Listen: Did the left win the 20th century?

A special edition of the New Statesman podcast.

On 18 April the New Statesman hosted the second in a series of debates organised to celebrate the magazine’s 100th birthday. The first, “The future of feminism”, was held at Conway Hall and featured feminist bloggers Bim Adewunmi, Juliet Jacques, V J D Smith (Glosswitch), Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Holly Baxter and Laurie Penny. The second, a debate upon the motion “The left won the 20th century”, took place at King’s College London and pitted commentators from either side of the political spectrum against one another, arguing with their natural allies. Both events sold out.

Arguing for the motion was Huffington Post political director and NS columnist Mehdi Hasan, NS deputy editor Helen Lewis and – perhaps a little less expectedly – Simon Heffer, Daily Mail columnist, biographer and grammarian. Heffer said that anti-imperialism, equality, the welfare state, social mobility, widening educational franchise were all “liberal-left inventions”. “The world in which we live,” he concluded, “was created almost entirely by the left.”

On the far side of the hall, Tim Montgomerie, former editor of ConservativeHome, said this of the political left:

“It is a great philosophy, you wear your heart on your sleeves, everybody knows the left wants to increase the life chances of the poor, but the left lost the 20th century because you became detached from your core purposes because you became imprisoned by a whole range of vested interests, most notably the teachers’ unions.”

He was supported in opposition by Ruth Porter, Communications Director at the free market Institute of Economic Affairs and Owen Jones, Independent columnist and author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. This was the first time Hasan and Jones had wound up opposing one another in a debate.

The event was chaired by NS editor Jason Cowley, who concluded the evening by asking for a show of hands. To find out which way the audience voted, the podcast can be streamed or downloaded as a special edition of the New Statesman Podcast, either from the site or on iTunes.

The next centenary debate will be announced within the next few weeks.

The debate at King's College London last week.
Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.