As if they don’t have enough to do already, what with ushering in Blair’s Brave New Britain, some Labour MPs have been forced to agree that they will spend time every week speaking to, or telephoning, local voters. In fact the situation is rather worse than that-the MPs have had to agree in writing-in other words sign a contract-to do this work. Of course they could have refused but that would probably have meant them losing out when it came to support from Labour’s HQ in the next election. One person who was involved in developing the idea of the contracts-which also cover the MPs’ performance in parliament-is Margaret McDonagh, the new General Secretary of the Party whose promotion from deputy general secretary was greeted by Blair, in typical style: “Margaret’s effective, hard working and totally devoted to the party and people we seek to serve,” he raved.
No-one should deceive themselves that the MPs are being encouraged to buttonhole the voters because that is what, as the elected representatives of the constituencies, they are supposed to do. The contracts have so far been forced on MPs for 91 key marginals, which gives a clue to the reason for it all-to make sure that, by fair means or foul, Labour hold on to power at the next general election. This brings to mind the manner in which anxious Tories would once re-assure each other when things were going badly for their government-burbling that actually the government was doing very well; the problem was that they were not doing enough to convince the electorate of their success.
The same dubious motives will be motivating any assessment of how an MP “performs” in the Commons. They will not be judged on how well they grasp the details of any subject under debate or how effectively they speak on it. There will be no gold stars, in McDonagh’s reckoning, for the MP who takes the trouble to delve into the history of previous Labour governments and then denounces the Blair government for serving up the same weary and discredited mess of reforming capitalism so often tried in the past. There will be none for the Member who recalls the attempts of past Chancellors to control the economic weather of capitalism and announces to a packed House that Brown is just another in along list of futile tricksters.
Speeches like that would be effective-unlike most of what is spoken in the Commons they would be based on fact and would incisively use the past to assess the present and the future. But that is not what Labour’s bullies are looking for from their MPs. What they want is a servile adherence to the party line, that Blair’s government are tackling the problems of Britain in the Nineties, that progress is perceptible and with a little patience we shall soon see them successful beyond the wildest dreams. To question that-to act like a thinking, considerate person who wants to deal in reality rather than Blairite fantasies-is a grave offence in the Labour Party.
Some years ago Harold Wilson, when he was having a little trouble with backbenchers who were questioning whether they should support a government which was at war with the unions and trying to hold down wages while it supported the American war effort in Vietnam, muttered about not renewing “dog licences”. Unlike the situation today, nobody took Wilson seriously. It is a measure of how far the Labour Party has travelled towards being a repressive, centralised organ of capitalism that we have a fair idea that MPs who break their “contracts” will suffer-may even be put down. There are, for example, reports that this year’s Labour Conference will be somewhat different from those in the past because it will be designed to virtually eliminate any proper debate. There are several ways for a government to deal with criticism and the Labour leadership is determined that they will not try the one which demands that they face up to it. Their method will be to stifle the questions, to allow only praise and congratulations-all timed to get the maximum possible coverage on TV. This may be boring and trivial-it will certainly not be a debate in any sense of the word but it will serve the interests of the leadership, to erect a public façade of unity and satisfaction.
There are several questions to ask about this. If the Blair government is really so successful, if it is actually transforming capitalism in Britain so that the system is suddenly performing completely out of character-why do they need to obstruct an open assessment and discussion of their performance? Why do they need to suppress any tendency among their supporters to wonder whether everything might not be as wonderful as we are told it is? Why do they need their MPs to behave like robotic toadies instead of intelligent, responsive human beings?
The other questions are about those Labour MPs and members of the party who are, to put it mildly, uneasy about the way Labour is going. For example, one MP recently protested about ” . . . the growing Napoleonic centralist control of the parliamentary Labour Party . . .” Grassroots members are hard put to justify what is happening. It has to be said, first, that these attitudes are unreasonable since there has long been a welter of evidence to indicate that if Labour got back into power they would behave roughly as they are. And that brings us to the next question: if those MPs and party members are so disgruntled with Labour, why are they still members of it? Why do they persist in support of an organisation which they criticise in so bitter and fundamental a way? Why don’t they look at the case for the kind of basic social change which the Labour Party has always opposed?
While they fumble and evade the point, capitalism grinds on. A recent article in the Guardian to mark the 50th anniversary of the Family Service Unit-which struggles to smooth out the roughest of capitalism’s rough edges-stated that in 1965 some 7.5 million people were classified as “poor”, living on an income 40 percent above National Assistance levels. In 1990 there were 18.5 million living at the same level. The publicity about the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service highlighted the fact that, in spite of half a century of this most famous of Labour reforms, the poorer you are the younger you are likely to die and the more wretched your life will be.
Capitalism exploits and degrades its people and in the end it kills them. The miserable sycophants who bend the knee to Blair’s government should reflect on that and on what they do when they so easily sell their support for the approval of their leaders.