15th August 2016
–By Harriet Anderson-
A Sense of Public Service
The Labour Party thinks it has remembered socialism. But it has forgotten its sense of public service.
Earlier this week, my CLP met and voted to nominate Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership contest. It was also 21 years since I lied about my age to attend Labour meetings. Many things were the same, though the constituency is hundreds of miles from the one I joined. Kind and welcoming constituency officers ran the meeting with scrupulous fairness. New members were warmly welcomed, procedures explained and attendees gave generously towards the room hire.
It took me a while to work out what was different, partly because I was pre-occupied with some of the more bizarre statements in the discussion (i.e. that Jeremy Corbyn was interviewed daily by ITV during the course of the EU referendum campaign). I couldn’t put my finger on the change because it hasn’t happened overnight, or even over the last year. Hard though it is to admit, I have since had to conclude that much of the party no longer sees itself or operates in terms of the service it can offer to others – namely, the people worse off than ourselves.
I don’t mean that my fellow party members, new or old, are motivated by self-interest, indeed I believe those who say that they have privileges they would rather not have, and who feel deeply about the plight of the worst off. But my early days in the party were characterised by people looking for solutions to problems. Naive teenage views were gently challenged by those who pointed out that the people the party existed to serve were mainly outside the rooms in which we met. I learned the solutions may not be simple, may demand compromises, will almost certainly involve no thanks for us.
As a new member in 1995, I received a political education based on how we could meet those needs. This week, I heard a party whose own needs were paramount. Not their material needs, but their expectation that party membership would meet members’ need for affirmation.
I heard about how members (new and old) had felt during Labour’s years in government. How they had felt “complicit” in things that they did not agree with, for having sometimes voted Labour. Some had voted UKIP last year, with reasons given including their opposition to austerity and to “the neoliberal paradigm”. Several said that they had “been asked to leave” during the 1980s, when they presumably had not felt complicit in the messy business of government.
There were roars of approval when it was suggested that 80% of the PLP should depart in shame for being complicit (regardless of how many had in fact been elected in 2010 or 2015). On one level I could empathise. As a member of the party (and sensitive teenager) during the years of government, I know that mistakes were made. Sometimes it seemed you were under attack for them from the people in your non-political life. Dinner parties could be awkward.
On another level, my early political education taught me that how it made me feel is actually of quite minimal importance.
The socialism my CLP espoused on Wednesday was socialism that is worn, stated, part of the identity members present to the world. It’s not the socialism that is enacted and lived in their communities, and for which the Labour Party trained me in the distant days of the 1990s.
Much has been made of the youth of the people joining the party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I know many young people who became politicised last summer and joined for this purpose. Almost all of these also felt strongly about the referendum, and many have drifted away.
My encounters with active Corbynites, last year and this, have suggested something different. Twenty one years on, my presence still reduces the average age at Labour meetings. There were some young members there, and a few speakers mentioned that their young adult children were now supporting the party. But overwhelmingly, Corbynism in practice looked a lot like the last political hurrah of the baby boomers.
When I joined the party, I did think that principle was better than compromise. That the strength of ideology was enough. I still think these are forgivable sins, and I am glad the patient people who introduced me to real politics forgave me then and now. I can see how a young activist now, having been schooled under new Labour, might be forgiven for their assumptions.
A common assumption is the idea that in the end power will inevitably swing back to us. That because we have two main parties, Labour is bound to win again in the end. The young can be forgiven for not knowing that any Labour government, even a one-term one with a tiny majority, is an aberration in history. Tory governments are the default setting, and it takes monumental effort and sacrifice to bring one to an end. If they have had their eyes open, anyone over 40 knows this.
Is there a chance that Jeremy Corbyn’s older supporters are just happier this way? Is this why the politics of protest, hang-wringing and *empathy without action* are so appealing? Nothing to be “complicit” in there. Is winning not just unimportant, but something to be suspicious of? Much easier to keep out of it – especially when foreign or military affairs are mentioned.
Better historians than I can consider whether and why some of the post-war generation takes this view. The ideas of duty, self sacrifice and public service were far more spoken of in the preceding generation. I am glad that the generation that followed was more critical, less deferential. But does it tell us something that (since Gordon Brown’s more Kirk-influenced moments) the only person who speaks about these ideas in public life is the Queen? Why does the ultimate establishment figure carry the torch for things that motivated Labour people through the unrest of the 30s and the rebuilding of the 40s and 50s?
Of course, altruism, sacrifice and sympathy exist and are practised by Labour members in their working lives, private lives and through charitable activities. But perhaps because they can now spend their working lives in public service, precious few see it as their purpose in a political party.
I agree with those who say that Corbynism may be part of a generational shift which has been a long time coming. But as always, it is more complicated than is usually supposed. When I first attended CLP meetings, along with a teenage friend, it was a running joke between us that we would listen out for the first person present to mention their involvement in the 1945 election. That generation is all but gone now, and the party may miss their presence more than we know.
I can see how the principles and rhetoric of public service are difficult for the left. It comes from a liberal tradition, around long before the Labour Party or socialism, and there is always the danger of being patronising, paternalist, even imperialist. Most shockingly of all – public service is not exclusive to us. Whisper it, but I even know some Tories who genuinely believe in and act on public service, even if they go about it differently. But isn’t it worth treading the fine line? Trying to help even if we sometimes get it wrong?
“Kinnock the movie” begins with the statement that the privilege of being born strong is that it gives you the power to help those who are not strong, before going on to outline the strengths of the Labour generations that had gone before. It was something to unite around – placed the struggle of the 1980s in the context of the party’s history – at its best when making itself uncomfortable in order to serve the people who need it. A few years later, Margaret Beckett called for the statement by John Smith to stand as his epitaph – “The opportunity to serve our country. That is all we ask”.
Those words inspired me, as a young person getting involved in politics, and led to my involvement in many campaigns and policies with effects of which I am very proud. But they only meant anything because the Labour Party gave me the political education to place them in context. Socialist rhetoric was not enough. The party tradition of public service didn’t vanish in the last year, and certainly didn’t vanish everywhere, but its revival has never been more necessary, or it will be our epitaph too.
Labour Party member, former Labour Party Organiser now working for a trade union