Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Manchester against New Labour

My prediction about the 23rd September anti-war protest outside Labour Party Conference in Manchester I made back in July may have been a little out, but as 'Lenin's Tomb' reports, it was an excellent day out.

However, writing in today's Observer - a paper which all but ignores the protests - Tristram Hunt argues that it is not the 50,000 protesters who surged through Manchester's streets yesterday that represent the best traditions of 'Britain's premier socialist city'. Apparently following in the footsteps of the likes of slave abolitionists, Chartists, suffragettes, Pan-Africanists and even Frederick Engels, for Hunt it is none other than Tony Blair who is one of Manchester's 'true sons'.

This, Hunt notes, is because of the cities historic contribution to not only working class politics but also middle class Liberalism - 'the Manchester School' - which he describes as 'the free-market, less government liberals who did so much to define Victorian politics. Its heroes were Richard Cobden and John Bright, men who believed in the unalloyed power of commerce to deliver progress.' As Hunt therefore goes on to note, 'this cityscape of socialism and liberalism, of Peterloo and Free Trade Hall, provides an especially fitting backdrop for Tony Blair's last conference. For what has New Labour been other than an attempt to reunite those competing, progressive traditions under one banner?'

Well, I can think of quite a few things that New Labour has been other than attempt to 'reunite' socialism and liberalism actually. Firstly there is very little 'liberal' or 'socialist' about New Labour, which is inherently authoritarian, anti-democratic, and relentlessly anti-working class. Indeed, as someone pointed out to me this weekend, it would be amazing if New Labour moved left to discover 'One-Nation Toryism' let alone anything so radical as liberalism, social democracy or socialism.

Leaving aside Hunt's obscene idea that the spirit of Frederick Engels or other revolutionaries and rebels might be somehow found inside New Labour's Conference, what might the Liberals Richard Cobden or John Bright have made of Blairism?

Well, as a Quaker Bright was opposed to the aggressive foreign policy of Lord Palmerston and joined with Richard Cobden to campaign against the Crimean War (1854-1856). The two men were much abused by the press and some MPs even accused them of treason - and their anti-war stance cost them their seats in the 1857 General election. Even if Bright and Cobden were alive today and had joined New Labour because of its love of promoting capitalism, they would doubtless have been expelled from the Party like George Galloway and Clare Short for their opposition to Blair's warmongering.

Hunt does admits 'there is another Manchester' to the city of Liberals and socialists which is 'at odds with this pure Labour lineage. In Salford, powerful breweries and anti-Irish prejudice ensured a rock-solid Tory vote'. It is, I suspect, this racist Tory side of Manchester which New Labour - with its craven love of the rich and powerful and its simultaneous demonisation of the poor and powerless, whether Muslims or refugees - best epitomises. The true sons and daughters of Manchester were not to be found writing Conference speeches designed to appeal to Tory voters - but those on the streets demanding peace, justice, equality and an end to Blairism.

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