I suppose I have always been a socialist. I was brought up in the north-east of England, a strong heartland of socialism for over a century. In this harsh, sometimes desolate, sometimes crowded part of the country, men have toiled below the ground to extract the coal that powered the ships that were built on the Tyne and the Wear. My family moved to this area (moved back in my mother's case) during the miners' strike of 84-85.
Mining was as much a part of the region's character as it is in Wales; there is a memorial to a pit disaster in my home village, and one of my friends lived in a village still known locally as "Little Moscow" because of their refusal to bend in the miners' strike - of 1926. They still remember which families scabbed that time too.
We moved into an area filled with a sullen refusal to break. My father's first memories as he took up his post as headteacher in a school in a pit area was of helping to collect money so the strikers could eat. It was one reason why he was accepted in that area so quickly.
This is not to say I moved into a grim industrial world populated with working class stereotypes. The place we called home was already becoming a dormitory village by the time we moved there, people drawn to the nearby city of Newcastle, or to Gateshead. It was rapidly becoming dominated by the middle class, who preferred not to think about the large estates of council owned houses turning the village into a town.
My upbringing was most certainly comfortable, and I have no doubt I am middle class - my parents worked damn hard to make sure I could be. But the combination of my father's left-leaning politics, my mother's staunch Christianity, and the people and the environment I was in conspired to make me believe that socialism was simply the only sensible position to hold - it was obvious to me that I had been fortunate in how my life had come together, and that others, through no fault of their own, had been unfortunate. Wasn't it, therefore, right to help in any way I could, for all of us to help each other in any way we could, so that all of us benefited?
This just made me even more bewildered at the depressing success of the Conservatives during that time. It seemed that election after election, despite the whole world (or at least that part of it I could see myself) truly despising them, they kept winning, snatching a victory from nowhere, as if they had somehow hoodwinked the country again, or hypnotised voters as they walked into the polling station.
One of my strongest memories of profound disappointment was the 1992 general election. Sent to bed as I had school the next day, I secretly listened to the radio as the first results came in, and felt excitement and joy as seat after seat was announced as Labour. Of course, as I know now, this was only to be expected as the urban seats, most likely to vote Labour, were also those able to get the results out quickly. But at the time, I went to sleep happy that finally we had a new dawn - only to come down the next morning to see with horror a smiling John Major. Even though somehow, miraculously, Thatcher, the election winning machine, had been stabbed in the back by her own party, the Conservatives had still managed to go on and win just a few years later. I still remember that the whole area seemed depressed after that night. We had finally allowed ourselves to really believe we could get out from under the Tories, and to have that dream ripped away from us was awful. Teachers at school looked glum all day, bus drivers were stoneyfaced, everyone seemed to reflect my own mood.
But, of course, eventually we picked ourselves up, and started to dream of winning again. The cruel taking of John Smith from us well before his time led to the well-documented drama of Tony Blair becoming leader of the Labour Party ahead of Gordon Brown. Here, finally, was someone who seemed to attract voters we couldn't usually reach. Someone whose charisma and energy shone so bright next to the dour greyness of John Major. He was young, he was beautiful, he was ours.
We didn't know what to make of it.
Because, you see, even then, there were some of us who had doubts. I'm by no means unique in never having taken to him. I knew something was up when I heard a news report about a speech Tony Blair was going to give later that night, where he had to deal with a tricky and potentially fatal issue for him and the party (or so the reporter said) - that he was leader of a socialist party. How would he deal with the banana skin of being a socialist? How could he nullify that issue? Now, of course, we know he didn't really have much of a problem, but at the time, the Conservatives could accuse him of being a socialist and some people would actually believe it. But to me, watching the news report, and later, extracts from the speech, the thought that any leader of the Labour Party had to, well, apologise for being socialist seemed so terribly wrong, and the fact he was so convincing just encouraged my doubts.
But whatever he said actually worked and he, together with the other architects of Labour's transformation to New Labour, pulled off an astonishing landslide in 1997. And for a time, there was real hope. It is a cliche now to say it, but you really could feel the hope, and belief in the air - people genuinely felt that things would get better, and fast. The handing over of control of interest rates out of political hands was a radical step, performed on the day after the election, and suggested that this really would be an historic government.
But there were signs of timidity early on. The new government stuck to the spending plans of the old Conservative one for its first days in office. It fiddled and chipped at problems, not once taking a bold step forward. The most impressive achievement of that government was the creation of a national minimum wage - but it was set at such a low level, and with such difficulties in enforcing it, that it still left people wanting more.
I remember a conversation I had with the leader of the Labour Students society at my university. He was a true believer in the New Labour project, and in fact now works as a special adviser at the Treasury. He couldn't understand why I, as a Labour supporter, wasn't more excited about the government, about what they were doing, about this new minimum wage law, and why I wasn't shouting from the rooftops. He seemed completely taken aback that my answer was that I supposed I was disappointed, because a government with the ability to do just about anything was limiting itself to small tweaking of the edges. That they had the power, and the support, to achieve so much, but that their vision was so small.
And I know the arguments why they had to do this - to show they were trustworthy, to keep the support of industry, and so forth, but I finally came to realise what the real problem was. And it had been signalled much earlier.
When I first joined the Labour Party, they sent me a membership card with some simple words upon it, the original Clause IV of the party's constitution, the aim of the party. It said:
"To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service."
