New Labour as the ‘lesser evil’? That’s a good one
The ludicrous spectacle of the leftovers of the left parroting their old arguments for supporting Labour is history repeated as low farce.
Since the first General Election debate in which I got involved, back in 1979, everything has changed in British politics. Everything, it seems, except the British left’s desperate, bankrupt case for supporting the Labour Party.
Labour, left-wing voices have accepted in every modern election from the era of Thatcher to Brown, is far from perfect. But nevertheless, they have insisted, it remains ‘the lesser evil’ compared to the Tories – an essentially working-class party linked to the trade unions, as against the Conservatives’ support for capitalism and the rich. So whatever happens in between elections, however bad Labour apparently becomes, the message is that we should still support it come election time.
There have been times in the past when the ‘lesser evil argument’ might have made sense to a good many people, as ruthless-looking Tories launched attacks on a mass working-class movement and Labour made rhetorical noises about defending the workers. Today, however, when neither the Labour nor Tory parties are even shadows of their former selves, it should be self-evidently ludicrous to stick to the old ways, as if this was a political version of Life on Mars. Yet still, what remains of the British left is sticking to the ‘lesser evil’ mantra, although with nothing positive to say about Gordon Brown they have to justify it by fantasising about just how evil David Cameron’s Tories really are.
Karl Marx suggested that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In repeating the arguments of the past in the vastly different context of today, the historical leftovers of the British left have simply cut out the high tragedy and gone straight for the low farce.
Some of us on the left never accepted the ‘lesser evil’ case for Labour even in its heyday. By the time of the 1983 General Election I was a fully-fledged Marxist, campaigning for a political alternative to Labour through the Revolutionary Communist Party’s electoral intervention. For us, Labourism was a conservative dead weight that had held down the British working class for decades and a barrier to political and social progress. For the overwhelming majority of those on the left, however, at a time of mass protest movements and trade union struggles, Labourism remained the safest bet to take on Thatcher’s Tories. Today, when there are no mass movements or struggles at all, most of the remnants of the left still cling to the threadbare comfort blanket of the ‘lesser evil’ argument for Labour, even though they can only justify it by resorting to fantasy politics about what the parties now represent.
Of course there is nothing new about the sort of bitter anti-Toryism that you can hear expressed by left-wing commentators in this election campaign. In the past, however, it reflected a commitment to a political struggle in which major differences were at stake. For example, when Aneurin Bevan famously declared in 1948 that ‘no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party… So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin’, it was on the eve of Bevan’s launch of the National Health Service, with the Labour government and Tory opposition struggling over the future direction of British society.
And again in 1974, when Tory prime minister Edward Heath called an election against the background of the Miners’ Strike, and posed the British people the question ‘Who rules?’ – that is, Them or Us – the clear class divide in politics gave meaning to the anti-Toryism that led the left to swallow its doubts and support Labour.
Every time, however, the Labour Party let its left-wing supporters down, as state socialism turned into a means to reconcile the working class to the needs of the capitalist system. The 1945-1951 Labour government, still widely seen as the high point of British socialism, did not only establish the NHS and the postwar welfare state and nationalise industries such as coal and steel. It also imposed bitter austerity, fought dirty colonial wars, imprisoned strikers and built the British atomic bomb. Yet still the left clung to Labour.
The Labour governments of 1974-1979, elected on a wave of trade union militancy and anti-Toryism, went on to cut working-class living standards to meet the needs of British capitalism in the recession, slashing public spending and imposing a five per cent norm for pay rises at a time of rampant inflation and mass unemployment. At the end of that grim era, however, the left still expounded the ‘lesser evil’ argument. As one leading MP argued in Tribune, the paper of the Labour left, in 1978, Labour had been bad, ‘yet there is little doubt that the government has protected the working population from the most serious effects of the capitalist world crisis far more than any Tory government would have done’. In the perverse view of these left-wing Labourites, the ‘lesser evil’ argument could even turn job cuts and wage restraint into a way of ‘protecting’ the working population from the Tories. Hence did the left become complicit in Labour’s attacks – and in its own discrediting and defeat.
After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were elected in 1979, they mobilised support for a sustained campaign against the organised working-class movement in pursuit of the cause, as Thatcher bluntly put it, of ‘killing socialism’. The Labour Party, under the leadership of Michael Foot and then Neil Kinnock, proved pathetically inadequate to the challenge of Thatcher, failing to support key struggles – most notably the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. Yet still the left dreamed of ‘reviving’ Labourism, and tried to channel the widespread bitter anti-Toryism into support for the ‘lesser evil’.
By the time Tony Blair and Gordon Brown revived the party’s electoral fortunes, they had done so by rejecting everything that the left believed in and constructing the edifice of New Labour to hide the ruins of Labourism. Yet such was the residual strength of the ‘lesser evil’ sentiment that most of the left cheered Blair’s defeat of the hated Tories as if it was their own triumph.
And what did they get for their trouble? Thirteen years of New Labour government that has been marked by capitalist-friendly policies and economic crisis, dirty wars abroad and the assault on liberties at home, and the burying of just about everything that remained progressive in British politics and society. All of which has culminated in Brown’s denunciation of underpaid British Airways cabin crew who dared to strike for a few days as ‘deplorable’, and Peter Mandelson’s proud description of New Labour’s supposedly radical manifeszzzto as ‘Blair-plus’. Who needs the Tories now?
