Douglas Carswell, who held the safe Tory seat of Clacton, has defected to UKIP. Photo: Getty.
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What Carswell's defection means for Labour and the Left

How confused has politics become when it takes an irritable right-winger to state a philosophy of the Left?

Friends of the political establishment should be disturbed by Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP this morning. It was a surprise to all; unaccompanied by the familiar rumours and cryptic-burblings in the media that normally precede major political "moments". The announcement was bold and resolute, made in considered and perspicuous language, and formulated to persuade rather than deceive. In short, it was the antithesis of the type of politics it was designed to subvert.

It is nothing new to say that Cameron’s brand of Toryism is vapid; without serious intellectual heritage or direction. Radically undermining the family unit through cruel and sadistic benefit and tax changes, whilst simultaneously increasing the public debt, Cameron’s administration has been a clumsy experiment in neoliberal political management, utterly devoid of ideological guidance, relying on specious sound-bites to spasmodically jitter from crisis-to-crisis. We all know this and Carswell critiques it more brilliantly than I ever could so I refer you to him.

What I am more concerned about are the consequences of Carswell’s arguments for the Labour Party, where my allegiances lie. I fear that in the long run Carswell’s announcement will reveal less about the internal struggles of the Tory Party than it does about the intellectual inadequacies and impoverishments of the Left.

In his announcement this morning Carswell took a decidedly un-conservative position. He rejected the assumption that consensuses are the product of collective reason and experience – they are simply constructions that serve a sectional interest.

Invoking Paine more than Burke, Carswell noted how his party sustains itself on this myth.  We might be told that certain constraints are non-negotiable, and certain assumptions must be held, but this is just a rhetorical guise to conceal their partial and transient character. On Carswell’s account the cross-party deference towards the financial services, or to the EU, says less about the philosophical or economic merits of such a position than it does about the insular world of modern British politics. Put simply, there is an alternative to the status quo.

A familiar trope of the Left, you might say. But then why has it been left to an irritable right-winger to state it?

How confused have our politics become when Labour are arguing that our relationship with Europe should roughly remain the same? That, while the EU may be a Hayekian fantasy of unaccountable bureaucracy and anti-inflationary consensus, we should stick with it for the sake of economic stability.

And that we should be grateful for the occasional token directive enforcing gender equality or upholding workers conditions – as if these social rights were the invention of a benevolent Belgian bureaucrat, rather than the product of a long and bloody struggle in this country which often meant rejecting our European neighbours for a genuinely internationalist outlook. If we had a referendum on the EU we would be seen as eccentric and esoteric, the argument runs, unable to deal with "modernity".

We should be big enough to take that criticism. Like Carswell I remain optimistic. Consent for the consensus, even the passive variety, is waning. As ever, Labour is one step behind the electorate; the glib New Labour promises of consistency and competence are insufficiently rousing to achieve major electoral success. It might just be that an irritable right-winger is exactly what we need to shake up the Left.

Matthew Ward is taking up an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Clare College, Cambridge.

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.