Dead Men Left

Monday, May 16, 2005

Ken Livingstone, writing in the Liberal Bomber last Sunday:

Two facts dominated the outcome of the general election. First, Labour lost 6 per cent of the vote. Second, the Tories were almost totally unable to gain support, their support rising only 0.5 per cent. This compares with an increase of 4 per cent for the Liberal Democrats and 1.5 per cent to others, the bulk of whom presented themselves as Labour's left. Given the orientation of the Liberal Democrats at this election, this means that Labour lost 10 votes to those presenting themselves as moderately to its left for every vote it lost to its right.

From which cuddly Ken draws the (fairly obvious) conclusion that Labour must appeal to its left, rather than to its right. That Blair is bent on doing precisely the opposite is, of course, typical of New Labour: it's never been solely - or even importantly - about popularity, and Blair would rather lose a few votes than divert from his neoliberal course.

What's interesting, though, is how Livingstone places his argument. It's not based on appeal, a la Hattersley, to forgotten "Labour values" and social democratic instincts. It's based on crude electoral calculations, and an appeal to precisely the same fundamental strategy as Blair. Livingstone thinks Labour should maintain the "anti-Tory alliance" by leaning to the left; Blair has always strove to do the same thing by leaning to the right. Implicit in both positions is that Labour should be the "natural" party of government, with all that this phrase suggests: management of the economy to suit business, a balancing of plural and equal interests, and - crucially - a rejection of the very idea of class.

Blair once hinted that the act of creating the Labour Party, over 100 years ago, was a mistake: it broke up "progressive" forces and ensured Tory domination over the 20th century. Livingstone appears to think along the same lines. If he was ever socialist, he appears to be no longer.

The left's challenge to this left-liberal position is quite distinct: it was necessary to found a party of the working class since without it the many gains that have been wrung out of business in this country - the NHS, the welfare state, free education - would have been quite impossible; a working class without independent political representation was a class permanently bound and crippled by business.