After New Labour, what’s left?
Whatever else the left might have lost, it retains its unsurpassed capacity for self-delusion.
What can it mean to be on the left today? Nobody seemed to be asking that question at the annual Labour Party conference, but it screamed out of every staged-managed debate.
Many have commented on the lifeless state of the Labour conference, compared to the heated and controversial affairs of past years. Yet few seem to have understood what has changed. It is not simply about the control now exercised by Tony Blair’s party managers and PR people. The rise of these petty bureaucrats has been facilitated by a far more important political process – the death of the left.
It was the left that gave Labour conferences the appearance of relatively dynamic debate in the past. These annual seaside jamborees rarely decided party policy, and certainly did not tell the leadership what to do when Labour was in government. But the conference did provide a platform for the left in the trade unions and the local parties to put on a show of strength, to attack their leaders, pass rebellious motions on big issues such as unilateral nuclear disarmament or Northern Ireland, and to elect their own candidates on to the party’s National Executive Committee. Much of that radical theatre has now gone with the demise of the Labour left – and, incidentally, of the old Labour right against which they fought their set-piece battles.
The headline-grabbing row over the exclusion of Walter Wolfgang, the 82-year-old Labour Party member who heckled foreign secretary Jack Straw, sums up the dire state of affairs. As Rob Lyons notes elsewhere on spiked, the overblown affair reveals not only the insecurity and uncertainty of the New Labour leadership, but also the desperation of its left-wing critics (see The Battle of Walter’s Heckle, by Rob Lyons). The speed with which Mr Wolfgang was turned into some sort of a martyr and held up as a symbol of resistance to the Blairites showed the remnants of the left in the unions and the party casting about for any cause they can rally around, however thin. I appreciate that we live in an ageing society, but octogenarians are not normally the leaders of popular rebellions. As it happens, shouting ‘nonsense’ at a government minister does not even qualify as a proper heckle, never mind a political alternative.
What little remains of the left did not even have its campaign against fox hunting to get excited about this year, with the ban having been enacted and the whole non-issue having disappeared. Some seemed so desperate to recapture the little thrills of that crusade that they reportedly attacked the Countryside Alliance stall at the conference anyway – at night, when it was closed. This sort of shadow boxing seems the nearest the left can come to winning a fight these days.
The role of chancellor Gordon Brown at the conference, and the reaction to it, perhaps best illustrated the left’s demise. Over the years, as its influence and authority has waned, the Labour left has scaled down its aspirations time and again, from the demand to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy to a request to keep the lowest-paid workers above the poverty line. During the New Labour years, the left has increasingly attached its hopes to Brown, as the supposedly ‘Real Labour’ alternative to Blair, despite the absence of any real evidence to support this claim.
The scale of the left’s self-delusion over Brown should have become unavoidably evident to all at this week’s conference, when the chancellor gave a defining speech that not only pledged to carry on the New Labour project, but also dipped into Margaret Thatcher’s old handbag to offer the dream of a share-owning, property-owning democracy. Brown stands revealed as what he always was, the political equivalent of a bank manager – and a dour Scottish Presbyterian bank manager at that. Some left-wing observers seemed genuinely shocked to be confronted with the Real Brown rather than their fantasy about Real Labour. Yet still they will cling to the dream that he didn’t really mean all that, and things will be different once ‘our Gordon’ takes over. Whatever else the left might have lost over the years, it retains its unsurpassed capacity for self-delusion.
Nobody with eyes to see could now seriously contend that the tension between Blair and Brown is any sort of left v right conflict over political principles. This is more like the feuding, feudal politics of an ancient old royal court, where personal cliques and factions manoeuvre for power and squabble over the succession to the throne. The left’s keenness to hitch its three-wheeled wagon to one of these courtly cliques only confirms its own loss of direction and independence.
Nor, we might note in passing, does the left that formally exists outside the Labour Party appear to offer much better prospects for progressive politics. The Stop the War Coalition, driven by the Socialist Workers’ Party, has mobilised big (though steadily shrinking) demonstrations against the war in Iraq. But what do these represent in political terms? To my slightly jaundiced eye, it appears that the SWP has gone from tail-ending the trade union movement in the Seventies and Eighties, through tail-ending middle-class revolts against the Tory poll tax or New Labour’s university tuition fees, to tail-ending Muslim alienation (through its RESPECT coaltion) today. What basis any of that provides for radical political change is anybody’s guess.
So to return to the question – what can it mean to be left wing today? Many will say it means being against the Iraq war (although some leading left-wing writers are among that war’s firmest supporters). But, as Brendan O’Neill has pointed out on spiked, everybody from Osama bin Laden to Ken Clarke is against it, too (see Ken Clarke and the suicide bomber, by Brendan O’Neill). In Britain, much of the opposition to the Iraq war is motivated more by fear of terrorism and moral defeatism than by an anti-imperialist objection to foreign wars of intervention. It represents essentially a conservative reaction and a retreat, rather than a radical challenge or attempt to move forwards.
Elsewhere, those identified with the left today often seem the most conservative voices in public debate about everything from science to free speech. They are also the most likely to put their trust in judges, in Europe or the House of Lords, rather than the people and their elected representatives. Left-wing bloggers are also now challenging traditional right-wing cranks for the title of champion conspiracy theorists.
What little remains of the left has, in short, abandoned any attachment to progress and the future. Instead it now stands for much of the anti-human worldview that we at spiked oppose most vehemently. That is why I have sometimes said that spiked is on the left, but not of it. We stand on the left as it was originally named, after those who stood on that side of the National Assembly during the French Revolution to champion reason, science, liberty and the secular values of the Enlightenment. We don’t want to return to the past, but to see those gains of humanity defended and developed in the changing context of the twenty-first century. It is apparent that project will not be pursued through hanging on to the coat tails of Gordon Brown, or imagining that there is any more of a left-wing vehicle for political change today than there is a right-wing one.
There is a pressing need to rise above all this and debate the need for a new future-oriented idea of human liberation. However, this will not necessitate, as people used to say, ‘breaking the mould’ of left-right politics. That mould has already been shattered beyond repair.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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