New Statesman & Society, 22 July 1994
At first sight, the Labour left looks washed up with nowhere to go. But Paul Anderson wonders whether Tony Blair’s election could revive its fortunes
It is customary to write off the Labour left – and it is easy to see why. In the past ten years it has suffered an inexorable decline in numbers and in influence, both in the Parliamentary Labour Party and among Labour’s ordinary members. Tony Benn’s narrow defeat by Denis Healey for the party’ s deputy leadership in 1981 seems a lifetime away. Almost as distant are the GLC and the 1983 election manifesto – the infamous “longest suicide note in history” – with its promises of withdrawal from Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament and widespread nationalisation.
In parliament, the left is hopelessly split between the 26-strong hard-left Campaign Group, which no longer has a single representative on the party’s national executive committee or in the shadow cabinet, and the 100-strong but ineffectual and inactive soft-left-cum-centre-right Tribune Group, whose left-wingers are in an increasingly beleaguered minority to the centre-right (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson are all members of Tribune).
Outside parliament, the left has lost its local government base and is weak in all but a handful of constituency parties and trade unions. In Labour’s leadership election, the two left-leaning candidates, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, (both of them accomplices, however unwilling, in Labour’s rightward drift since the mid-1980s), were outside chances from the start. Ideologically, the Labour left is divided on economic policy, Europe, electoral reform and a host of other key questions.
In the circumstances, talk of an impending Labour left revival might seem little short of lunatic. Yet the prospect of Blair as leader does seem to have led to an outbreak of cautious left optimism at Westminster. Some Labour left-wingers reckon his brand of centrist social democracy will encourage the left to pull together in the opposite direction; others reckon Prescott’s expected strong performance will give the left greater influence.
According to Peter Hain, the MP for Neath, “the prospects for a new alliance on the left are better today than for ages. There’s a sense of flux on the left of the party. And after the Euro-elections and with a new leadership, there’s a curious contradiction in the party between optimism about our chances in the next election and a sullen demoralisation at the grass roots. People recognise that we can’t win by default, that we have to build a new agenda for radical policies. It’s a great opportunity.”
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Hain, who isrunning for the NEC this year on a “friend of the activists” ticket, has been attempting to engineer a rapprochement between the Tribune left and the Campaign Group since 1987 – and every attempt has ended in failure. Most recently, as secretary of the Tribune Group from summer 1992 until late last year, he tried to use opposition to the Maastricht treaty and to Labour’s cautious economic policy as the basis for a left realignment. He was rewarded with the secession of the (pro-Maastricht) European Parliamentary Labour Party Tribune Group from its Westminster sister and the emnity of Gordon Brown. Main was ultimately ousted (along with his allies among the group’s officers) after publishing a pamphlet considered too explicitly critical of the shadow chancellor. Even he admits that, if Blair adopts the sort of inclusive style of leadership associated with John Smith, it could take some time for the left to get its act together.
But there are signs that things might just be moving in Main’s direction. On the parliamentary left, the Tribune Group coup against Hain and his comrades reinforced the already strong feeling among Tribune left-wingers that the group is beyond redemption and that a new, genuinely left, initiative is required – a feeling that has been further strengthened by four of the five current Tribune Group officers nominating Blair for the Labour leadership. Several left Tribunites are expected to allow their membership of the group to lapse this year, although there is disagreement among them about what to do next: a few will join the Campaign Group but most will not.
Meanwhile, the Campaign Group has also changed as the influence has waned of the old guard who can remember why Campaign split from Tribune in 1982 (for the record, the crunch issue was the register of internal party groups designed by the party leadership as a means of getting rid of Militant). Campaign’s current chair, Alan Simpson, is open to the idea of working with left Tribunites – he was on the platform at the “What’s Left?” conference earlier this month organised by Tribune newspaper, whose board has been chaired for the past year by Hain. He is less sanguine than Hain about the likelihood of a rapid realignment of the left, but nevertheless detects an air of promise. “There are big dilemmas over the organisational framework of the left in parliament,” he says. “I don’t see any prospect for a new organisational alignment for a little while yet. What’s good is the growing dialogue about issues. That’s a really helpful change.”
On its own, this wouldn’t amount to much. In the absence of a resurgence of the left in the constituencies, manoeuvring between parliamentary caucuses involving, at most, some 50 MPs, nearly all on the back benches, is, in itself, inconsequential. But there is more. Least significant is the speculation that a defeated Margaret Beckett might make an explicit pitch to lead the left from the back benches; far more important is the decision by the front-benchers and NEC members closest to the Tribune Group left to attempt to revive the Supper Club, the secretive soft-left forum set up in the Kinnock era to allow such politicians as Bryan Gould, Michael Meacher, Clare Short and David Blunkett to talk politics out of earshot of colleagues who would report to the leader’s office anyone who dissented from the Kinnock line.
