Yesterday, in the fallout from Johann Lamont’s resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour party (a nominally independent Scottish version of the Labour party), “sources close” to Lamont revealed that Ed Miliband had ordered her not to attack the Bedroom Tax (the policy by which a person or family’s housing benefit is cut if they are deemed to have “spare bedrooms”, which may not be spare at all) while he made up his mind on the issue; this resulted in the widespread perception that Lamont was indecisive and vague on the issue. This, to me, is typical of the cowardice which Labour show when the agenda is being set by the Tories and their press, and it goes back to well before Tony Blair came to office.
I saw it most clearly when I was active in the student union in Aberystwyth in the mid-1990s. The National Union of Students had been largely controlled by the Labour students’ group for years, but as that group became more right-wing, the union itself retained its policy of demanding a return to full grants and the abolition of loans. Labour wanted to introduce tuition fees, and its student wing was full of ambitious young politicians who wanted to impress the party and secure nominations for seats to fight. Indeed, Jim Murphy, currently MP for East Renfrewshire, was the president of the NUS at the time I attended conference in 1996; he was elected in 1997. Quite a number of presidents of the NUS became Labour MPs and other became chairs of Labour-associated groups like the Fabian Society. The NUS’s policy on grants was an embarrassment to Labour, and they needed to overturn the policy.
Labour tabled motions to abolish the grants policy at conference after conference and in 1996 they finally got it through. Labour students were seated in the central part of the hall so that someone in the balcony could indicate to them how to vote (as Aberystwyth was controlled by dissenters — mostly Plaid Cymru — we were in the wings and couldn’t see them, but a delegate on the other wing pointed this out in a procedural motion to expel the visitors from conference for this reason), and I remember one incident where a Labour union officer got up to speak and a couple of seconds later, the central part of the hall erupted in applause — as if they’d only just realised they were being told to cheer. It was an open secret that Labour students regarded it as their job to use positions such as student union sabbatical officers to help Labour win the 1997 election, and this often involved going against other union officers or union policy. At one college, for example, the Labour slogan “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was printed on the union’s rape alarms.
The reasons why returning to 1979 grant levels was infeasible are obvious; the number of students had increased dramatically since then. Of course, this meant that a university degree had become a more essential qualification, which it certainly was not in 1979, but the drain on the economy would have been enormous. The same is not true of the Bedroom Tax; it is a new policy, conceived in obvious malice by wealthy Tories, known to be causing a lot of suffering and hardship because the ‘spare rooms’ are not spare at all, or because there is no alternative accommodation for many of the families affected, and because it takes no account of family circumstances. The amount saved cannot be very high, if any has been given the additional burden of administration. It is something Labour should make a priority of abolishing, but feels unable to for fear of an onslaught from the Tory-controlled commercial press. The same is much less true in Scotland, where the Tories have only a single MP, but as with the student unions in the 1990s, Labour has to control its affiliates and even nominally independent but ‘associated’ groups to make sure they do not step out of line and embarrass the leadership.
This tendency of toning down the Labour aspects of Labour, the elements who seek social justice, goes back further than Blair — recent interviews with Neil Kinnock mentioned that he was himself influenced by some young politicians, including his chief of staff Charles Clarke, who told him to tone himself down, say less and sound less working-class and less Welsh:
A posse of clever men and women a decade younger than himself, politicians of the harsher era of the 1970s, became his praetorian guard: the Cambridge graduates Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke, who had been president of the National Union of Students (NUS); the Oxford graduate Peter Mandelson, who had been chairman of the British Youth Council. Kinnock says they “had been student union officers very young, and after that they came and worked for me”.
Among the other Kinnock confidants who had cut their teeth in student politics were the former NUS president Jack Straw and John Reid, a former young communist. Fighting the ultra-left was in their bones. They had fought them in the student unions and now they fought them for Kinnock, unrelentingly and obsessively …
Kinnock’s protectors told him that his personality was all wrong. The noise, the passion, the bons mots, the houndstooth suits – everything that had endeared him to the public before he was elected leader – it all had to go. He started to wrap himself up in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. Brendan Bruce, the Conservative director of communications for part of Kinnock’s time as leader, has said: “He was badly let down by his image-makers in recent years. There were endless things they could have done.”
I can think of so many other incidents, particularly in the 1990s but even well into Labour’s term in office, where policy moves were based on cowardice. There was, for example, the stamping on Clare Short when she proposed legalising cannabis, and the way they jumped when the Daily Mail attacked them for not deporting “foreign criminals” in 2007, something that up until then had not even been part of the deal. It is the New Labour tendency to cringe before power which is what led the UK into the disastrous Iraq war in 2003: Tony Blair simply was not prepared to say no to an angry and powerful US president. That they are not willing to take on the Tories on a policy which would not entail an enormous spending commitment demonstrates that they are still led by people without courage, and until that changes, they will only win empty victories, enabling them to mind the shop while the Tories regroup, or stay in opposition.
Image source: Scottish Labour.
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