Labour Party in New Colour?
BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE
0805 500 1974
For some of the elements in the polity who are desirous of a formidable third force the emergence of Peter Obi as the presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP) must have provoked a deep reflection.
On the one hand, the development has immense implications for the future of LP itself. And on the other hand, there are some historical and ideological caveats which should be of interest to Obi and other politicians currently finding a political platform in the LP.
A labour party is like no other party.
It is remarkable that among those who “stepped down” for Obi at the Asaba convention of the of the LP was Pat Utomi, who in the last few years has worked assiduously with other patriots to build a force to widen the choice in the political landscape beyond the dominant All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Before now, Obi, Utomi and others joining the LP were not known to have ideological affinity with the labour movement, the parent of LP. So beyond the political euphoria on the surface, the underlying contradictions that are manifest in Obi’s entry into LP should be well considered so that a synthesis of the opposites could emerge for public good. It may not be out of place to make a conjecture that the synthesis may be like the meeting point of marine water of the sea and the freshwater of a river. The water at the meeting point is no more completely saline because it is diluted with the freshwater. It is called brackish water. The question that arises is this: how much brackish will Obi turn the content of the LP water as he stands on the party platform as the presidential candidate?
First, it is important to ponder the consequences of the new face of the LP, an organisation having its provenance in the struggles of the working people. Since the colonial days the idea of a labour party has undergone a metamorphosis. The current LP is not the first party to be named after the labour movement in Nigeria. Among the 81 political parties banned with Decree 33 in 1966 by the military government of General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was the Nigeria Labour Party (NLP) which was formed in the quest for political power by workers and their leaders. Amid the anti-colonial struggles, some Nigerian labour leaders were already conscious of the imperative of political power. They were not content with only the economistic struggles for increase in wages and general improvement in working conditions.
At the advent of the transition programme of the regime of President Ibrahim Babangida, another Labour Party was one of the six parties shortlisted for registration. That was before the regime later imposed two parties – the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC). Enormous leftist efforts were invested into the formation of that Labour Party and the broad labour movement was involved in its evolution. It is difficult to forget, for instance, the passion of the late Comrade Eskor Toyo for that party as he moved round the country canvassing support for the organisation.
In this dispensation, from the womb of the labour movement came the Party for Social Democracy (PSD) in 2002, the precursor of the present Labour Party that is registered with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In the last 20 years, the LP has been made available to some politicians in need of party tickets for elections. Some of these politicians never professed any labour ideology. They were only interested in “winning” elections on its platform. As a matter of fact, the organisation of the LP in the last two decades is a topic for another day.
Perhaps the greatest success story of the LP has been recorded in Ondo State where Dr. Olusegun Mimiko was elected twice as governor on the platform of the LP. In those eight years, Mimiko gave the idea of a labour party some content with significant government implementation of programmes in the social sector – health and education. Although Mimiko clearly professes some progressivism in politics, he has since returned to the PDP from where he moved to the LP.
The emphasis on the ideological content of the LP might seem an abstraction because LP like other existing parties is not involved in any ideological politics. Yet joining LP is not exactly like moving in and out of APC or PDP. Nothing distinguishes one party from another in terms of ideas in Nigeria. This constitutes a factor at the root of the nation’s political underdevelopment.
In his brief acceptance speech as presidential candidate of LP, Obi promised the details of his agenda. Will he synchronise that agenda with the manifesto of LP as it is today? In the party document, the matter is put like this: “The ideology of our Party derives from its orientation and social base which is people-oriented and all inclusive.
“Consequently, the principles of our Party shall be humanistic, patriotic, pan-African and socialist, because it is established to promote and defend the rights and welfare of the masses and indeed the entire humanity. We shall uplift the conditions of life of all, the prosperity and stability of the nation and guarantee the reign of equity and justice.
“In furtherance of the above, the ideology of the Labour Party and its members shall be Social Democracy. Therefore, our Party would promote and defend Social Democratic principles and ideals for the purpose of achieving Social Justice, Progress and People’s Democracy and Unity in the country.”