Written in 1917, it sounds stilted today, but still manages to bring a lump to my throat. However, my membership card doesn't say that anymore. Some have said it called for nationalisation, which it doesn't, though I won't get into that argument here. However, in 1995 Blair decided that it could be used as a weapon against the party (despite it not having been for many years) and decided to get rid of it. Basically, the left of the party loved this text, and Blair wanted to demonstrate his ability to stand up to the left to the rest of the country. And so, after a brief fight, it was changed to:
"The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. Where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe. And where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect."
Which, in my view, is substantially more wishy-washy.
Regardless, this showed me two things. Firstly, that Tony Blair can only define himself by who he is against - this is why he continued to pick fights with sections of his own party for years to come. Secondly, that he was a liar. This text describes us as a democratic socialist party, which I am very happy with. But Tony Blair has always called himself a social democrat.
Granted, some of you may be wondering what the difference is. But I think there is one, and it is a big one. To me, a democratic socialist is someone who believes that the society we currently live in is fundamentally unfair, and that it must be thoroughly reformed - that it must, essentially, go through a 'revolution'. But who, equally importantly, believes the only fair and just way to do this is by convincing people, through the democratic process, to do this - a revolution that is voted for, essentially, so no driving the tanks down Pall Mall.
A social democrat also recognises that the society we live in is fundamentally unfair. But, instead of believing that they can change this, they instead decide to tinker around the edges, to tweak little bits here and there, to try and ameliorate some of the worst excesses. This is a more timid view of the world, a view of the world which still doffs its cap to those in power, those with the money, those of the elite. It is unthreatening to those people, because it can never effect significant change.
And so the New Labour government continued in its timid and gentle way, carrying out social democratic acts. Take, for example, tax credits. Don't get me wrong, they have helped a lot of people, but they have been only a slight redistributive measure. They have achieved a social democratic end, in that they have lifted people out of absolute poverty, and this is a good thing. But they have not had a democratic socialist end, which would have been to reduce income inequality, to make the gap between rich and poor smaller. The first stops people starving on the streets, the second would stop society collapsing into crime, chaos, and gated communities.
All of which meant those of us who were socialists gradually went from disenchantment to disappointment to disillusionment to disgust. Parties on the left began to spring up - some of them, like the Socialist Party and Socialist Labour, from within the Labour Party, other more recent ones like Respect coming together from both ex-Labour members and other communities. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party were buoyed by the PR system in the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Nationalist Party began to avow a set of social policies to the left of Labour. In Wales, Plaid Cymru continues to gain strength with its own socialist views.
While the nationalist parties were able to gain support and be credible, those within England fared less well. Respect now has its lone MP (who was previously a Labour MP, though he won in 2005 as a Respect candidate), but could only stand in 48 of the more than 10,000 council seats up for election in May, and won in only three wards. The Socialist Party has six councillors. The Socialist Labour Party has none. It seems starting a new socialist party without another cause to hang your hat on is a hard thing to do.
Which means that the socialists of the Labour Party either left to join no- one, or stayed and became increasingly bitter. That bitterness and resentment began to focus around Tony Blair, something which the equally bitter and resentful (though for other, well-publicised reasons) Gordon Brown played up to. His conference speeches became rallying calls to the party faithful, the rump of the party that is still left (membership figures are less than half of what they were in 1997). But those on the left have generally been very suspicious of Brown as well, he being one of the creators of New Labour. The trade unions particularly are unconvinced. We know he will be more of the same, just with different presentation skills.
And what happened to me? I started to find I held views I would have been appalled by a few years ago. For instance, the reform of the House of Lords. I was all for an upper house which was elected, which didn't rely on privilege and patronage to get to where they are. And yet now I look at what we have, and the possibility of replacing that with more of the party infighting as in the lower house, and I am horrified. I find myself, as a democratic socialist, wanting to keep unelected life peers. I'd get rid of the last of the hereditary peers - I'm not that far gone - but the experts and others who wouldn't get there in a party political system, those people I want. Not only because they bring expertise, but also because they do not need the favour, the patronage, of their current party leader to be there. They can, essentially, stick two fingers up at their own party without losing their position.
Another example is that of a written constitution. In the past, I thought this was a great thing. But now that Brown is mooting producing one, I am terrified - not at the concept, though I have become to like the British constitution's flexibility, but because I may like a written constitution, but not one this generation of politicians would produce. We are in an era of politics dominated by the worst sort of middle managers, with focus groups and presentations and payment by results and anything, anything at all, but an idea. I don't want a British constitution to read like a small advertising company's mission statement, and that's what we'd get.
So I find myself in the position as a democratic socialist of not wanting elections, and not wanting a revolution. I am lost in a modern world that doesn't want ideas and ideologies, it wants targets and performance reviews.
All of which made the news yesterday almost inevitable. John McDonnell, the leader of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, has failed to get enough nominations to contest the leadership election. Not even all the members of the group nominated him. Democratic socialism can't even make it an election, rather than a coronation.
It's time to face up to it, all of us socialists still hanging around in the Labour Party looking hopeful. We lost. The world moved on. It may be unfair, but people want it that way. They don't want socialism for the same reason they do buy lottery tickets - it may cost them a lot of money, and it may be unjust, but there's a chance they could be fabulously rich and look down on everyone else.
And so socialism died. It flowered briefly in the 20th Century, but was never meant to last. There may be lots of us out there, but we can never quite bring ourselves to join a different party, to vote for someone who isn't Labour. And so the two tribes of managers will slug it out for a few decades more, while we wonder what happened. The world will get a little bit nastier, a little bit crueller, a little bit more suspicious, year on year. But we'll all have the chance of holding that golden ticket, we all have an equal opportunity to make it, and we're told that is all the victory we should want.
Goodbye English socialism, we will remember you fondly. As for me, I'm moving to Scotland.
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