Dead Men Left

Thursday, April 07, 2005

"The ghost of Labour past"

Lenin's beaten me to it: read his report from the Respect London election launch over here. I share his enthusiasm; an absolutely tremendous start to the campaign, whether the size of the audience, the quality and diversity of the platform, or the overwhelming sense that something big and important was starting to rumble in Tower Hamlets. Galloway, with a rhetorical flourish, concluded:

Speaking at the Respect Party's national campaign launch, the former Labour MP claimed his new party had "scuppered" the strategy of triangulation favoured by Tony Blair that saw Labour moving ever closer to the centre but able to retain its core supporters because they had no left-wing alternative to vote for.

"They will never again be able to take the traditional core of Labour voters for granted," Mr Galloway said.

"We [will] stand for the working people, the people who have nothing to sell except their work."

He added: "What's Labour about these people [the Labour Party]? There's nothing Labour about these people. That is why they are so scared of Respect - we're the ghost of Labour past."

I'd only add, to Lenin's account, a small note of caution. Too many of the speeches - Tariq Ali's in particular - played with the idea that New Labour is simply Old Tory in drag. It would be a mistake to make too much of this, for two reasons: first, it does not square with New Labour's behaviour in government; for all their (many, many) inadequacies, the tax credit schemes, the New Deal and the Commission for Africa are not Tory policies. This old-fashioned New Liberalism, c.1906, that New Labour is promoting - at its most radical, this means help the deserving poor but don't upset the rich. It's hardly socialist politics, but it's not full-blooded reaction, either. To claim otherwise is unlikely to wash with (at least some) prospective voters.

Second, it severely overstates the extent of Old Labour's collapse whilst buying into the myth about New Labour being a necessary development. The Labour Party still retains critical institutional and ideological links with the organised labour movement and the British working class more generally. "Old Labour" as a dynamic political force may be long dead, but as aspiration and an ideal, it lives on.

Millions of people will continue to vote Labour not because of Tony Blair but despite him. In the absence of better alternatives, this isn't "tribalism", as Tariq Ali derisively claimed, but old-fashioned reformism: a perfectly rational, self-interested desire for a better world without the necessary means to accomplish it.

Worst of all, implying New Labour=Old Tory is to lead one towards that trap that those millions voted for New Labour because they supported New Labour, rather than Old. Some did; most, I would hazard, did not: John Hills' analysis of the comprehensive British Social Attitudes survey (via Our Word is Our Weapon) demonstrates how far to the left the British public have been relative to New Labour, before and after its election.

Still, a fantastic evening out. Let's hope the momentum can be sustained.