Dead Men Left

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Gary Younge: "we cannot vote Labour"

Gary Younge adds his voice to a growing chorus:

Those progressives who have always and will always vote Labour, regardless of what it does or to whom, please turn the page. There is a word that covers uncritical support, non-negotiable loyalty and blind faith. It is called fundamentalism. The rest of us have some hard thinking to do. The next few months will find us regaled by friends and foes at work and play, in print and on screen. They will threaten us with life under Michael Howard. Like a Soviet commissar without a clipboard, they will parrot the achievements of the past eight years in facts and figures by rote.

His assesment of the position of the Left in England and Wales when facing these elections is absolutely spot-on:

The left comes at this election from a position of political strength and electoral weakness. We have managed to galvanise mass opposition to the war in particular but, with the exception of Scotland, not to New Labour in general - and so have failed to lend this disaffection an electoral expression. As a result, there is no national force to the left of Labour capable of replacing it or of posing an effective challenge to it under a first-past-the-post system.

Sensibly, he (largely) rejects the Lib Dem option: they seem poised to act as a safety-valve in this election, harmlessly dissipating progressive frustrations.

The immediate electoral calculation facing the Lib Dems is clear: the majority of their target seats are held by Tories; in the absence of tactical voting from Labour supporters, they need to tack to the social-liberal right. In the longer term, the sole ideological pole of attraction inside the party seems to be those born-again Thatcherites around Vince Cable, whose thoughts on the future of politics were so handily assembled in the "Orange Book".

(However: here are the sorry details of the Labour candidate on offer in my constituency. The gap between student radical and grown-up Blairite seems to have lessened dramatically in recent years. If I vote, I will vote Lib Dem because I have no other remotely progressive choice.)

But Younge is also absolutely correct to tell those still obsessing about Blair that the blame has to be spread wider:

Depressed turnout and the rise in support for the British National party suggest an even greater risk of a far more dramatic lurch to the right if we maintain our current course and ignore the despondency [the government] is creating. To blame this on Blair and the New Labour project, as though they are in some way separate and distinct from the rest of Labour, no longer washes. True, they have dismantled almost every lever of democracy within the party. But, with a few notable exceptions, at crucial moments the backbenchers and trade union movement have chosen to side with the leadership.

There are too many to recount in detail: the trade unions' collapse on ending the occupation of Iraq at Labour's 2004 conference; votes in Parliament on tuition fees, or ID cards, or the anti-terror legislation. Too often, for eight years, the check on the government that a presumed "Labour Left" was supposed to provide has failed. We must look elsewhere.

The determining factor facing the non-Labour Left in Britain is its geographical unevennes. As Younge says, "[P]rogressive antipathy to Labour will most likely be shaped by local factors." Whilst the sense of despair about Labour is spread nationwide, perhaps best seen in the party's haemorrhaging of 200,000 members since 1997, it is only very partially been assembled into effective political organisations. In some areas, anti-war Labour MPs can be wholeheartedly supported. In others, Respect or the Greens offer the best hope for left-wing voice in this election.

We have to adopt what has been described as a "guerrilla strategy": not marching onto the battlefield to be slaughtered by the vastly greater conventional armies of Labour and the Lib Dems, but harrying the opposition where own forces are strongest. The value of tying down and defeating New Labour in a single constituency is far greater and will achieve far more to rebuild the Left than any amount of pretension to national representation.