Dead Men Left

Saturday, May 07, 2005

What next? Some thoughts on the aftermath

I've received an email from an acquaintance with some vaguely interesting information from inside the Conservative Party:

I have heard, albeit unofficially, from a senior Conservative MP that there is a group of Tory MPs on the left of the party who are planning something quite drastic. They are unhappy with the direction that Howard has taken the party in, seeing it as only winning the core vote. The MP claimed there was a group of about 18 MPs who had spoken about this. The
plan after this would be to realign the party into the middle ground, and fight Blair directly on the ground he won in 1997.

Of course, all that seems so obvious to an outsider - if Portillo, or Ken Clarke was the leader to the Tories now, they could quite possibly win this election. The revelation from the MP was unexpected, but it seemed like he had just reached the end of his patience with the current party leadership.

He also said that he had been gagged by the leadership from speaking on any Television or Radio shows, which explains why the party has made so little an issue about his department. He said that the Tory candidates nationally felt as if they were almost abandonned by the party, and left to fight their own election battle alone.

This should be set alongside Tory MP Damian Green's musings in today's Guardian, in which he suggests that

What this election reveals to thoughtful Conservatives is that we have now tested to destruction the theory that continuing with the ideas that served us in the 1980s and 1990s will somehow win us back the affections of the British people. For three elections in a row we have tried variations on a post-Thatcherite theme, using either Europe or immigration as a signal that we share the discomfort of some British people with the modern world. There are many such people, and they need representing, but they do not form the basis for a government.

Green even goes so far as to say that a national coalition with the Lib Dems might be necessary. Vince Cable, on the same page in the printed edition, concurs. Cable is one of the few senior Lib Dems with a degree of ideological clarity about the direction the party should take - which is, as far as he and the Orange Book crew are concerned, still further over to the right. It is possible to imagine a coalescence of socially liberal but economically conservative votes around such a programme: roughly, gay rights plus the free market. As the newly elected MP for Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg, wrote of his free-market comrades, "Other strands of liberalism might place greater emphasis on social reform, on radical constitutional reform, on the abolition of inherited privilege." But not his, and not Cable's, and not a whole crowd born-again Thatcherites. An alliance with socially liberal Tories would make perfect sense, over and above the habitual opportunism that has delivered Lib Dem-Tory coalitions in cities up and down the country. On Europe, a key issue for British politics in coming years, the alliance already exists in the blind support for the EU that left Tories and all Lib Dems espouse.

It would appear, with the dust still settling from the election, that New Labour bled to death in Iraq. Blair is finished; he may manage a few last unpleasant twitches, but there is simply no way Labour can continue as a credible party of government with a notorious liar and probable war criminal at its helm. The promise of the Third Way - that, given the right conditions, free markets could deliver social justice - was exhausted some time before Iraq, but Blair's criminally misguided adventure in the Middle East delivered the coup de grace.

Although Respect's win, and the staggering votes it received across East London and Birmingham, offer the Left an unprecedented opportunity. For the first time in generations the potential is there to build a mass party of the radical Left in Britain, in opposition to an enfeebld New Labour and all the other parties of neoliberalism. The obvious danger, however, is that without both an absolute clarity about both its firm stand against oppression, and a meaningful economic programme, this potential will be missed. Without a clear critique of neoliberalism's general failings - and, I would argue, Brown's specific implementation of neoliberal policy - we run the danger of merely repeating, in more forthright fashion, a clear consensus broadly in favour of a diverse and plural society. The Tory left, and the Lib Dem right, could both sign up to such a view of Britain; New Labour also fancies itself in favour of diversity and tolerance, though the rigours of neoliberal government have pushed it elsewhere.

The tie between these two poles is, of course, class. Respect is unashamedly a party of the working class; it enjoys, at present, the support of some of the most downtrodden and overtly oppressed workers in Britain. Its vote in East London came from Asian workers in alliance with sections of the white working class, on a platform of unabashed class politics. This alliance was decisive in bringing victory in Bethnal Green and Bow, and could only have been achieved through the absolute rejection of the communalist politics all other major parties indulged in. We delivered the same message to all parts of the constituency. The Labour vote came from the other half of white working class voters in alliance with the more dependable middle-class areas - including large numbers of better-off Bengali voters. New Labour tailored its message on communalist lines, whilst Oona King was heard on the doorstep telling white constituents that Galloway was "stirring it up" amongst the Bengalis. Elsewhere, they'd call this playing the race card. In the absence of credible class politics, it was all New Labour had to offer.

(An aside: Respect was significantly ahead of Labour during the ward-by-ward count of votes taken at polling stations. It was only after the delivery of the constituency-wide postal votes that the gap between the parties closed. This accounts for the delay in the result. There are numerous reports of voters - including, somewhat bizarrely, Mariella Frostrup - turning up to vote only to be informed they had already voted by post. The suspicion forms that someone attempted to rig the ballot, and that someone miscalculated; this side of a thorough investigation, it can be no more than a suspicion.)

For Respect to flourish, it will need to maintain that same political line. There is a crying need for a political force that can credibly represent the aspirations of working people in Britain, New Labour having long abandoned any pretence at doing so: when it talks about social justice, it is in the language of old-fashioned paternalism, not the language of working-class emancipation, and of the fight for justice. Like Lenin, I will end with an appeal: join us.