Dead Men Left

Friday, April 08, 2005

Broad churches, gaping deficits

Seamus Milne has very well summarised the predicament of the left in Britain. Rightly dismissing the Liberal Democrats as having "supported the occupation of Iraq and moved sharply to the right", he also acknowledges New Labour's extremely limited achievements are enough to differentiate them from the Tories.

His conclusion mirrors remarks made by Galloway on Question Time last week:

The fact that vast swathes of public opinion effectively now have no voice inside the main parties demonstrates that the political system isn't working - and the Iraq war has made that crisis of representation much sharper. A two-party system can only function if both main parties are broad coalitions. By moving Labour so far to the right while silencing those on his left, Blair has made that impossible. The battle inside Labour for a change of direction will have to begin the day after the election - or the current process of political and electoral disintegration may become unstoppable.

The argument that Respect is starting to win, if hints and whispers from certain people are anything to go by, is that the bigger our vote on May 5, the better for the Labour left. Blair has already tacitly admitted that taking the left for granted through "triangulation" is no longer working: hence the trumpeting of increased public spending, the fuss made about the New Deal and the minimum wage, and the parading of Gordon Brown as New Labour's left-wing crusader. Left-wing Labour voters are demonstrating that there is an alternative to New Labour; unfortunately, at the moment the biggest beneficiaries are the None of the Above party, and - even worse - the Liberal Democrats.

However, it's the vote for Respect that will send the clearest, most unambiguous signal possible to the Labour leadership. Tactically, left-wingers inside the Labour Party should be doing whatever they can towards returning Galloway and the other candidates to Parliament. What Milne suggests in his conclusion is that there is a strategic question involved, however, and one that may become exceptionally sharp after the election: are we building Respect as (little more than) a one-off ginger group upon the Labour Party, or as a long-term project to reforge the left?

The answer depends to a large part on our estimation of the Labour Party's historic role as a credible vehicle for socialist advance; and on the extent to which New Labour has disabled Labour's internal democracy. My own answer would be that Labour has persistently failed the often minimal aspirations of its members and supporters, for numerous reasons, and that the Blair clique have so damaged the Party's vital organs that there is little hope for recovery even to that minimum. The debate, however, is in no way settled, and is likely to become all the sharper if Respect makes the breakthrough it is hoping for.