The Blairite zombies need to face up to New Labour's failures

The stale prescriptions offered by the likes of Alan Johnson are the road to defeat and working class disappointment.

In the first half of this month I’ve had a couple of considered attacks levelled at me. When you’re fighting a general secretary election you expect to draw some criticisms, but this usually comes from within the union. This time, with Alan Johnson interviewed in Progress magazine and David Cameron delivering a pre-rehearsed line at PMQs – both focusing their pains on me – I took note. And you might be forgiven for thinking that if Alan and Dave agree there must be something to it – even I was scratching my head.

Without wishing to jab my finger from a rostrum or simply make further cries for greater trade union freedoms (God forbid) I am keen to engage in an exchange of views and dissuade people from the tired old image that the reactionary right-wing press would pin on trade unions and their leaders – something it seems Alan Johnson is willing to assist them in doing. So my response here is in the best tradition of democratic debate.
 
Alan contends that we in the trade union movement view victory as a "bourgeois concept"; well I don’t, it’s just that New Labour was, in some ways, a bourgeois victory. It was the first Labour government with a huge parliamentary majority which did nothing to touch the fundamentals of wealth and power in our society. Whilst Ed Miliband tries to build his policies around a One Nation vision his starting point is a society more unequal than it was in 1997. Alan avoided this chasm in the New Labour attainment list.
 
However, his recital of Labour’s many achievements in office is real, and a corrective to those who say that 13 years of Labour government delivered nothing. But if that is the truth, it is very far from being the whole truth.
 
For example, Alan neglects to mention that Labour left in place just about all of the draconian restrictions placed on free trade unionism by the Thatcher government. Indeed, Tony Blair boasted to a business audience that Britain’s labour laws were the most restrictive in Europe. This was an area where New Labour remained all too fond of state regulation. I cannot believe that Alan, as a former trade union leader, has no opinion on this.
 
Of at least equal importance is the fact that New Labour remained wedded to a neo-liberal economic strategy which has now crashed and burned. Ruthlessly prioritising the interests of the City over all other industries, and with a belief in free markets which even many Conservatives would regard as naïve, the last government got the biggest issue of all for most Labour voters very wrong.
 
I mention this because Alan’s political clock, as for many on the right of the party, seems to have stopped in 2008. They appear unable to honestly face up to what happened then, and the urgent need for a re-evaluation of New Labour’s economic record, as well as a different perspective for the future. On policy, Alan fails this test, bizarrely arguing that Osborne’s economic policy "is the biggest failure of a flagship policy I can remember" and yet in the same breath insisting that Labour must stick to it if it is to be credible.
 
To his credit, Ed Miliband is well aware of these challenges and has taken important steps towards necessary renewal, but the selective amnesia of Alan and others is of no help in restoring Labour’s credibility. The bald fact is that, despite the achievements Alan lists, Labour had lost four million votes under Tony Blair by 2005. Some of that was undoubtedly down to the Iraq war – another episode Alan seems to have forgotten – but much of it was due to working-class Labour supporters simply stopping voting.
 
So determined are the Blairite true believers – led by Progress – to stick their head in the sand on this point that they increasingly resemble Bertolt Brecht’s description of the East German government – "the people have lost confidence in the party, therefore we must elect a new people." The central message, which Ed Miliband is clear about, is that New Labour is over. I should also point out that I have never called for the exclusion of Progress and I am always open to engaging in democratic debate.
 
The root of the problem, I believe, is that Tony Blair and the Blairites never understood collectivism. Theirs was a radical individualism which could not speak to the experiences of millions of people who have always understood that progress is only attainable by working together, by collective self-empowerment, not through the accumulation of extra individual rights. Individual rights, as this coalition is proving, are easily dismantled. A skim of Blair’s memoirs underlines just how distant he always was from an understanding of unions’ culture and purpose – not so much anti-union as simply uncomprehending.
 
I certainly have no interest in refighting battles of the past. It is clear that the 2015 agenda cannot be that of 1945, 1974 – or 1997. And I believe trade unions have a key part to play in shaping the future, as they have done in Labour’s past. In that context, some of Alan’s points are important. Unions cannot ignore painful truths either, like our falling membership numbers. While we are still by far the largest voluntary organisations in the country, we have lost ground, largely because of industrial change and globalisation.
 
Those are reasons, but they cannot become excuses. Ultimately, we have to grow or wither and eventually become irrelevant. That is why Unite has built up a team of 90 dedicated organisers in the last six years, trying to spread trade unionism to new companies and workplaces, with a number of notable successes. Our 100 per cent trade unionism campaign brought in over 50,000 extra recruits last year alone. Enough? No – but there are no short-cuts and Unite, as well as other unions, are investing the resources and imagination to turn this around even in a deeply unfavourable economic climate.
 
