presentation, the latter a defining new Labour characterisation.

He handles the presentation so clumsily that his self-interest shines through each time.

From the general election that didn't happen to signing the Lisbon Treaty but avoiding the group photograph, welcoming the Olympic torch but not holding it or meeting the Dalai Lama but not in Downing Street, Brown tries to have it both ways and impresses nobody.

Indecision has led to significant policy errors. Brown's fear of the word "nationalisation" led him to delay and delay so that the eventual nationalisation of Northern Rock cost far more than it should have done.

Faced with a plummeting housing market, his response has not been help for those losing their homes through repossession, but hinting at the artificial inducement of suspending stamp duty to maintain house prices at ludicrously unaffordable levels.

Inept though Brown is, he's absolutely committed to the same neoliberal warmongering policies as Blair was. He stands shoulder to shoulder with George Bush, British troops remain in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is as aggressively pursued as if Blair were still prime minister.

Brown's intent on achieving detention without charge for 42 days in the teeth of substantial parliamentary and public opposition. ID cards are still to be introduced, asylum-seekers are still forcibly imprisoned, impoverished and deported.

Brown's supposed anti-poverty credentials were exposed when MPs and the media belatedly realised the effect of the abolition of the 10 pence tax rate. He was desperate to climb on the Make Poverty History bandwagon, but the 2005 G8 concessions have been quietly withdrawn.

His most recent anti-poverty initiative is a "business call to action" on global poverty involving corporations Anglo-American, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Bechtel. War on Want called it "a cynical public relations exercise."

Miliband and other Blairites yapping at Brown's heels have no problem with any of this.

The spat between Brown and his rivals is mildly entertaining and gives political commentators plenty of copy. But, just as there was not a speck of difference between Brown and Blair on policy, there's a similar consensus between Brown and the new pretenders. The bitter personality contest masks that consensus.

Whether it's Brown, Miliband, Purnell, Harman, Johnson or anyone else, the neoliberal economic and foreign policies are going to continue and the public will punish the Labour Party at the polls for them.

Since at least 1994, new Labour has courted the votes of "middle England" and ignored the core constituency. The core constituency deserted new Labour some time ago. Now, with recession and a reinvigorated Tory Party, middle England is heading back to the Tories.

McDonnell remains as straight-talking and honest as ever. He won't participate in the personal dog-fighting but has called for a time limit on whether there's going to be a leadership contest so that the anonymous briefers would have to put up or shut up.

He's right that, if there were an open policy debate between different factions in the Labour Party involving grass-roots Labour Party and trade union members, it would benefit the party, showing it as democratic and honest. He's also right that the Labour Party will only survive if it rediscovers its roots, embracing and participating in movements for social justice.

Where he and I differ, in the friendliest of ways, is whether the Labour Party is capable of ridding itself of the curse of new Labour.

Labour Party membership is at its lowest level ever in its 108-year history. The levels of activity and activist participation are even lower.

A telling detail from the Glasgow East by-election coverage was that the Labour Party, despite the paid party staff bussed in to campaign, couldn't manage a teller outside every polling station on polling day.

If there weren't enough tellers, it follows that the Labour Party hadn't conducted a full canvass and didn't have the information to get out thevote.

Politics matter in elections, but so does organisation. And organisation itself only works if there are sufficient numbers of motivated activists to organise. New Labour's policies have driven its voters and its activists away.

Those few activists who are left can't make their voices heard. New Labour's mechanism for involving its members in decisions is the national policy forum, which met at Warwick the weekend after the Glasgow East by-election.

It is a sham. Its members are principally trade union and local government leaders who have access to Downing Street anyway, plus an awful lot of MPs.

The constituency representatives tend to be hand-picked putative MPs for whom membership of the forum is a first step towards a full-time political career.

The Grassroots Alliance battles away, arguing social democratic and socialist priorities, but it is treated as either an amusing irritant or an enemy of the party. The agenda, debate and outcomes of the policy forum are controlled so tightly that even Polly Toynbee decried its timidity.

Without activists, members or party democracy, I can't see the Labour Party turning away from new Labour and neoliberal policies.

From 1994 onwards, Blair packed the Parliamentary Labour Party with his sycophants and dismantled what democratic party structures existed.

Some of the sycophants have switched allegiance to Brown, some are so-called "uber-Blairites," but all of them agree that social democracy, let alone socialism, has been consigned to the dustbin and that there is no alternative to neoliberalism.

It's the MPs who control whether or not there is to be a leadership election and who the candidates might be. This lot aren't going to open the door to radical policies on alleviating poverty, ending war or redistributing wealth. And there is no Labour Party mechanism that can force open the door.

Liz Davies is a barrister and long-time labour and peace movement campaigner. She is chairwoman of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers . She was a Labour Party member until 2001 and was elected twice by Labour Party members to the national executive committee. She wrote about that experience in "Through the Looking Glass: A Dissenter inside New Labour" (Verso, 2001). She writes this column in a personal capacity.