Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I'm leaving the Labour Party

Michael Knowles, a dedicated and long standing member of the Labour Party, is angry at the relentless shift rightwards under Tony Blair. Here he explains why he has finally taken the decision to leave.

For some time, ever since the true nature and the actual policies of Tony Blair's 'New Labour' Party began to reveal themselves after the general election, I have felt increasingly uncomfortable and disillusioned. I have at last been able to clarify to myself and articulate what is wrong. Briefly it is two things. I have realised that Blairism, for all the hype and the spin, is in fact the repudiation of any radicalism in politics; and secondly, it ranks among the most successful acts of dishonesty and deception in British political history. I have no alternative but to resign my membership.

In many ways I should be the last to leave the party, with almost 30 years of personal membership and coming from a Salford/Manchester family that is solidly Labour; Labour councillors, union shop stewards, a grandfather who was a Clarion Club member. Keir Hardie on occasion came to the Salford house where I was born to meet with him. I've been a Labour councillor, parliamentary candidate, trades council secretary. Never in or even associated with left factions. Just straight Labour. A Christian socialist. I shouldn't be the sort of member who leaves. But I have to.

Towards the end of her autobiography Mrs Thatcher expressed the hope that among her achievements would be to ensure the Labour Party never got into government again. On 1 May last year I stayed up roaring with triumph in the election hall almost till dawn believing we were back and that the social, political and moral abomination she stood for had been defeated. I was wrong. I now know that Thatcherism triumphed again on the night of 1 May. I had been confident that night that for all the pre-election Blairism we were subjected to, about which we as ordinary party members could do nothing, the labour movement would be strong enough to reassert its commitment to social justice, to employment rights, to the welfare state, to a free National Health Service, to free education, to the defence of our countryside against developers and roadbuilders, to freedom from the corrupting power of money and donations in return for favours. I was quite wrong.

All political leaders, when they get into power, go back on commitments. That's the nature and reality of power, of Labour the same as any other. But I now appreciate as I did not appreciate before that there are differences between Blair and former Labour leaders. They were Labour, he is not. Whatever their backsliding, they had a gut instinct for the welfare and the rights of working men and women. He does not. They had roots in the Labour and trade union movement and knew what it stood for and where it came from. He does not.

The Combination Acts, Tolpuddle, the Chartists, the children working at the age of eight in the Lancashire cotton mills from six in the morning to 11 at night, the Clyde shipyards, 1926, the matchgirls, the dockers' tanner, the Peterloo massacre, Taff Vale, the unemployment marches of the 1930s, the 1970s and 80s miners' struggles - they mean nothing to Blair and the Blairites. They strike no chord, pull on no heartstring. They are irrelevances, holding no significance at all. The poor, the sick, the people on state pensions, the single parent, the disabled, the ordinary working man and woman, the unemployed and the shop steward - these don't have Cool Britannia receptions at 10 Downing Street. The closest they get is to demonstrate outside the gates. They are a million miles away from the world of private schools like Fettes, attended by Mr Blair, and Oxbridge and the Temple and donors from big business who have easy access. They are what Blair's former patron and mentor and now Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine might call the 'B&Q' class, the cheap end of the market.

To stay with the Labour Party is to stay with Blair because it's now his party, tight in his and his coterie's control. Blair is media friendly. Eloquent. Stylish. But he's not all mink and no knickers. There is substance to the glitz. He is in fact a militant protagonist for the status-quo, for what Jack Straw (BBC1, Question Time, 30 April) called 'liberal capitalism', which he says he now supports. Blair is a battler for the establishment. He wasn't so mawkishly gushy over the queen at her 50th wedding anniversary without reason. His gut feelings are for the crown and the system it represents: patronage, privilege and the power of wealth. He will tinker with the status quo, with open government, with the second chamber, with electoral reform. But nothing he does will undermine established relationships. New Labour under Blair belongs, not to Tom Paine, but to Edmund Burke.

