11 Jun 2009
In the wake of a rightward shift in European politics, Britain’s Gordon Brown seems to be losing his grip on the leadership of the New Labour Party, while his party itself appears to be losing the support of its traditional grassroots base. Al Jazeera's Riz Khan interviews two analysts to shed more light on the issue.
RIZ KHAN: Hello and welcome. Is Britain's New Labour dying a slow death? British prime minister Gordon Brown and his party have seen some of the lowest poll ratings in the country's history and now some of his own people are quitting the government.
To make matters worse, the Labour Party sank to another new low on Sunday as the party took a beating in European Elections, winning under 16% of the popular vote.
The loss paved the way for the far right British National Party to win seats in the European Parliament for the first time. And this comes just after stinging labour losses in local elections last week where the party ceded control of four town councils and 291 local councillors.
In spite of calls from his former ministers and MPs to step aside, the embattled prime minister seems determined to hang on, saying he has much work to do. But are these defeats linked to the leadership of Gordon Brown or do they have much more to do with public dissatisfaction towards a labour party that's been in power for too long.
On today's show we ask how much longer can Prime Minister Brown hold on and will New Labour survive? ...
To discuss the fate of Gordon Brown and Britain's Labour Party, we have Jeremy Corbyn, a member of parliament since 1983, representing Islington North. Mr. Corbyn is one of those in the labour camp arguing that Mr. Brown should continue his current position in order to avoid even greater instability ahead of national elections next year.
Also with us from the Guardian Newspaper is Jonathan Steele, a columnist and writer who has been closely following the political upheaval in Gordon Brown's government.
Gentlemen, I welcome you to the show and Mr. Corbyn if I can start with you.
The mountain of problems that face Gordon Brown seems to be growing, but you're standing behind him, why?
JEREMY CORBYN: I don't want to see Gordon Brown hounded out of office by very right wing ministers who publicly resign on the eve of an election for no other reason other than they wanted greater preferment for themselves.
I have very many disagreements with Gordon Brown's prime ministership, not least concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But if we change leaders of the party now and therefore change Prime Ministers, it would be impossible not to have a general election in which case, I think, Labour would probably lose. If Gordon stays on in office and does what he promised to do this evening at the parliamentary labour party meeting, which is some fundamental policy changes and a different style of government, who knows, things could be very different because last Thursday was a very, very bad day for the Labour Party.
RIZ KHAN: I was just wondering Mr. Corbyn, actually, how hard is it to pinpoint one particular issue, perhaps the main reason why he and the Labour Party have been doing so badly recently.
JEREMY CORBYN: It’s very hard, as you say to pinpoint one issue. I think the general thing is people's concern about their job security, their housing security and their prosperity for the future in this time of recession. The government has taken into public ownership, a number of the major banks. Has developed quite a lot of policies in job protection. Gordon tonight, promised more on that and much more on housing and developments of new social housing.
But he also has to understand that because of the reluctance of Labour supporters to actually go out and vote last week, the percentage poll was down, therefore, the far right British National Party was able to gain two seats without any increase in their vote on the election of five years ago.
That is a bad sign, but then there is also a general rightwards shift across Europe at the present time, sadly and there's been quite a lot of far right parties gaining some seats in the European Parliament.
RIZ KHAN: Let's bring Jonathan Steele into the conversation. Mr. Steele, great to have you with us, as well sir. I wonder, how great is the pressure on Gordon Brown to step down and what happens if he does? You know, what happens to the Labour Party and I guess, more importantly, to the stewardship of the country?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think, as Jeremy Corbyn says this evening, Gordon Brown was saved. There wasn't the revolt that many of the media had predicted and I think he now survives.
The big question is now the party conference coming up later in the year in the autumn and the chance for people to have a real debate over the policy direction because as you said in the beginning, I think New Labour is dying on its feet.
We had ten years of Tony Blair, two years of Gordon Brown -- pretty much the same thing. And people are increasingly feeling that this party was too much like the 'Tories' in power. They didn't do as much as they had promised to do when they came in. To have a social democratic kind of government, redistributing much more.
In fact, the gap between rich and poor, the inequality has widened in the twelve years of New Labour. And so there's a real feeling I think at the grassroots of the party that the leadership, whether it was Brown or Blair, moved away from them and became too much in bed with corporate capitalism and the finance part of the economy - the city of London.
RIZ KHAN: Still, I wonder, considering what you've said there is Mr. Brown beyond redemption or can he reinvent himself with the amount of time he has left? He is determined, obviously at the moment, to stay on. Can he reinvent himself and the Labour Party to change the fortunes of the party?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think it's difficult because they have been in power for 12 years and obviously there is a feeling that they're tired and out of touch. But there is also a general bankruptcy of the left, I'm afraid, in the face of the neoliberal politics of the last 12 years. You pointed in your introduction that parties of the left have suffered throughout Europe and European elections, whether they were in government, like in Spain or in Britain, or in opposition, like in France and Germany. They've suffered and so there's a real feeling that there's no real alternative being offered to voters by the parties of the left and so a lot of people are apathetic; they don't vote in the way they did before.
