I was amused this morning to see that Mark Steel, one of the most outspoken left-wing activists in the media has been banned from joining the Labour Party because he doesn't "support their values":
Well - an e-mail from Labour says my application has been rejected as I 'don't support their values'. Maybe I was meant to invade Iraq.— Mark Steel (@mrmarksteel) August 12, 2015
Now in Mr Steel's case there seems to be some question mark over whether he is still a member of the SWP which could be another reason why he has not been allowed to join and vote in the current leadership contest. But it is worth looking a little bit more closely at the given reason for his rejection, the charge that he does not support their values. Because Labour currently doesn't really have any values.
I don't mean this glibly. I mean it literally.
Labour have just (badly) lost an election that they and many of the rest of us thought they would win, or at least they would form the next government in the aftermath of it. That hasn't happened and they seem to be going through some sort of collective nervous breakdown as a result.
It certainly wasn't clear what the party stood for in the previous parliament. Indeed that is one of the reasons they lost. They spent the first 3 or 4 years of it opposing every single cut the coalition government made and then in the last year or so suddenly tried to turn on a sixpence and claim they were the party of fiscal responsibility (whilst still opposing many of the cuts and claiming they were ideological). They also campaigned hard on the NHS claiming that the coalition was "privatising it" despite having themselves extended private provision whilst in office (at one point under Andy Burnham). There are various other examples of where they either said or did one thing in office and another when in early opposition and then yet another in the run-up to the election. No wonder people were confused.
I saw a journalist remark the other day that when they approached the Labour Party to ask what its values were in order to clarify they were directed to read "Clause 4" of the Labour Party constitution. Here it is as modifed in 1995 under Blair's early leadership:
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect
That's fair enough as far as it goes but it's difficult to pin down how this would relate to specific policy positions. For example (apart from the special case of the banks in 2008 when there was a huge crisis and any government would have had to act) how many nationalisations did Labour undertake whilst in office? Because reading that clause you might presume they'd have taken the opportunity to renationalise all sorts of stuff to fit in with their "value" of power, wealth and opportunity remaining in the hands of the many, not the few. Of course they barely nationalised anything and social mobility went into reverse between 1997 and 2010. Or how about their values of "tolerance and respect" and living "freely". I'm not sure how that could be reconciled with their attempts in office to push through 90 days detention without trial or their steadfast backing of the hopelessly illiberal and broken drugs laws to pick two of many egregious examples.
So it is far from clear how the Labour Party of the last 20 years and its actions in office could be reconciled with its own Clause 4 that the party machine directs people to read to check they are not to be an unperson.
But it's worse than that. Because Labour are in the middle of a leadership campaign. A leadership campaign that could very well hugely change the party's stance and approach to all sorts of things. Which would surely mean its values had changed?
As an example, imagine a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour Party led by Liz Kendall. They would be so different from each other as to be almost unrecognisable as the same party, certainly after the leader had got their hands on the party levers and had had some time to reshape it in their own image. The idea that there is a specific set of values that irrespective of who wins the leadership the party will stick to come what may is laughable. Corbyn has already explicitly stated he'd like to change Clause 4 if he wins.
So it is a nonsense for Labour to cast people out for not sharing their values when they are at best highly flexible and more realistically something akin to Will-o'-the-wisp.