So far, there has been only one poorly attended meeting, and that after months of talking about a revival – but the very fact that it happened shows that there are worries that Blair will reintroduce a Kinnock-style disciplinarian regime. Soft-left front-benchers are particularly concerned about the future role of Peter Mandelson, the Labour public relations chief in the late 1980s and a hate figure at the time for soft-left shadow cabinet members, who accused him of manipulating the media against them. Mandelson has worked on Blair’s campaign, and the soft left is looking out to see how he is rewarded. “If he’s allowed to go round trashing people again there will be all-out revolt,” says one frontbencher. “That said, it’s early days yet. Blair’s not like Kinnock. He’s basically a nice bloke.”
But the most difficult area for Blair to manage in the short run will probably not be the shadow cabinet soft left or left backbenchers but relations with the unions. The issue here is not so much the constitutional niceties of their relationship to Labour – although plenty of union leaders are sore about Blair’s role in the Omov row last year, no one expects any attempt at further constitutional change this side of a general election – but economic policy.
The unions’ disaffection with Labour on the economy goes back to the run-up to the 1992 general election, when they were unhappy at the party’s refusal to adopt sufficiently aggressive policies against unemployment. The disgruntlement went public, however, only with shadow chancellor Gordon Brown’s refusal to endorse devaluation of the pound, even after Black Wednesday forced sterling out of the ERM. Ever since then, there has been barely coded trade union criticism of Brown’s excessive caution, most consistently from GMB general secretary John Edmonds (another speaker at the Tribune “What’s Left?” conference) and Transport and General Workers Union general secretary Bill Morris. It was Edmonds whose series of interventions on the need for full employment forced Smith to declare at the TUC Congress in Brighton last year that full employment was a central Labour goal, and both union leaders have made a string of speeches during this leadership election campaign carefully designed to force each one of the candidates to endorse the unions’ economic policy agenda.
Where all this gets interesting is in the unions’ determination to press their case through Labour conference this year – blockbuster motions from the big unions are expected giving targets for full employment and for a minimum wage – and in their increasingly fraternal relations with the left in parliament and outside. It’s not just a matter of Tribune conferences. Although Edmonds himself is pro-Europe and the GMB backed Maastricht, his union has made a point of endorsing Full Employment Forum, the think-tank set up by Bryan Gould last year after his resignation from the shadow cabinet over the party’s pro-Europe economic policy in 1992. (Full Employment Forum has also set up its own group of MPs, which, som believe, might form the basis for the realignment of the parliamentary left sough by Peter Hain.)
This hardly means that the split on Europe that debilitated the Labour left’s response to Maastricht is no longer significant: with the 1996 intergovernmental conference on European Union coming up, there is still potential for spectacular bust-ups. But the fact that Brown’s Eurosceptic and Euro-Keynesian critics are now prepared to act together should be causing alarm bells to ring in the Blair camp, particularly if he has decided to keep Brown in the shadow chancellorship as a reward for his backing in the leadership contest.
None of which is to say that Labour is set for civil war under Blair. There is no appetite for a return to the bad old days of the early 1980s in any section of the party – and the left remains weak and divided, whatever the signs that it might b getting over the worst of its impotent fractiousness. Most important of all, Blair himself can ensure Labour’s political differences are successfully contained. He has written to several soft-left shadow cabinet members who did not back his leadership to say that he wants them on board, and his pronouncements on dissent in the party during the campaign have been relaxed.
“I don’t mind having a debate with peopl on the left,” he told NSS last week. “I think it’s very important. What is tiresome is when you don’t actually get people debating with you. They just sort of abuse you by saying ‘Oh well, it’s SDP Mark Two’ or ‘It’s not really socialism’ without ever explaining what they mean by socialism. I’ve put forward what I believe the Labour Party and socialism is about. If people want to knock that down, that’s fine, but they should use arguments to do so.”.
As long as his promises of tolerance an openness are put into practice, and as long as the soft left feels wanted in Blair’s shadow cabinet, he should have no more difficult a ride than his predecessor. But Smith did not have a particularly easy time, and Blair honeymoon will not last forever – it might even come to an end this October in Blackpool if the unions win their trial of strength. Whether he has the management skills necessary to deal with the run-ins when they inevitably start is one of the many unknowns about him.