Inner party democracy in the Labour Party is dying in a lot of party branches. I think, perhaps not in Jeremy Corbyn's branches, but in many, it is. The leadership is too much in control of who becomes a candidate. There isn't really grassroots choice really, properly, for who becomes a candidate.
So, I think many ordinary working class and low-income people and indeed many of the middle class feel that Labour no longer represents their interests and has become too much in hoc to the financial sector, as I said before.
RIZ KHAN: Well, Jeremy Corbyn, one thing you were indicating the support and Jonathan Steele was saying that the support Mr. Brown had from his fellow MPs was greater than expected. But he has had a few high profile, sort of disenchanted Labour MPs leave and go fairly vocal in public with their complaints. What does he do to quell that and build some confidence among the remaining members of the party?
JEREMY CORBYN: Well, he's now appointed a whole cabinet of minsters and junior ministers and the government is in place. He was clearly very angry this evening, as were a lot of other people, with the style and method of resignation of James Purnell and others. None of whom made any policy complaints whatsoever about the government. Just said that the image and the style of Gordon were wrong.
Interestingly, as the meeting wore on, it was quite a long, very crowded and quite - at times, quite fractious discussion. Members increasingly brought up policy issues, such as the marketisation of public services, such as the proposed part privatization of the Post Office.
Gordon at the end of the meeting, interestingly, got away from the personality stuff and got much more into policy and promised a statement of government aims and intentions -- a new policy on housing; issues on job protection and how to deal with the recession.
What Jonathan says is right. Its the parties, obviously of the right, the conservatives that have gained seats in the European election, while large numbers of working class voters have stayed home because they feel that the New Labour and its equivalents across Europe no longer represent them. If Labour is to survive, it’s got to reconnect with its basic principles, with equality, with fairness, with justice in society.
RIZ KHAN: On this point, I want to put this Jonathan Steele, from the live station chat room we have going as we are on air live sir. From a participant called Lunarts in the UK, he says, "UK politics have been based on a class system for ages. Parliament and government are corrupt institutions to keep the upper class in power at all times. Labour or conservative does not make any difference."
Now I wonder if that illustrates, to some degree, what you and Jeremy Corbyn were saying there about the shift towards the right that Labour showed Under New Labour, and perhaps, I wonder, is it possible for Labour to reverse that and go back towards its core constituents and move back towards its older values?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think that's a bit of a cliché or caricature, what you read out from your emailer. I mean, I think, probably, if you just look at kind of the social background of the people in the British parliament, particularly in the labour party, it is much more a cross representation than certainly, in the United States Democratic Party or in some of the European Socialist parties. There are a lot of trade unionists, former trade unionists there. There are people who've, you know, not had great university educations, but have real understanding of industrial issues and so on and they are still there.
The trouble is it's an ideological collapse and you might have thought that in the last six or nine months, when neoliberal, sort of corporate capitalism is pretty much on defence because of the financial crisis that its led us into with the credit bubble and this mortgage thing and all these derivatives and the stock exchange gambling that's going on -- that they would be on the defensive and the left would somehow be able to capitalize on the - really - failures of capitalism over the last six months or so. But they haven't been able to do that and I think - so it’s an ideological vacuum that we're facing.
RIZ KHAN: Let me put a quick question from the chat room to Jeremy Corbyn then, from New York, from Steeple Aston in New York and the question is: Generally if the economy is poor, votes for leftist candidates rise. However, in the UK and European parliament, the trend is rightist. What drives today's politics - economics or immigration?
JEREMY CORBYN: Economics drives the politics and it's the move to the right of the socialist and social democratic parties in Europe to accept privatization, marketisation and a credit based economy, which led to the crisis and the crunch. The arguments about immigration are a response to that. Very narrow minded, very nasty and I always say to people in Britain, if they’re really concerned about immigration, they should look to the high standard of living a lot of people enjoy in Britain and the huge contribution made by migrants from all over the world to the British economy. And anyone who says they want to stop all immigration to Britain will consign this country to a much lower standard of living, in much greater poverty. We live in an era of mobile work forces.
RIZ KHAN: Well, I'm going to ask you gentlemen to just pause for a second as we take short break ... We're also taking our own poll, asking is Gordon Brown's failing a result of his own policy failings, his personality or a backlash against the legacy of new labour? Join that chat room poll and we'll be back with the results after the break.
For part two of this interview, please click here.
Editor's Note: This interview was transcribed by SACSIS. For the most part, the transcript is verbatim.