Two diagnoses, one conclusion

The unions and the Liberal Democrats agree on one thing: new Labour is at the end of the road

There is nothing quite like a Morning Star fringe meeting at the Trades Union Congress to remind you of how far British politics has been transformed in the past two decades. In fact, there is nothing quite like a Morning Star fringe meeting, full stop. Where else in 2008 could you hear three union leaders restate their commitment to replacing capitalism with a socialist society? We may be approaching the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but on Tuesday there was one packed room of the Hilton Metropole in Brighton where communism had never died.

Delegates had gathered to hear Derek Simpson of Unite, Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union and Bob Crow of the RMT, who between them represent roughly 2.4 million members of the proletariat. Despite the trade union legislation of the Thatcher years, these men still have the power to crush Gordon Brown's fragile government if they choose to embark on a wave of industrial action over the autumn and winter.

Their analyses of what had gone wrong were identical. The Labour government has alienated the party's core supporters by adopting a neoliberal, pro-business agenda of privatisation, deregulation and low taxation. It is no surprise that it is proving difficult to get the working-class vote out for Labour, they said, when the government has allowed the gap between rich and poor to widen so greatly. In times of growing economic uncertainty, ministers need to demonstrate that the Labour Party is still prepared to look out for those people who stand to lose most from the economic downturn.

A second theory

Scroll forward a week, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, will offer a second theory of why things have gone so badly wrong for Gordon Brown.

He, too, believes that the current decline of the Labour Party in power is a sign that a whole form of government has been discredited. But his diagnosis is very different. Clegg will argue at his party's annual conference in Bournemouth that Brown's version of new Labour is the last throw of the social-democratic dice.

He will say that unprecedented spending on health and education under Brown has not yielded the necessary results, leaving users of schools and hospitals feeling frustrated and disempowered. Instead, what is needed is a more personalised approach to state provision, based on a determination to deliver for patients, parents and pupils. For Clegg, a future government must enable public services to respond to people's needs rather than tell them what is good for them.

There could hardly be two approaches more different from each other. In the fragmented and increasingly sectarian landscape of British politics, the only real point of agreement between the unions and the Liberal Democrat leadership is that new Labour has come to the end of the road. What a contrast with the "progressive consensus" of the late 1990s, stretching from the unions to Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, which was poised to keep the Tories out of power for a generation.

Shift to the right

There is no equivalent consensus today despite Brown's attempts to revive it by offering Ashdown a job last year. Many in the Conservative Party, and even elements of the Labour Party, would agree with Clegg's analysis of the failure of the social-democratic/Fabian model. But that does not amount to a coalition drawing in disparate elements of society.

If there is a Conservative landslide at the next election, it will be a landslide of despair, brought about by the collapse of Labour's core vote and the unenthusiastic drift of Middle England back to its habitual Tory home. David Cameron may talk about "progressive ends by Conservative means", but make no mistake, the centre of gravity in British politics is shifting to the right.

Such is the electoral maths that it will still be difficult for the Conservatives to win an outright majority. If that is the case, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are all that stands in the way of a Cameron government. In the event of a hung parliament, would Clegg be able to resist the offer of ministerial posts for his party?

In the next 18 months, the Labour Party will be fighting not just for power, but for its very survival. Oddly, this is something the unions seem to understand better than the leadership of the party. The forerunners of Bob Crow's RMT - the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Union of Seamen - were originally allied to the Liberal Party. The unions created the Labour Party for a purpose and they could break it. Without the financial backing of Unite, the party would collapse tomorrow.

The government should start listening to the unions, not out of fear, but out of necessity. Beyond the revolutionary rhetoric, the motions for a general strike and calls to renationalise the coal industry, the real demands of delegates at the TUC were eminently reasonable: public-sector pay settlements that don't amount to a real-terms cut in income, and a windfall tax on the profits of the energy companies to help the poorest survive the winter. The gruesome reality is that people could start dying if they cannot afford to heat their homes. And if they do, the heart of the Labour Party will be buried with them.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.