New Statesman & Society, 22 September 1995
Peter Hain has written a book outlining his libertarian left alternative to the political strategy favoured by the modernisers now running the Labour Party. He tells Paul Anderson why he has done it
“To be blunt about it,” says Peter Hain, “the left has I become a bit of a joke in the Labour Party. It’s not that its goals aren’t admirable. And it’s not that the left doesn’t strike a chord with many party members. But it is riddled with divisions. It’s got no clear strategy. It’s hanging on to the past the whole time rather than trying to set the agenda. As long as it goes on in that way, it won’t have any influence.”
Hain, the Labour MP for Neath since 1991, is no stranger to controversy: indeed, he thrives on it. Once, in the early 1970s, the most public face of the campaign against sporting links with his native South Africa, he is now the most vocal backbencher on Labour’s soft left. He has a book out this week, and he is using the occasion to make his point as emphatically as he can. It’s not just the failures of the left that get his back up. The argument of the book, Ayes to the Left – the first big statement of the Labour soft left’s position since Bryan Gould’s A Future for Socialism in 1989 – is, as he puts it, that “the problems now facing Britain are such that more radical solutions are required than it may seem Labour is offering at the present time”.
In other words, if the old left is too reactive and backward-looking, the Labour modernisers who now run the party are too conservative and cautious. “I don’t mean that there should be a hidden agenda that should be wheeled out once we get into office,” says Hain. “But it’s incumbent on us on the left to come up with a serious approach to policy-making and party strategy. The left has always been fond of slogans, and that’s always frustrated me. I felt I needed to try to put down an alternative view. The left has suffered now for at least ten years a massive crisis of confidence both in Britain and everywhere else.”
Ayes to the Left is nothing if not serious. Hain is relentless in articulating what he calls his “libertarian socialist” critique of the caution of the Labour establishment and the fantasies of the traditional left.He’s anti-Maastricht, arguing that full employment is the key goal of economic policy. And he’s a committed constitutional reformer, uncompromisingly decentralist and in favour of changing the electoral system (although he’s against proportional representation, preferring the “alternative vote” system used in Australia). His deep-rooted libertarianism – which he shares with others on the Labour soft left who were, like him, Young Liberals in the 19705, among them fellow MPs Richard Burden and Roger Berry – is qualified only by his advocacy of compulsory voting.
It’s the sort of mix that one might expect from 1960s-generation social democrat politician in continental Europe (apart, that is, from the ultra-scepticism on European monetary union). But it’s almost shockingly frank in Britain. Here, the 68ers who have gone into Labour politics have mostly overcompensated for their youthful exuberance. Although Hain long ago swapped the loon pants for the suit, he is still prepared to disturb the peace.
He is, unsurprisingly, concerned about the line Labour has taken on law and order, although he is restrained in his criticism. “What the leadership is trying to do is to say: ‘Let’s take the issue of crime seriously,'” he says. “I don’t think that Labour or the left has done that in the past: Tony Blair and Jack Straw are absolutely correct to make that their pitch. But I do worry about gimmicks. A slide into authoritarian populism would be self-defeating. Clearing every ‘squeegee merchant’ off the traffic lights is not going to do anything about the crime wave that has engulfed us under the Tories.”
On Europe he is more forthright in his scepticism about monetary union – the cause of a celebrated bust-up between himself and shadow chancellor Gordon Brown in 1992-93, which ended in Hain being removed by Brown’s followers from the secretaryship of the Tribune group of Labour MPs.” I think we should renegotiate Maastricht,” he says now. “Monetary union on the basis of Maastricht would require Europe to implode economically. We’re either talking about a totally different sort of Europe or monetary union should be put on the back-burner.”
Not that he is a Little Englander, he insists: the task is democratisation of the institutions of the European Union. “I’m in the unusual position of having voted yes in the 1975 referendum and no to the Maastricht treaty.” Nor is he a straight-down-the-line critic of Labour’s official policy: “I’m very encouraged by Robin Cook’s stance: he’s developing a much more distinctive and radical position that’s pro-Europe and anti-monetarist.” All the same, “The closer we get to the election and the more the Tories play the patriotic Westminster versus Brussels card, the more our agenda is going to have to come into play. If our position as a party is to be seen as a bunch of Europhiles almost uncritically accepting everything that comes from Brussels, we’re going to be swept aside by the Tories’ populism.”
There is much more in Hain’s book to cause argument in Labour circles – not least his call for an incomes policy (he believes that Labour’s minimum wage promise needs one if a Labour government is not to be swamped by pay demands to maintain differentials). But will it make any difference? Has Hain, a mere backbencher, any real chance of influencing Labour policy? He is certainly not without supporters. Hain did well last year, on his first attempt, to get nearly 30,000 votes in the one-member-one-vote election to the constituency section of Labour’s National Executive Committee, but he fell far short of being elected. This year, with an extra woman guaranteed a place in the constituency section, he has at best an outside chance of getting on to his party’s governing body.
This said, the NEC is not as all-important as it was, and in any case there are alternatives for anyone involved in the messy business of jockeying for influence in the Labour Party. Hain has several key roles. He is the chair of the board of the Tribune newspaper, still a major player in the internal Labour game, which in the past couple of years has taken a distinct turn to the left – although more in the direction of the old left around the Campaign Group than towards Hain – and he is a mover and shaker in the small world of Labour factional politics, both in parliament and outside. In the mid-1980s, he was heavily involved in the Labour Coordinating Committee, now uncritically Blairite but then the focus of the soft left that took issue with both Neil Kinnock’s leadership and the unreconstructed Bennites; and since becoming an MP in 1991, he has attempted tirelessly to bridge the now-ancient division between the soft-left Tribune Group and the hard-left Campaign Group in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The results are visible, but only just. In the wake of being deposed as secretary of the Tribune group in 1993 – a post he had held for just 18 months – Hain quit Tribune along with a couple of dozen other left Tribunite MPs. They are now the core of an informal network, What’s Left, which involves some 40 MPs (including a couple of members of the shadow cabinet and four or five members of the Campaign Group) in fortnightly discussions. It also has a small nationwide activists’ organisation, which has its autumn conference this weekend in Leeds.
Hain has deliberately taken a back seat in What’s Left, but he’s optimistic about what it might achieve. “I probably do more speaking to local parties than any other backbench MP,” he says. “I put the sort of left perspective that’s in the book all the time – and it gets a very enthusiastic response. I also think there’s a lot of support in the PLP. The What’s Left network in parliament is beginning to coalesce into something quite solid, and I would expect that to continue in the coming year. I suspect that in government it would become far more significant.”
That hardly amounts to a gauntlet thrown by the left to Tony Blair. But it is a significant straw in the wind. Hain and his group are not a 1990s version of the Bevanites in the early 19503 – but they’re the nearest thing we’re likely to see. Come a Blair government, they might just be very important indeed.