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The challenges facing the Labour machine in government, and hopes for the wider left

Unlike in previous years, the Labour leadership has little influence over grassroots dissent. If the party wins on Thursday, the wider left will have a historic opportunity to turn the tide.

John Smith
4 May 2015
What New Labour has delivered.

There is a lot of space to Labour's left. Flickr/Habeebee. Some rights reserved.

In a few days, Ed Miliband should be on his way to becoming Prime Minister. This is not a foregone conclusion: it could be that the ‘shy Tory’ factor comes through, or that the UKIP vote swings back to the Tories, or that tactical voting between the two coalition parties comes out hard on polling day, or that the recent polls putting the Tories 5 points ahead are a genuine last-minute breakthrough. But by and large, the polls and factors of recent weeks have offered not so much a trajectory to the campaign as an oscillation – and inside that oscillation, the chances are that Labour will be the only party capable of negotiating a parliamentary majority. 

The slow death of Blairism

Unlike the last time that Labour came to power in the wake of an unpopular Tory government, there are few, if any, popular leftwing illusions in the prospect of an Ed Miliband premiership; the space to the left of the Labour leadership is wide open and mobilised. Some of this fact can be seen in the rise of party-political alternatives to Labour, in the SNP and the Greens, but the really significant process is happening at a lower level – in social movements and the wider labour movement.

Throughout the Blair-Brown years, the Labour leadership exerted control over its grassroots by co-opting the official structures of the labour and union movement and either keeping them quiet or bringing them into line with neo-liberal government policies. Under Miliband, this strategy has much more limited potential.

Take the National Union of Students (NUS). For twenty years, NUS has been one of the strongest bases of the Labour Right – with many of its elected officers going on to hold high-ranking Labour roles. In the mid 1990s, Labour Students, who ran NUS, were taken over by Blairites, and the leadership poured in its resources to make NUS, which until then was relatively highly mobilised, ‘safe for Blair’ and the introduction of tuition fees.

While Labour was in power, this ruling faction gutted NUS’s ability to organise: it repeatedly refused to mobilise over tuition fees, it attacked and witch-hunted the organised left, and it pushed through waves of ‘governance reviews’ which forced corporate and charity governance models on first itself and then its constituent unions. With fee rise after fee rise taking place, NUS was until 2014 the only national student federation in the world to oppose free education.

Now, with Labour on the brink of power, the Labour leadership’s control over NUS has evaporated.   At its conference two weeks ago, after a few years of the occasional policy upset, NUS passed ‘free education funded by taxing the rich’ by a 20:1 margin; votes calling for the expropriation of the banks and freedom of movement passed without a speech against. Labour Students lost all of their major elections, and will have just two members on the union’s 40-strong NEC next year.

For the Labour Right, this has been a battle on two fronts: there is now a reasonable chance that they might also lose control of the party’s youth wing Young Labour, where their grip is being challenged by a social democratic alliance built around trade unionism. This change in the balance of power should not all be seen as a defeat for the current Labour leadership; part of what is happening is the waning of Blairite influence, from which Miliband is already estranged. But it does represent a real problem for Miliband in power.

Losing control

The Labour leadership’s loss of influence in the student movement is a particularly dramatic example, and is easier to map because it can be counted in hard votes – but in places where it is easy to count, the picture is not at all one-way. Trade union bureaucracies are fulfilling their usual function of apologising for rightwing economic policy and preparing the ground for austerity-lite, while talking left in public. At the key Labour Party National Policy Forum in 2014, every single major trade union leader voted against a motion calling for “an emergency budget in 2015 to reject Tory spending plans for 2015-16 and beyond and set out how we will pursue a policy of investment for jobs and growth.”

But it isn’t just the balance of forces inside the labour movement that is slowly changing – it’s how dissent and social movements relate to union bureaucracies and the official channels. When Labour continues swingeing cuts to the public sector and presides over yet another drop in living standards for the poorest in society – perhaps sharpened by yet another financial crisis – the really effective dissent won’t take the form of large, politically bland coalitions of union general secretaries leading passive A to B demonstrations followed by symbolic one-day strikes.  

A mixture of bureaucratic inertia, lack of imagination, and the decline of mass union membership has meant that the heart and soul of the anti-austerity movement of the past five years has come from less formal and more direct-action oriented groups – from the student movement, to the workplace struggles, to the radical housing campaigns. Even the riots of 2011, while not straightforward either politically or ethically, showed where a significant proportion of the population saw their ability to dissent – not in the TUC. These new movements are going to be relatively difficult to mediate and co-opt.

The real test

When Labour came to power in 1997, the labour movement had been beaten back by decades of defeat, and most of the population was not only desperate for anything but the Tories, but enthusiastic about New Labour. This time it will be very different: an alliance of political forces, nebulous and diffuse though it may be, will go into the next five years of (probable) Labour government prepared to fight from day one. As well as simply building campaigns, the task for the left under these circumstances will be to cohere and harden up this alliance, by making the old institutions and bureaucracies of the left consistently responsive to grassroots campaigns, and to push the Labour Right from the occasional set back – as has been recently witnessed in NUS – into open retreat.

A Labour government after 7 May may yet be a critical part of a strategy to finally turn the tide against neo-liberalism. The real test will not just be in the quality of the social-democratic reforms it seeks to implement, but in the ability of the wider left to force the political establishment as a whole to a point of reckoning. 

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