Young Labour socialists Owen Jones, 22, Marsha-Jane Thompson, 26, Tim Flatman, 22, Mary Partington, 22 and Vino Sangarapillai, 25 are desperate for a leadership contest: the trick, they say, is persuading Labour’s neocon cartel of the merits of such a contest, or – better still – to get lost altogether. Socialist policy set at conference is Labour’s future, and leadership candidate John McDonnell the man to front it. Everybody else should be slithering towards the exits, what with the thousands of dead Iraqis, collapsed party membership, flaming thirst for a lengthy rape of the public sector by the private one , and burgeoning list of cash-for-honours delinquents, et cetera. You’re a while finding a fanbase for that crap today, these five say.
Their own man strikes some observers as superannuated in ideological terms, but they say there’s still plenty of lead in him. He’s no ghastly eighties Labour hangover: indeed, his timing has come very good. ‘McDonnell is the only candidate who has consistently supported what people want,’ says the clever and articulate Jones. Jones is prepared to take it further than that: he insists that there will be a happy correlation between McDonnell’s undeniable grassroots popularity and substantial parliamentary majority, and his attempt to make the leadership ballot. Jones works for the McDonnell campaign and says McDonnell is close to securing the support of the 44 MPs he needs. And no, he’s not deluded, Jones grins. Delusion is for the young Blairites. They’re the ones who are falling over themselves to follow washouts like Tony and Gordon off the plank.
Jones is confident that the masses are in the bag: McDonnell is one of the few MPs who speaks for them. ‘Three-quarters of the population supports renationalising the railways. Two million people marched against the war in Iraq.’ And while you’re calling McDonnell a pinko freakout, Thompson says, remember that he’s one of the few MPs who upholds policy that party conference agrees.
‘Even (deputy-leadership candidate) Jon Cruddas has realised that we need to reconnect with [the party’s traditional supporters],’ Jones smiles. Cruddas has made an unexpected, mid-life, centre-left online impact with his calls for party members to knock on constituents’ doors and reconnect with the doubting masses. Jones says that’ll only work if the candidates who do the knocking canvass subjects like keeping the NHS public, and providing decent housing and a living wage, but he and Thompson feel there’s hope if the likes of Cruddas have managed to wake up to the facts.
Legendary online Blairite Shamik Das ,27, thinks a contest for the leadership is vital, but says that no sane man puts John McDonnell anywhere near it. ‘Arrrrgh,’ he laughs, placing a hand on a pain in his forehead. ‘Arrrrggh. No.’ He’s heard different rumours, but doubts that McDonnell will get within a bull’s roar of 44 MPs. McDonnell’s problem, Das says, is that he’s tremendously popular with everybody, except the people he needs to be – if members of his own socialist campaign group aren’t with him, who else is there likely to be?
Das wants the debate about the party’s future to take place around the deputy leadership, with Jon Cruddas doing the business for members of a vague-to-middling socialist bent, and Hilary Benn doing whatever it is he does for the right. Das will support Benn. He thinks he can stand Cruddas being around, though, because Cruddas steers clear of the serious fruitcake rhetoric. ‘He isn’t as barking as some of them,’ Das laughs. ‘His [voting] record is quite sound from my point of view.’ Another major Cruddas plus, Das says, is that the McDonnell crew hate him.
It will be a sad day for Das when old Teflon Tony finally flakes off, though: Das remains a tremendous fan. He joined the party ten years ago, mainly because he admired Blair.
He cites Blair’s contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process and his record in public service reform as the two key triumphs. Indeed, Das thinks the public-service reform results are such that they must be on the Gordon4Leader calling-card. ‘Things have improved,’ he says emphatically, ‘with transport and the health service. The school I’m at (Das is a teaching assistant) has been transformed [by its relationship with the private sector]. I’m not against private capital, or shareholders making money per se.’ Das believes that the McDonnell Public-Not-Private argument is an ideological, rather than logical, one: ‘The argument is that as long as a service is publicly-owned, it doesn’t matter, so long as those [private sector] bastards aren’t making money out of it.’
Das says that the left’s take on the Iraq adventure is equally misguided. ‘Why would the left have been happy for [the invasion] to be solely American? It needed a British presence – as a brake, a lever.’ Blair does have leverage with Bush, Das says – or, at least, if anyone was going to have leverage with Bush, it would be Blair.
Das agrees the rate at which party members are abandoning ship is a concern, but says the whingers need to remember that the membership ‘did go up after Blair got in,’ he grins. ‘So… it’s probably fallen back to where it was before then.’ The country itself is still firmly centrist, Das says. Members need to remember that when the socialist groupies start up the yap about returning to the left.
Twenty-one-year-old Kris Brown is, poor schmuck, a Labour party member trying to sell Labour in an area that really needs it. Brown is a councillor on Tory-held Enfield Council. He represents the deprived Edmonton Green ward – a part of town that Enfield council Tory deputy leader Michael Lavender described so charmingly as a ‘UN feeding station’ at a recent council meeting.
Brown says the issues in his ward are as you might expect in an area that isn’t a Tory priority: unemployment, inadequate housing, few training opportunities, and a high teenage pregnancy rate. He joined the party in 2002 because he wanted to turn things around.
The party has a choice, Brown feels: it can debate its identity, or drop off the map. He tolerated Blairism at the start (‘there was a need for the party to modernise’) but he’s wondering now how it will end. ‘There’s this awful decline and distance between the party members and the executive. We have to bring back membership, bring back policy… [Gordon] Brown will be more of the same.’ The executive’s ignoring of conference votes on policy like the fourth option for housing, the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan – the policy and attitude has chased members away. Brown notes that David Cameron was bright enough, at least at the start, to see that the masses would take a centre-left turn – why is it taking so long for Labour to rally?
Brown supported McDonnell’s leadership campaign at the start, but – ‘you have to be realistic. We can’t go back to the policies of the eighties.’ Like Das, Brown feels McDonnell’s problem is that his many supporters are, alas, not in the party. Brown will focus on the Cruddas campaign: Cruddas might have centre-left uses as deputy leader.
Tom Miller, 21, a final-year law and politics student at Manchester University and a member of the Labour students group there, says Gordon Brown is the party’s best option. ‘We are not a socialist revolutionary party,’ he says. McDonnell, he says, is a goner.
That said, Miller hasn’t much time for the party’s ‘Blairite outriders’ either. ‘I think that Blair has annoyed the bulk of the party.’ Gordon Brown, meanwhile, ‘has made indications that he could bring the soft left and the soft right together. You can’t help feeling that he will be more distributive.’
Miller joined the party when he was 16 – just a few months, as it happened, before Blair went to war with Iraq. ‘I felt like ripping my [membership] cards up, but I decided I didn’t want the party to be dominated by extremists, right or left.’ He says he knew that he was joining a party that had been through a lot of changes, ‘but that it would head back in a leftward direction. There used to be a lot more emphasis on distribution with the party. The current [Blairite] direction is manifestly bad.’
The party has a future if it focuses on policy like ‘extending the minimum wage, [developing] a stronger green policy, and improving education and public services,’ Miller says. Miller plans to support Cruddas: probably, the centre-left’s only other option is to start praying. McDonnell has the grassroots’ attention, but his party is not brave.