Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thoughts on Labour Party Conference

I write this on the day after marching to lobby the Labour Party conference in Blackpool and I am reading the newspapers. Blackpool was chock full of journalists. They crammed into the Winter Gardens, scavenging for gossip. Is Tony Blair falling out with Gordon Brown? What is Robin Cook going to say about electoral reform? At least 500 of the best journalists of our generation spent their day searching for and producing, exactly nothing. Meanwhile the march of several thousand surged through the streets. These marchers had stories to tell: real stories, about hospitals starved of nursing care, about slashed firefighting capabilities, about impoverished old age pensioners and corrupt local authorities. Yet not a single of those conference journalists even considered spending a moment with the marchers. In the next morning’s papers, full of idiotic intrigue, the entire march had been obliterated.
Paul Foot, Preface to 'Shaking the World': Revolutionary Journalism by John Reed, edited by John Newsinger (1998)

Substitute 'Manchester' for 'Blackpool', 'David Miliband' for 'Tony Blair', and remove the reference to Robin Cook, and Paul Foot's description of Labour Party conference ten years ago could have been written yesterday. Only this year, there was not only a march of thousands outside but also an alternative 'Conference of the Left' (perhaps one sign of the growing realisation of the need for a left alternative to Labourism after a decade of Blairism and Brownism (where 'Brown' stands for Blairite Reactionary Only Without Novelty). And of course both the march and the convention of the Left have been obliterated by journalists as if they did not take place. As Foot went onto note,

No wonder the word ‘journalist’ has become almost a term of abuse in socialist circles. If this is the way journalists behave, surely they must be part of the capitalist conspiracy to exploit and humiliate working people? In truth, however, the word journalist describes only a person who writes about the contemporary world. Since the single most obvious fact about the contemporary world is that is ultimately divided into two classes, a journalist can write for one class or the other. Of course it is much easier and more profitable to write on behalf of the authorities. But the history of the century is lit up by journalists who wrote against the stream.

I am afraid I was not in Manchester at all this weekend. But I have recently got 'freeview' which enables one should one wish to watch the BBC Parliament channel which has live coverage of all the three main British neo-liberal political party conferences. I would not really advise watching the Liberal Democrat conference unless one has severe flu or something, as the utterly pointless and vacuous nature of proceedings makes it depressing viewing and really suitable only for the living braindead. The odd glimpses of the Labour Party conference I have seen so far have been marginally more interesting. Every time someone makes a vaguely 'left' point (such as criticising Margaret Thatcher or the obscene amount of money sloshing around the City of London bankers in bonuses and so on) they get cheers and applause. But the gap between socialist rhetoric and the neoliberal reality of New Labour is throughout the conference left me crying out for just one person to be brave to point out the hypocrisy of it all. I was left confused. At times it seemed as if I was watching some perverse bureaucratic Stalinist rally where speaker after speaker got up to denounce the greed of bankers, the devastating legacy of thirty years of neoliberalism and the idiotic freemarket ideology of the Tories and Lib Dems while ending with praise for the Dear Leader Gordon Brown as if he was a great socialist visionary. A delegate from the 'Socialist Health Association' got up and after praising the small number of genuine reforms that Labour had made attacked the fact that the gap between rich and poor had got wider under 11 years of Labour in power. The audience applauded. Yes! I thought - at last - someone is brave enough to speak truth to power. Only then, the aforementioned delegate ended his contribution by saying 'and that is why we all need to rally round Gordon Brown and ensure a fourth term of Labour Government' - again to applause from the deluded audience which made me utterly despair of it all.

At other times, I wondered if the delegates were playing a more clever and subtle game. By attacking Thatcher and the 'Tory lunatics who believe in the free market' so openly (while in a ritualistic manner also praising the Dear Leader Brown) were they not also implicitly attacking Brown (who after all met Thatcher, praised her, and is considering shelling out 3 million quid of tax payers money on a state funeral for her)? Was this the only way they could legitimately express dissent? If anyone openly and explicitly made a socialist critique of New Labour would they be arrested under the Terrorism Act for 'inciting violence' or something?

The whole thing anyway was decidedly Stalinist - though the only thing I couldn't quite work out was whether the delegates were consciously complicit in this or were playing the game while also trying to tell Gordon Brown his Tory policies were the reason why his Government was so unpopular in the only way they could...

So what 'stories' and 'news' have the journalists told us about Labour conference so far? Well, we get a sense of the sycophancy and careerism of younger delegates.

[Home Secretary] Jacqui Smith got the best reaction, which is saying very little. Emily Benn, 18-year-old granddaughter of Tony Benn, announced that it was a "fantastic honour to be anywhere near her!"...She was rewarded with a home secretarial hug. At the end of Ms Smith's speech a few people stood to applaud, then more, but very, very slowly. It was like a standing ovation from scores of arthritis sufferers.

And apparently Foreign Secretary David Miliband thinks that the Labour Government may have made a mistake in waging war on the people of Iraq, noting 'It's clear that despite Saddam's best efforts to persuade us he had weapons of mass destruction, he didn't.' Er, lets think - what were 'Saddam's best efforts to persuade us he had WMD' again? Ah, yes, I remember now. When asked by Tony Benn in February 2003 whether he possessed chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, he replied that he did not. 'These weapons do not come in small pills that you can hide in your pocket,' he said. And this is coming from Miliband, the man who is apparently going to save the Labour Party and deliver a fourth Labour term? No, the real stories and news from Labour conference would have come not from the 'idiotic intrigue' inside the conference but from the people who marched outside in their thousands against the warmongers like Miliband inside.

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