Thursday, April 23, 2009
"The Party has lost its soul"
This interview of mine with 'woman of the moment' Alice Mahon, appears in the New Statesman.
She was born into the Labour Party. Her grandfather, a Scottish miner who moved to Yorkshire in search of work, told her how he had heard and been inspired by Keir Hardie. At the age of ten, she was delivering Labour party leaflets. At 19 she was a party member, and at 49, she became a Labour MP, for her home town of Halifax. Now, after 60 years’ association with the party, Alice Mahon has had enough.
Her resignation was announced the weekend of 18 April in a letter to her constituency chairman, in which she claimed that the party’s leadership had “betrayed many of the values and principles that inspired me as a teenager to join”. There have been many attacks on New Labour before, but Mahon’s could yet prove to be one of the most damaging.
Widely respected throughout the labour movement for her integrity and commitment to social justice, Mahon’s critique of New Labour has traction, as it chimes with what millions of core Labour supporters feel about the party’s lurch to the right. “Labour is the party of bankers, not workers,” she tells me. “The party has lost its soul, and what has replaced it is harsh, American-style politics.”
Like many on the left, she hoped that things would improve with Gordon Brown’s elevation to the leadership in 2007. “I was naive enough to think that when Tony Blair went we would get a change of direction. But it was just wishful thinking. The thing is that Brown really believes in neoliberalism. Things are getting worse in the party, not better, particularly since Peter Mandelson came back.
“Take the Welfare Reform Bill. John McDonnell was magnificent, but what I thought was deeply depressing was that – apart from Lynne Jones – there were hardly any Labour women MPs attending the debates and opposing the bill.”
The party’s “obsession” with privatisation, and the way former cabinet ministers (16 at the latest count) obtain private-sector jobs soon after leaving office, are particular bugbears. “Why are we continuing to privatise? It can’t be because privatised services work better; we only need to look at the railways to know that that isn’t true. One has to wonder whether it’s because of the rich pickings politicians can get when they leave office. They are joining companies which bid for government contracts, and there is a clear conflict of interest.”
Then there’s foreign policy. Mahon, a veteran peace campaigner, has opposed all of New Labour’s military interventions. “Labour has become the party of war. The wars against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq are all part of the same imperialist war. The Labour Party was supposed to be against imperialism. I remember seeing children being pulled out of the rubble when Israel bombed Lebanon. But the government wouldn’t say anything to condemn it. What kind of morals is that?”
For Mahon, the party is now beyond repair. “New Labour’s control of the party is total. They don’t just use smear campaigns against the Tories, but against anyone within the party who opposes them. Take the case of Janet Oosthuysen, who was selected to be the prospective Labour candidate for Calder Valley at the next election. She’s a lovely woman and very popular with local people. So what did they do? They dragged up the fact that she had once scratched her former husband’s car, and the NEC then blocked her candidacy.
“Then there’s Bob Wareing [Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby from 1983 until he was deselected in 2007]. What happened to him was disgusting; a lifelong socialist who had given great service was deselected in favour of a thrusting, ambitious Blairite [Stephen Twigg] who had lost his seat in the last election.”
Mahon, as the descendant of a miner, feels she has nothing in common, either politically or personally, with New Labour’s middle-class metropolitans. “Blair was a cuckoo in the Labour nest. New Labour is nothing whatsoever to do with the Labour Party. What do I have in common with James Purnell? He looks like a Poor Law Guardian.”
So if the Labour Party is not the answer for progressives, what is?
“I’d advise people to vote for individual candidates. I’m not going to join any other party. What parties are there? The big disappointment has been the unions, who have continued to support Labour, even when they’ve been privatising and attacking working people.”
As honest and as straightforward as any politician I have met, Alice Mahon is a throwback, in the best sense of the word, to the times when the Labour Party inspired devotion in working-class communities around the country. “When I was a child growing up in Halifax, there were three main topics of conversation in our house: Rugby League, cricket – and the Labour Party,” she recalls. One wonders in how many working-class households today the Labour Party is discussed in affectionate terms. And how many ten-year-olds will be out delivering party leaflets.
New Labour may have won three general elections in a row, but by alienating those like Alice Mahon, who have given a lifetime of service to the party, it could well have sown the seeds of its own demise.