Bernard Crick, New Statesman

Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99) 
The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Verso, £15)

It makes me sick when publishers debase language so brazenly. A caption or a sub-sub-title on the cover of Safety First says “The Definitive [sic] Guide to the Policies and Personalities of the British Government”. The blurb on the back cover is more cheekily and accurately headed “Anything but the authorised version of new Labour” (their italics, fully warranted).

Paul Anderson is a former editor of Tribune and a former deputy editor of the NS in some historically remote regime (that seems like yesterday). Nyta Mann is a former NS assistant editor. The tone and the standpoint are Tribune at its best: rude, factual, lively and down-to-earth plain English, always provocative, always selective, but crammed full of useful information — if one has a pinch of salt to add to their pepper.

The book is about how Labour came to win the election. It is sensibly more about the background than about the actual campaign (which was, indeed, “safety first” rather than fireworks) and also about the first 100 days. They call it “a serious attempt to explain the politics of Britain’s new government, written from a critical libertarian left perspective that is neither ‘new Labour’ nor ‘old Labour'”.

Both claims are fair enough. They see Blair’s project as an acceleration, rather than a clean break from tendencies already afoot in Neil Kinnock’s campaign to bring the party back to political realism, to forsake the time-honoured pleasures of fratricidal strife, Footite fudge and Bennite self-righteousness (I put it a little more strongly than they do).

They conclude, predictably, that Labour has changed greatly. But they think in terms of social policy and practical outcomes, not just of fallings-short of grand theoretical constructions of socialism; and they end up worried but “too early to tell”.

They remind the new triumphalists that the Conservatives killed themselves. Labour could almost certainly have won with bolder policies. Several contributions to the post-election number of Political Quarterly suggest that a bolder tax programme resulting in a smaller majority would actually have landed a stronger, less constrained government.

Panitch and Leys are loftily uninterested in any tactical considerations whatever. Theirs is the familiar grand narrative of socialism betrayed: the subtitle is “From New Left to New Labour”, a ludicrous and arrogant antithesis. The latter, for all its faults and uncertainties, is a modulation of a large, democratic political party. The other is a mental construct of two journals, the Socialist Register and New Left Review pretending to be – no, that is unfair – genuinely under the delusion that their far-too-late Marxism gives them an authoritative insight into the minds of “the people” (from the tenured safety of Canadian university departments) far superior to the contact groups of Brother Mandelson.

They go back nostalgically to “student politics” and the fantasy “alternative economics” of the 1970s and Benn’s “New Socialist Politics”, always a blancmange of Chartism and Simple Simon Keynesianism. These two nice old trendies dedicate the book to Ralph Miliband. He once famously argued that parliamentary socialism was proving the death of true socialism.

Does the Panitch/Leys title imply there was some good in it after all, but even that has now gone out of the window? They are either very muddled or ambivalent about the parliamentary way. At least when clearly hostile they were clear. Intellectuals such as these, rarely thinking politically if at all, confused the grass roots activists of the old Labour Party. One does not ask for repentance; silence would be enough.

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