Alan also argues that unions must reconnect to communities. That is an imperative in a world in which the historic connections of union, workplace and community have frayed and changed beyond recognition. Obviously Alan does not know that Unite has launched just such an initiative in the last year. In fact, if Alan was keeping up to date with modern politics he might recognise the teachings of Arnie Graf in our efforts to engage whole communities in the collective work of trade unions.
 
We have opened our doors to anyone not in work, and are organising thousands of new community members into special branches across the country, assisted by ten full-time community organisers. Unite is offering specialist legal and welfare assistance, as well as building a campaigning network to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are amplified by trade union strength. Not least of all our Unite Community Branch, fighting tirelessly across Hull to save the city's hospital. I’d happily extend an invite on their behalf for Alan to get involved.
 
If Alan is simply unaware of Unite’s community work, he appears actively opposed to our efforts to get more working class people into parliament as Labour MPs. Of course, no one should argue against men and women from a diversity of backgrounds serving in Labour cabinets, even though Alan’s view of Oxbridge as a "treadmill" will amuse my members working in factories, bus garages and on building sites.
 
The problem is we no longer have that diversity. The 1945 Labour government could accommodate both Ernie Bevin and Nye Bevan on the one hand, and Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps on the other. But increasingly working people are finding the path into parliament blocked by activists – many of them, of course, sincere and talented people – drawn from a very narrow social background.
 
That is bad for politics as a whole and especially the Labour Party. What Alan is really afraid of, I think, is the left starting to do what New Labour and Progress have long been successful at – fighting parliamentary selections to win. For too long, this has been a one-sided contest which has left us with a Parliamentary Labour Party often out of step with opinion in the party and the country.
 
And that, of course, is why Alan revisits the old chestnut of diluting trade union influence in the Labour party. Talk about backward looking! That debate has been around for twenty years or more and has never secured Labour a single extra vote at the polls. I have no objection to discussing constitutional change, provided it serves a real purpose and is even-handed. But Alan’s argument for cutting union votes in the Labour Party appears to rest on our falling membership. Yet his proposals would presumably expand the share of the policy vote going to the individual membership, which has fallen in proportionate terms even faster – Labour is now, alas, less than half the size it was in 1997.
 
Alan’s naval gazing on internal party structures would be better spent developing a decent analysis of how New Labour allowed itself to sow the seeds of destruction for our public services. PFI, free schools, foundation trusts, all now being ridden to hell on horseback by a right-wing government that wants the private sector to own and profit from public services, whilst we continue to pay for them. If the behaviour of the unions sometimes upsets a New Labour focus group, it’s because we find ourselves fighting battles to preserve an NHS and a welfare state under serious threat – with little help from Blairite retrogrades like Alan Milburn and Patricia Hewitt, now spending their political afterlife profiting from the privatisation they oversaw in government.
 
Unite has 2,200 members in the Hull West constituency, around ten times the number of Labour Party members. And it was in Hull this year that 500 Greencore workers were recently forced to strike following blatant disregard for employment tribunal rulings, with workers facing wage cuts of up to £2,000 a year whilst company CEO Patrick Coveney sought to persuade shareholders to pay him an enhanced €1.7m pay package so he could enjoy a millionaire’s lifestyle. These are the real-life consequences brought about when ruling elites become "relaxed" about extreme wealth, the collective strength of organised labour is quashed and a low-wage flexible job market is allowed to ensue.
 
Diminishing union involvement will not only fray one of Labour’s most important connections to its core electorate but increase reliance – financial and political – on the same small elite increasingly dominating political life across all major parties. And Alan knows affiliated unions in the Labour Party affiliate on the basis of the number of individuals members paying the political levy. Whilst it is easy to personify trade unions through their leaders, our influence in the party is through our millions of ordinary and diverse members.
 
On the issue of diversity and equality, let me say this. If Alan truly views the trade union movement as "fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes" then his view is one firmly set in the past. Our organisations are among the few in society to sincerely promote equality and fairness for all and actively oppose all forms of prejudice and discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnic origin, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability. Two out of three of Unite’s assistant general secretaries are women, our national and regional equality committees enjoy equal status with industrial sector committees and our 1.5 million members reflect the wonderful diversity seen throughout our country. Could Alan say that about the PLP? Unite is proud to be a modern, progressive, representative and inclusive trade union.
 
Ed Miliband has set the right tone for comradely debate in the party. I believe that Labour will go into the next election united, hopefully behind a radical manifesto offering real hope to millions and no concessions to those whose greed and stupidity has pushed the country into economic calamity. That I believe is the road to victory – a victory both on polling day and in the months and years afterwards. The stale prescriptions Alan seems addicted to are the road, not to a "bourgeois victory", but to working class disappointment.
 
Len McCluskey is the general secretary of Unite
Labour MP and former shadow chancellor Alan Johnson criticised Unite general secretary Len McCluskey in an interview with Progress magazine. Photograph: Getty Images.
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt