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Gary Younge
The limits of loyalty

With no political morality to make sense of this, I used the one follow-up question before I was told to "go play", wisely. "Which one are we?" I asked.

"Labour," said Mum. For most of my teens and early 20s, even through my brief flirtation with Trotskyism, which started shortly after my first kiss (15) and ended shortly before my first A-level (16), that was all the explanation I needed. Loyal to and ever critical of Labour, by the age of 22 I had joined, canvassed, campaigned and stood for the party and held office in its student wing.

But as policy shifts took my loyalty for granted and changes in party rules meant my criticisms could be ignored, I threw in the towel. Labour proudly decided to distance itself from most of what I held dear. So the last time I voted Labour was 1992 - a fact for which I make no great claims and will accept no pious lectures. True, I did not tick the box for devolution, the minimum wage or the Macpherson report. But then nor did I vote for Yarl's Wood, student fees or Iraq either.

Impatience, not prescience, led me to bail out early. But over the past five years the numbers who share this sense of alienation from a party they once considered their own has grown substantially. Disaffection with and within the party, as displayed in falling turnouts and plummeting membership, is huge. Muslim support - crucial in the Midlands, north-west and pockets of London - has plummeted from 75% to 38%.

Joy that the Tories have gone has given rise only to disappointment at what has followed. We waited a long time for a Labour government. Many of us - not a majority of the country but approaching a majority of Labour voters - feel we are still waiting.

Since no electoral force has emerged to the left of Labour that is capable of replacing it and no internal force within the party has proved capable of returning it to its roots, this has been an protracted, debilitating time. The frustration has crystallised in New Labour's support for the war in Iraq - a decision which is emblematic both of the arrogance of its leadership, the contempt for its constituency and the flaws in its priorities. New Labour has made its choices - proving itself capable of pandering to the basest bigotry of those who bash asylum seekers and yet unwilling to heed the popular opposition to the war. It has shown its determination to both pour millions of pounds into a conflict we did not want and simultaneously take millions away from students who need it.

But, for all that, the large anti-war demonstrations and the movement that grew out of them are struggling to find a convincing electoral expression. In other European countries that backed the war (Spain being the most salient example) there has at least been an opposition in favour of troop withdrawal. With the Liberal Democrats now backing the occupation, we do not even have that.

If ever there was an illustration of the dislocation between the political establishment and the people, it is that the year that saw the largest demonstration in the nation's history has also seen the steepest decline in desire for political engagement. According to a recent Mori poll, only about half (51%) of Britons are certain to vote at the next election.

The last year in particular has been a period where increased political vibrancy has produced little more than electoral petulance - we refuse to support the party that we basically hope will win the election. We want New Labour to lose and Labour to win - the task is to separate the two. The forthcoming European elections offer an ideal opportunity to hit New Labour where it most hurts - in the ballot box. If you care about the future of the Labour party, representative democracy, the fate of Iraq, or the lives of Iraqis, not to mention British and American soldiers, don't vote Labour. Instead back either the Green party or the Respect coalition - both of which are opposed to the occupation.

This is not a solution but a strategy - and only an English one at that. Devolution has allowed subtly but significantly different political landscapes to flourish in Scotland and Wales with other parties and a degree of autonomy that has allowed Labour parties there to be judged by different standards. Given the likelihood of replacing Labour with a more progressive force is unlikely, the solution is to replace Blair. Who comes in his place is less important that why Blair goes out. If the pressure to remove him comes from the left, that is where Blair's successor will have to look for support.

But if moral argument and popular protest won't budge Labour MPs to take him on, the prospect of losing their jobs might. The disadvantages for not voting Labour in June will be negligible and the advantages could be considerable. The European parliament has extremely limited power, so the legislative repercussions will be minimal. The election is under proportional representation, not first past the post, so No for another party will not, in and of itself, let the Tories or the British National party in. Moreover, given the sharp rise in BNP representation in the last four years, voting Labour is clearly no antidote to the rise in organised fascism.

Meanwhile, the upsides are relatively clear. First, simply by showing up and voting for someone else, rather than staying home and sulking, it will make it harder for both the Tories and the BNP to get the requisite number of votes. Both parties are hoping for a low turnout to up their share - the higher the general vote the less their impact. And with only around 8% needed to get a seat it also gives a platform and democratic legitimacy for critics of the New Labour platform from the left.

But primarily it sends an unambiguous and timely message to the constituencies, backbenchers and Labour leadership that a drastic change in course is needed if they are going to keep a large portion of their core vote - and therefore a large number of their seats - come the general elections next year. Like Margaret Thatcher in the early 90s, Tony Blair's arrogance is becoming a liability; the party has become little more than an adjunct of his ego.

"The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people," said Blair after he was elected seven years ago. "We will never forget that and, if we ever do, the people will very soon show that what the electorate gives, the electorate can take away."

It is time to remind him who is master.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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