The only really reliable way of knowing where a political party belongs and whom it really represents is this: who does it take its money from and who does it look to for support? When the Labour Party was supported both financially and morally by the trade unions, it represented them in parliament. The trade unions might have been bureaucratic and ponderous, but they represented the ordinary British working man and woman. Through the party and the unions they established the National Health Service, the welfare state and a free education service. Trade union money to the party was openly declared; everyone knew what it wanted and who they wanted it for. And because the Labour Party got its money from the unions, it was tied in the last resort to the ordinary people who paid the union subs from their wages; and therefore it had to represent their interests in parliament. Blair gets down to business

And now? The Blairite Labour Party is gradually disengaging itself from the trade unions. Yet it will need money. It is turning and will increasingly turn to private donations, which will naturally come from private business. And who does it look to for support? Murdoch. The Sun and the Times. The Daily Mail. Formula One. Somerfield. Sains bury. The list grows longer by the day. All of whom will call in their favours and collect their debts when they want them - as if they haven't started doing so already. I am thinking of how readily Mr Blair met with and made an accomodation with Formula One donors; and how he is cooperating with business on the issues of the minimum wage and trade union recognition. He will dance to the tune of the interests of his most powerful supporters and backers. And what are these interests? Radical? Pushing forward the boundaries of democracy? Green and environmental? Distributive? A burning desire for social justice? Hardly.

That's why I have left the Labour Party after being born into it and belonging to it and working for it for so long. By having a definite and a developing policy of breaking its links, financial and constitutional, with the unions, and by turning instead for money and support to business and the media, the Blair Labour Party has repudiated any hope of radicalism. Business stands only for profits. It will exploit people, the planet, the countryside, the seas, the woods, rainforests, animals, anybody and anything for profits. It has no other vision, no other purpose than profit. The health, welfare and happiness of the people and the beauty and purity of the countryside are not of interest to it. Only money. Mr Blair is opting for that money. This is a fundamental departure from the origins and purposes of the Labour Party. The Labour Party is now Labour in name only. Mr Blair and his backers will change that too in due course.

When the Labour Party was paid for by the ordinary people, there were grounds for hope that it might in odd moments, maybe only in moments of mad aberration, do something genuinely radical, as it did between 1945 and 1950. The Blairite Labour Party never will because it cannot. Its new backers won't let it. It will use the noble phrases, it will spin and it will ooze with passion, but it will only tinker. Nothing will happen that is not in the interests of the paymasters who see people simply as suppliers of labour in a flexible 24 hour a day, seven days a week, untrammelled, unrestricted, competitive marketplace to which all human relationships have been reduced. He who pays the piper calls the tune. That tune is adherence to the financial programme of the previous Tory Party, the end of free university education, CBI policies on trade union recognition, the North Birmingham Relief Road and the M25 widened to 14 lanes no matter the environmental consequences - with the widening of the M6 to come, Howardite law and order measures, penalising lone parents and the disabled. And all that's just for starters.

Blair's so called third way is pure camouflage to hide the option for the rich. The votes of the unemployed, the disabled, the low waged and most people with moderate incomes are taken for granted; and they're not considered important anyway. It's the votes of the better off and the professional classes and the support of the mass media that matter. Mr Blair has taken industry's shilling. He is its instrument.

Anyone who stays in Mr Blair's party no longer supports the cause of Labour which, as Walter Crane wrote on the old banners, was the hope of the world. Labour in that sense always had something to strive for because it represented people who were in some way discontented and dispossessed. Blairism is conservative. It is also dishonest. Blairism won an election in the name of Labour, on the back of the two centuries of working class struggle that created the labour movement and with the help and the subs of party members who believed they were getting a a genuine Labour Party elected. Once in power it has revealed itself to be something quite different. Not just broken promises but the repudiation of the very soul and aspirations of the historic labour movement.

Blairism will succeed if people like me are silent. I have decided I cannot and I will not go along with it. I've never been really radical. I've never really put my neck on the line like some brave people have - like the Ploughshares women who took on British Aerospace or the East End matchgirls or a French Resistance fighter or a Thomas More or a Lech Walesa, or the Liverpool dockers. But I'll do my little bit. I opposed Thatcherism all those years. I still cling to a vision of Britain which will not be ruled purely in the interests of the market, global or whatever. I believe there are other values. Cancelling my individual membership of Mr Blair's party will not make much difference politically on its own. The collective power of business, of Millbank, the Number Ten press office, the whole political establishment and Blair's own personal glitz machine are pretty well insuperable.

However, my own conscience is now clear. Nothing's perfect but there are certain permanent abiding solid radical values in the British labour movement. I see the sole hope of anything genuinely progressive and radical to consist in somehow uniting those values with the Green movement. How that can be achieved? I am not at all sure. On such basic issues as the exploitation of resources and sustainable growth the two movements are very far apart indeed, especially since Labour's concern for employment and the Green concern to defend the environment are both absolutely solid. However, we have to start somewhere. The definite first step for me to make is to hold true to the ideals I was born into, which I believe in. I cannot remain part of the labour movement and be a member of Mr Blair's political party. I am getting out of Blair's party. I am staying with the labour movement.


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page