Dead Men Left

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

"Let it bleed"

Tariq Ali, back in 1970, penned an article under that title for the International Marxist Group’s weekly newspaper, arguing that he didn’t care whether Tories or Labour won the election – indeed, he might even want the Tories to win so as to deliver a swift lesson in proper capitalist rule. (Consumed by a rising tide of working-class militancy, the following three years and nine months of Conservative government produced many strange and notable sights: it remains Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, for example, that she opened more comprehensive schools than any other Education Secretary - though I imagine she’s not entirely proud of her record.) Thanks to Ali’s rhetorical skills, “Let it bleed” remains amongst the classiest statements of ultra-left principle.

It is, unfortunately, a dreadful position: a Conservative government might lead to workers becoming more militant; then again, it might – and, all things considered, is far more likely to - lead to the dismemberment of working class organisation, a colossal reverse of its many gains, and the destruction of large chunks of the welfare state. Not a great idea.

Thirty-four years later, Tariq Ali is dangerously close to arguing the same line. For Ali has arrived upon a formulation perhaps unique in British politics: support the Iraqi resistance, vote Liberal Democrat.

Normally, people vote to assert their political sympathies. But this is not a normal general election. It will be the first opportunity to punish the warmongers and, given the undemocratic voting system, the votes cast for the Greens, Respect and others will have no impact, with a possible exception in Bethnal Green and Bow, east London, where George Galloway confronts the warmonger Oona King. It is possible that in some constituencies the Green/Respect vote could ensure the return of a warmonger, as we have seen in the odd byelection. So why not treat this election as special and take the politics of the broad anti-war front to the electoral arena? If the result is a hung parliament or a tiny Blair majority, it will be seen as a victory for our side.

With a single (heavily qualified) exception, Ali sees this election as a golden opportunity to march the legions of the anti-war movement into supporting a sickly yellow Tory Party. The great tragedy of the 2005 election will be the swollen vote for the pro-war, pro-occupation Liberal Democrats from anti-war, anti-occupation left-wingers. It may be the case – though I think it far-fetched – that an anti-war vote can deliver a hung Parliament; Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, has ruled out a coalition with Blair under such circumstances, but the grim prospect of Tory/Lib Dem alliance remains. Unfortunate voters in solidly Labour cities like Birmingham and Leeds have found just such an unholy pact ruling their towns.

The Liberal Democrats are a party of the free market; they wish to ban strikes; they cannot even be trusted on civil liberties issues. The most prominent ideological tendencies within, and simple tactical considerations without the party both lead them to lean further to the right. Given all this, it is not enough to make voting decisions based solely on the Iraq war, and especially not when rewarding an essentially pro-war party. We have to think longer-term, about rebuilding left-wing political organisation in opposition to all the parties of neoliberalism and war. Part of that longer-term strategy will mean, in some areas, campaigning and voting for Respect. (In others, the Greens will be a sensible choice.)

If we wish to build credible political alternatives to New Labour and the rest of the shower, we have to start delivering votes. Everywhere else, it means laying roots and creating new networks of activists and supporters. There are council elections in 2006, and there are any number of campaigns before then. The thread that can tie all these elements together is a new political organisation of the left, linking the struggle for representation with grass-roots campaigns against (for instance) housing privatisation or for improved local healthcare. Any such organisation must be able to present a clear and convincing alternative to the endless rounds of privatisation and deregulation, and that is one reason why I am supporting Respect.

Yet it is absolutely true that a well-aimed cull of Labour MPs would deliver a salutary lesson to the party’s leadership. Where no other left-wing alternative exists, the case for a solid anti-Blairite vote is clear. Though we are unlikely to claim any major scalps, a la Portillo in 1997, the swarms of Blairite yes-men and women need to be cleared out of Parliament – the more, the better. (Half-decent anti-war MPs should remain, suitably frightened where necessary by their colleagues' sudden disappearance.) A vote for a Lib Dem in a marginal Labour seat, with a pro-war loyalist MP and where the Liberals are best placed to unseat the creature is eminently justified – if, and only if, it is done alongside strenuous efforts to ensure that this Hobson’s choice never arises again.