Dead Men Left

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Necromancy and flogging dead horses

Via Little Red Blogger, I find Ken McLeod (20/02/05) is summoning up old ghosts.

This country is sleepwalking towards a Tory government. A new Tory government would not be more of the same - Blairism with a less human face. It would be as different from the governments of Thatcher and Major as theirs were from those of Edward Heath. It would resemble Thatcher's only in its capacity to astonish.

How could it be coming to this? Why is the Left letting this happen?

We're going wrong in two ways, which are two sides of the same mistake: identifying the Labour Party with Blairism. One part of the Left is busy defending New Labour, and another part is saying there's no difference between the Labour Party and the Tories, and is busy building electoral alternatives to the Labour Party.

First up, the simple practicalities: an intelligent Left strategy of opposition to New Labour would no more bring about a Tory government than smearing the Mayor of London will. Respect is standing in around 30 seats nationally; the Tories require a swing of some 12% for "even a small majority", which none of the polls suggest is happening yet.

That's looking nationally. In practice, some seats are harder for the Tories to win than others, and there's little reason for the Left to stand in Labour marginals. On the other side, there's plenty of unpleasant pro-war Blairite timeservers who thoroughly deserve to, at the very least, have their cages rattled. Ken's fears here are simply misplaced. Across the country as a whole, the Lib Dems are a more likely stalking horse for the Tories, given the nationwide spread of their candidates and likely attraction for left votes. Even then, though, the majority of their target seats are Tory-held.

Ken's more substantive points are equally off the mark, but raise some interesting issues nontheless. We must allow for a simple factual error: far from only the "tiny Labour left and the even tinier Communist Party" preferring a New Labour government to the Tories, this is Respect's position. There is a clear difference between the two, and that is why Respect supporters work with decent Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Alan Simpson in the Stop the War Coalition. New Labour is not the whole of the Labour Party, even as it gradually consumes it. It will attract millions of votes in this election because its electorate, considerably to the left of the government, recognise that fact. Either the non-Labour left does, too, or it will be susceptible to the last gasp Blairite appeal: you don't want the Tories back, do you?

There are groups on the Left for whom this is not clear. Some in the Green Party have appeared indifferent between Labour and Conservative, refusing to second-preference Ken Livingstone during the London elections and, for example, forming a coalition with the Tories in Leeds. The prospect, however, of a substantial Green vote nationwide seems remote. The most likely prospect for Green advance is arm-in-arm with Respect.

Ken's analysis, at its base, depends on an appeal to Labour's historic role as the repository of progressive hopes in Britain. It has held that position for some eighty years; the question now facing any serious Left is: does that situation still hold? Gary Younge offered an answer it is hard to fault:

To blame... 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.

This has transformed Labour from an imperfect conduit of progressive change to an active obstacle to it. To vote for it is to abandon any hope that such change will ever come. It is to hand over responsibility for a leftwing agenda to those who have shown nothing but contempt for liberal-left policies and for the people who hold them dear. Nowhere is this more evident than on Iraq. The case against the war has been made often and eloquently, not least in these pages.