Sunday, 8 May 2011

Why I won't join the Labour party

I grew up in the 1980s in a staunchly Labour household. I was taken out in my buggy as a toddler while my parents put leaflets though doors, I helped them tape up the 'Vote Labour' posters in the window in the run-up to elections, on May 1st 1997 I went down to the Labour candidate's campaigning HQ with my mum to help out and when the Labour victory was announced in the middle of the night I celebrated with my family out in the street, as we sang The Red Flag at the tops of our voices. Did I mention that all this took place in Chingford, aka Norman Tebbit's old seat, Ian Duncan Smith's current seat and widely regarded as one of the safest Tory constituencies in the country? Not for the faint-hearted, you might say.

So, as for many of us, my political sensibilities, as a child and as a teenager were shaped by the political beliefs and activities of my family. Although I have never been a member, in my mind, for many years, broadly speaking, the Labour Party was equated with good. I'm aware that the resulting tale of disillusionment I'm about to tell is not an unusual one and has been told by many other people. But I need to get it off my chest.

I don't really intend this to be a statement of political strategy (although I do think are some strong strategic cases for not joining the Labour party – Adam Ramsay, a member of the Green party, has argued convincingly for this ). Rather, this is a personal account of my experiences under a Labour government and why it has left me still unable to join. I'm aware, now that the Labour party is in opposition and we have the ruthless cuts and right wing agenda of a the Coalition government to fight, that some people might see this narrative as self-indulgent.

But I do sometimes feel that the experiences of people like me – that is, people who came of age politically in the late 1990s and have spent pretty much their entire adult life fighting and campaigning against theright-wing policies of a Labour government - are overlooked in these days of protests against the Coalition. I went to a Billy Bragg gig a few months ago and, in between songs he talked about the inspirational new generation of student activists, comparing them to the activists of the 1980s. He then made a casual reference to the generation of youngsters in between (ie. People like me). 'I dunno what they were doing,' he commented 'Probably out shopping or something'. I took enormous exception to this, because, although it wasn't anywhere near as strong or as vociferous as the protests have been against the current government , there was a quite a sizeable youth protest movement under the Labour government, which I was part of. And we do ourselves no favours by portraying this tradition of activism as something that has suddenly sprung up under a Tory government. There is a continuity that we have to acknowledge if our movement is to have any intellectual coherence.

I accept that there is a sense of urgency created by the current government's extreme agenda that has lead people to join the Labour party to try and use it as an organised base from which to fight the cuts. I can also see that its link to the trade unions puts the party in a potentially strong position to do this. Ellie Mae O Hagan discussed these things in her piece back in February about her decision to join the Labour Party and Owen Jones recently posted a series of accounts on his blog from people who had joined since the Coalition came into power. I totally understand and respect all of these arguments. But the fact is, I still can't do it – on the vast majority of issues, as a socialist, I just don't see the Labour party as representing what I believe in.

Now I know that politics isn't about purity – I know that compromises and uncomfortable alliances have to be made sometimes in order to achieve a bigger goal. But I also believe that one's political decisions must, on some level, be personal and authentic. You are getting into dangerous territory when you sever completely the links between your ideals and your practice.

In September 1998, aged 18, I started my first year at Sussex University and, as such, was in the first year of people who had to pay tuition fees. Let us not forget this – the idea that a university education is a commodity to be bought and sold was introduced by Labour. This brought me into opposition with the government in a very immediate way – here was a policy that impacted on me and my future directly – and throughout my time at university I was involved in a very active anti-fees campaign and took part in a variety of actions including occupations, demonstrations and non-payment.

This was my first experience of proper informed political activism and I believe that this, more than anything else, has had a defining effect on my relationship with the Labour party. If I had been born a year earlier and had started university under a Tory government, I would not have had to pay for it. At the time the injustice of it felt almost personal and I still feel absolutely furious that the introduction of tuition fees was ever allowed to happen.

My subsequent experiences of anti-government campaigning will be familiar – protests against draconian asylum and immigration laws, the detention of asylum seekers, the privatisation of public services, and of course the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There were other things more specific to my own professional experience which also informed my intense opposition to the government, such as the withdrawal of universal free ESOL classes in 2007 and my time working for a Job Centre-funded private training provider (which I have written about on this blog). On May 4th 2010, the day before the general election, as a member of UCU I went on strike in protest at the Labour government's cuts to further and adult education.

The party under Ed Milliband has so far been a disappointment, to put in mildly. They're sticking to the cuts-but-more-slowly line, have utterly failed to make any coherent intellectual argument against the Coalition's public sector and welfare reforms, and Ed Milliband's weak response to Cameron's dangerous speech about immigration a few weeks ago was infuriating. I know the arguments about changing the Labour party from within and have had them many times over with some of my closest friends. But I am still not convinced.

I still see myself as an activist – I still want to fight the cuts and ultimately to bring the current government down. But I do not believe that I need to be in the Labour party to do this. I am an active member of my union, I am a teacher involved in campaigns to defend ESOL and adult education and I have been involved in various other anti-cuts actions. So I still really don't feel comfortable joining the Labour party at the moment – it may be a self-indulgent position, but, for the moment, I'm sticking to it.


  1. Pretty much exactly how I feel. As a PCS rep & member I've fought their cuts and privatisation, as an NHS user I've fought the threatened closure of my local A&E, as a relatively decent human being I've been disgusted by their approach to immigration and asylum.

    Nothing I've heard from them recently gives me any cause to believe they've changed and I can't see the left within labour having a hope of making a difference.

    If my MP weren't Jeremy Corbyn I doubt they'd have even got my vote at the last election.

  2. Thank god someone has written this. I've come from, and arrived at, a different political position, with no particular expectations of Labour as a force for good. But everything you say about generational differences is true for me too (b 1979). I'm stunned by the things I'm supposed to believe as a default about the relative positions of the two big parties.

    One of the most revolting aspects of the GE last year for me was the number of left-wingers whose defence of Labour's third term was basically "but the 1980s were worse". And if you weren't impressed by "Ooh! Tories! Scary!" as an argument, it was because you "didn't understand" or similar.

    Well, have a cigar. No I don't understand. By the time I was old enough to pay attention to politics at all the Tories were a joke party, a set of sleazy pantomime villains. The age in which I learnt to fear what a government could do was a Labour age.