Paul Anderson, review of The Alternative by Ben Pimlott, Anthony Wright and Tony Flower (eds) (W. H. Allen, £14.95), Tribune, 3 August 1990

The magazine Samizdat was started a couple of years ago by a small group of centre-left intellectuals with a large number of buddies on the journalistic-academic cocktail circuit, who were disappointed at their boy having missed the editorship of the New Statesman when Stuart Weir was appointed.

Samizdat‘s Big Idea was a “popular front of the mind” between centre and left. Although the centre parties were in the doldrums and Labour had moved some way towards the centre, Labour was still way behind in the opinion polls and would need an electoral pact or tactical voting to form a government, they thought. Worse, it still had all those awful working-class trade union chaps and loony Trots on board. And worst of all, Labour wasn’t taking advice from the people (themselves) who had all the good ideas.

Unfortunately, less than six months after Samizdat was launched, Labour was well ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls, and since then it has looked likely to win the next election on its own. The centre, meanwhile, has more or less collapsed. Although Samizdat published several good articles (and a lot of dross), its raison d’etre became increasingly obscure. Its writers even started contributing to the New Statesman again once they realised that the Weir regime was not as hostile as they had feared. Indeed, the Statesman was just as sniffy as Samizdat about the Labour Party, just as keen on “popular fronts of the mind”, and just as prone to the pretension that British left intellectuals whose advice had been spurned by Kinnock were in the same boat as dissidents in eastern Europe.

All this woud be comic were the product not so stale. A visitor from outer space would certainly gain substantial insights into British centre-left thinking by reading the pieces in The Alternative, the Samizdat reader “for the new millenium”, but anyone who has read the liberal press in the past ten years will get a terrible sense of deja vu. Most of the longer pieces are the same old people — John Lloyd, David Marquand, Paul Hirst, Peter Hennessy, Christopher Huhne, Martin Jacques, Richard Holme, Raymond Plant, Michael Young, Julian Le Grand, Patricia Hewitt — trotting out the same old arguments (market forces, citizenship, proportional representation, reform of Whitehall, psephological trends, a touch of green) in the same old ponderous style.

Some do it better than others, and the longer contributions are interspersed with short pieces by Big Names from the World of Culture, some of which are not too bad, On the whole, however, The Alternative, far from offering “a stinging challenge to the Blandness Tendency, which has recently gained such an alarming influence on opposition politics”, is little more than an encore by old bores who think they’ve a right to a job in the think-tank when Labour comes to power.

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