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A tale of three parties: Laurie Penny sobers up over Labour

The British left is finally knocking back the Alka-Seltzer of humility and stumbling to its feet.

Manchester, 2008. With the financial edifices of Wall Street and the City of London tumbling like dominoes, the Labour Party faithful have gathered at the annual New Statesman conference reception at to soak away their panic. In the grand, high-ceilinged ballroom of the town hall, the old neoliberal certainties are dissipating like chill vapour: the one question on everyone's lips is whether David Miliband, a man who ideologically and personally resembles the banana-grasping voodoo corpse of Blairism left to rot in a pool of inertia for two years, will make a bid for the leadership and reanimate the only model of electoral success the left has known in the past generation.

Meanwhile, a young cabinet minister with an awkward haircut, who is at this point most famous for not being David Miliband, takes the platform to deliver some calming platitudes. Miliband minor's soothing quips about the humiliations of being a younger brother fall on dull ears. Everyone is more intent on drinking hard -- drinking with the cheery desperation that only the British can muster when the streets are on fire and the bar is free.

Fast forward to Brighton, 2009. In the dying days of the last Labour administration, the great and good of the British left have once more gathered at the New Statesman party to drown their sorrows. The recession has hit hard, and nobody now believes that Labour will win the next election; privately, there are many who suspect that it might not deserve to win. The corporate lounge at the soulless seafront hotel gradually fills with bewildered delegates, drifting through the glass doors in ones and twos with the shellshocked expressions of war refugees. The room is too bright, full of static and suspicion; knots of gossip and weary recrimination cluster in the corners of the party. It's like the disco at the end of the world.

The speaker this year is David Miliband, but unfortunately, just as he is ushered onto the stage, somebody brings out the booze. The party faithful charge across the crackling carpet towards the bar like victims of a natural disaster mobbing a Red Cross van, only with substantially less dignity. Nobody listens to Miliband Major, and why would they? The jaws of the credit crunch are snapping shut, and Torygeddon is approaching: not even Blairism can save us now.

Fast forward to this weekend: it's the 2010 Labour Party conference, and we're back in at the same party, in the same lofty setting as 2008 -- the decadent Victorian granite of Manchester Town Hall. And this time, everybody is waiting for Ed Miliband. The shy junior cabinet minister from 2008 has just been anointed leader of the Labour Party in a nail-biting victory over his elder brother, the heir apparent, we have watched his strange rubbery face on the front pages and ubiquitous television screens for 24 hours, and now we are waiting anxiously for Ed like schoolgirls waiting for their prom date to arrive.

When he finally does arrive, flanked by beaming young volunteers who have just been elevated to the status of political flunkies, a spontaneous cheer erupts: a triumphant, rather irreverent cheer, peppered with whoops and wolf-whistles. Ed Miliband is manifestly not the revivified corpse of Blairism -- instead, even with the heady flush of new leadership, he still calls to mind the dorky, swotty kid at the back of the class to whom, for some indefinable reason, nobody has paid much attention. Until now.

Ed takes the stage and tells us, with a rather sad smile and not a hint of swagger, that he wants the Labour Party to change. He wants the Labour Party to show humility over its past mistakes, and to "question old truths". He wants the Labour party to be the "natural home" for the next generation of activists, in part because it is young volunteers who have made his campaign such a success. He wants the party to unite, to abandon factionalism, and most of all -- more than anything -- he wants "change". Unlike the smooth, polished Anglo-American political salesmen of the post-crash era, you suspect that he actually means it.

It is perhaps a testament to how comfortable the Labour Party has become with hierarchy and privilege that the sudden leadership of Ed Miliband -- who is, after all, not an outsider but a son of leafy North London from a distinguished Labour lineage, whose only claim to political insurgency is that he is not the elder brother -- should have so shaken the party faithful. In a truly radical party, this would not have been so stunning a change of direction, but New Labour has not been truly radical for many years.

Expectations were low, and this is enough; it's enough to tremble the foundations of the British left and disturb its stagnant, hierarchial customs, so reliant on anointed heirs and settled successions of power. The gathering at the New Statesman party is suffused with panicked excitement. The delegates are behaving like a group of normally compliant school pupils in an empty classroom, when someone unexpected -- say, the dorky kid at the back of the class -- has just got up from his place and sat down in the teacher's chair. It's a scandalous, it's thrilling, it's surely against the rules!

The overwhelming impression is that anything could happen, and the room bubbles with breezy expectation and just a suggestion of naughtiness. Personal and political seductions are attempted; old friendships and alliances are rekindled. Delegates flirt, make eyes at one another and have meaningful discussions about the living wage and progressive taxation over glasses of orange juice, the boozing less frantic than in previous years.

It's been a long hangover, but this morning, the British left is finally knocking back the Alka-Seltzer of humility and stumbling to its feet. After all, there's work to be done.



Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.