Indeed, as pointed out in the foregoing the party was initially called Party for Social Democracy. Therefore, the least expected from a subscriber to the idea of a labour party is the commitment to social democratic principles. There are some possibilities in the context. Obi and other prominent entrants into the LP will either move from their neo-liberal vantage to social democratic positions in matters of policies or they would relate to the LP just as another political platform for contesting elections.
Far from unduly drawing a parallel, there is the temptation to say that Obi’s attraction to LP is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s ascension to the leadership of the British Labour Party in a vastly different context, of course. The little similarity here is that in the name of making the British Labour Party “electable,” businessmen began to exercise greater influence on the party than the trade unions which constitute the historical base of the party. Although, a leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair became a greater disciple of the conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in making choices, some of which were anti-working class. A British journalist, David Osler, has documented this reactionary transformation of the British Labour Party in his book, Labour Party PLC: New Labour as Party of Business. At a point the British Labour Party became almost indistinguishable from the Conservative Party in policy terms. Tony Blair abolished student grants and executed unfavourable policies against the disabled and single parents. Against the Labour Party orientation, Prime Minister Tony Blair joined American President George Bush in waging the criminal war against Iraq. Hence, workers and youths got alienated from the party in the process.
Beyond the 2023 electoral ferment, the trade unions, who happily still remain the custodians of the LP values, should pin down Obi on the social democratic issues of jobs, wages, social security, public education, accessible healthcare delivery etc. It requires more than neo-liberal rhetoric to solve the huge problems in these areas of the socio-economic structure, which combine to make Nigeria a most unequal society with the majority of the people plagued by poverty. The political economy approach required to efficiently deliver public goods in Nigeria is beyond the economics of business schools which is tailored to building successful private corporate institutions. In fact, the articulation of the social democratic options in a presidential campaign will help to distinguish LP from the other parties. By that alone, the LP would be making a lot of difference. Apart from collecting the nomination fees from Obi, the commitment of Obi to the principles ought to have featured prominently as he was being screened to contest the primary election. Now that he is a candidate of a consequential stature, Obi should state his positions on some specific based on the social democratic principles. The LP should promote an agenda rooted on socio-economic justice (based on Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution) to differentiate it from some of the other parties.
In other words, the future of LP should be seen beyond 2023. You don’t develop a third force by migrating from the party after an electoral season. Beyond periodic nominations of candidates for elections, parties should be developed as enduring institutions of democracy to fight for some programmes to which the members are steadily committed. For instance, in the primaries prior to the last American presidential election, Bernie Sanders popularised his socialist agenda to a wide acclaim of American youths. Yes, a major American politician campaigned on an explicit socialist programme.
In sum, Obi’s right-wing background should be tempered enough for him to know that he has to sincerely embrace the social democratic essence of the LP and not merely fly its flag. Its agenda should be influenced by the ideological foundation of LP, which is similar to that of labour/social democratic parties in the West. In short, the ideological choice before Obi is to commit class suicide. Otherwise, he would be a pretentious member of the LP.
In turn, the LP should also be aware of the great values Obi, Utomi and others could add to LP. A demonstrably modest politician, Obi is bringing in the virtue of a national reputation and espousal of some values which are coterminous with those of social democracy – compassion, disdain for waste and abhorrence of insensitive flamboyance. Significantly, Obi is reputed for politics of ideas. A fusion of these virtues with LP’s would be good for the political development of Nigeria. It is not enough to condemn monetisation of politics; it is also important to promote values that negate these obscene behaviours associated with Nigerian politics. Obi is building himself as a positive force to promote these values. The party should engage him critically and rigorously to make this a signature contribution to the polity. At least, unlike some Nigerian politicians there is a basis to debate with Obi on some issues of development.
It would be an index of progress if the entry of Obi into the leadership of the LP could boost the social democratic content of the party.