Surely after all those years of humiliation and hurt, those who still think of themselves as on the left will have to face up to the truth about New Labour? But no, still many of them cling to the tattered old banners of the ‘lesser evil’ in this election. Of course it is hard to say anything much that is positive about Brown and Co, even compared to previous Labour leaders. At least one trade union leader has described this as the worst-ever government. So instead the lesser-evilists are trying to distract from how bad Brown has been by constructing stories about how really, really bad the Tories would be, painting Cameron’s rather milksop Blair tribute act as if it were a hardline Thatcherite army.
This is little more than fantasy politics, as typified by former London mayor Ken Livingstone who wrote this week that ‘Our slogan of “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” perfectly encapsulates the way forward’ – conveniently ignoring the small fact that Brown and the New Labour leadership have entirely renounced any such slogan, and that Alistair Darling has admitted a re-elected New Labour government would make deeper cuts in public spending than Thatcher did. Livingstone the fantasist also tried to hold up the two-year London reign of his conqueror, Tory mayor Boris Johnson, as evidence of how much things would change for the worse under the Conservatives, when the reality is that, as predicted on spiked at the time of the supposed ‘Red Ken v True Blue Boris’ election, few Londoners will have noticed any more difference between the two regimes than the great struggle over bendy buses.
Further to the left it is remarkable how far some are prepared to go in their efforts to sustain a farcical version of the ‘lesser evil’ argument. For example, spiked has noted in recent years how crusading against the far-right British National Party has become a sort of test of public decency for politicians of all parties, and a substitute for standing for anything of their own (see The new divide in British politics: Us and Him, by Brendan O’Neill). Now a group of well-placed left-wingers has gone further and launched the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists, as if they were more or less the same thing. In which case even rotten New Labour must be a lesser evil, surely?
Others on what remains of the left find it hard to stomach a direct call for a vote for New Labour these days, but the implications of their election intervention are clear enough. For example, the radical left stalwarts of the Socialist Workers Party, fresh from their wounding and party-splitting experience of standing for election alongside Gorgeous George Galloway in Respect, have this time signed up to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition alongside assorted former members of the Militant Tendency, Scottish Socialist Party, and so on. They claim they will contest 40 or 50 constituencies – but apparently not ones where they might risk losing Labour a seat. Meanwhile the paper Socialist Worker, whilst shrilly denouncing both main parties’ plans for cuts, concludes that ‘a Tory win will demoralise many working people and boost every rotten element in society. It will make some workers feel less able to fight the cuts. That is why the SWP does think it matters who you vote for, and that sometimes it’s worth standing in elections.’ And when you can’t stand, the clear implication is, grit those teeth and vote for Labour’s cuts as a ‘lesser evil’ than the Tory ones.
The problem of how to relate to the Labour Party has dogged the British left for more than a century. In the revolutionary era that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin did advise the embryonic British Communist Party to support the newly emerging Labour Party, but only ‘as a rope supports a hanging man’. Lenin’s argument was that, in circumstances where there had never been a Labour government and many working-class people had illusions in Labourism, the sizeable core of revolutionary leftists could best hope to win wider support as independent, critical supporters of Labour.
Today’s political circumstances could hardly be more different. There is no mass working-class movement – indeed while the working class clearly still exists in socio-economic terms, it has no separate or collective political existence at all today. There is no significant left – in fact there is great confusion about what being left or progressive even means. And there have been more than enough grisly governments to destroy any illusions in Labourism even before the age of New Labour. Yet the rump of the British left, which crucially never managed to establish any real political independence from Labourism even when formally separate, still supports Labour as the ‘lesser evil’. It seems that they are the last ones left alive with any illusions (or rather delusions) in the potential for Labour to change things for the better.
Where once the left’s anti-Toryism represented a clash between competing visions of society – however narrow – today the ‘lesser evil’ case for Labour is based on little more than cynicism, negativity and demagoguery. It is high time to face up to some home truths. If you are serious about wanting to change society, there is no reason to support New Labour, and doing so can lead to nothing positive in post-electoral politics.
Yes of course, there will be differences between a New Labour and a Tory government, and the leaders’ debates that begin tonight will try to emphasise the important choices we face. But in reality none of those differences is sufficient to justify support for one over the others. If the limit of your concerns is whether or not to put a penny on National Insurance, by all means fill your boots. But if you are interested in furthering progressive politics and advancing the cause of serious social change, there is nothing to be gained. The exhausted ‘lesser evil’ argument can only do more damage to the prospects for creating a new politics of radical change in the circumstances of today.
Of course it is one thing to say we need a political alternative, quite another actually to build one. The left’s acceptance that there is no alternative to Labour has over the years become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the defeat of Labourism meaning there is no sign of any alternative in politics today. The British left bears a heavy responsibility for creating the situation they now bemoan.
There would be no point against this historical background in trying simply to announce The Alternative from nothing. But we can start by facing up to the truth about the old politics, and abandoning the ragged comfort blanket of lesser-evilism.
I recall almost 30 years ago, arguing that in their relations with the Labour Party the British radical left were like naughty children who make a show of defying their parents, but when it matters – such as at election time – always come home in time for their tea and bed. It is sad and bizarre to note that, after all that has happened in the years between, some are still behaving in the same infantile fashion, even when the repast they are being offered by New Labour is such cold and unappetising fare.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.