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)
Why has Tony Blair been able to shift the Labour Party so far to the right, and why was the left wing inside the party so impotent in the face of the breathtaking speed of Blair’s changes? Both these questions are tackled in those two new books. Safety First is an accessible account written by Paul Anderson, former editor of the left wing Labour paper Tribune, and Nyta Mann, who still writes for the paper. The book puts the New Labour project in the context of the last 50 years and is a useful resource for socialists.
Firstly it’s a good read. Here you’ll discover that Labour’s spin doctor in chief Peter Mandelson once flogged the Communist Party paper, the Morning Star, outside Kilburn tube station. You’ll also discover how nearly all the leading figures of the Labour cabinet Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, John Prescott, Robin Cook and Tony Blair himself in the past made speeches which would bar them from even getting selected as a Labour candidate today.
But there is an important point to all this. It illustrates the route travelled by so many who start out wanting to change the capitalist system but see the only route as through electoral and parliamentary means. So the book shows how much Tony Blair and his group of advisers have attacked the traditions of Old Labour, but also shows how Blair’s New Labour project is a continuation of the reformist policies of the whole Labour tradition.
So it was not Tony Blair who began the process of ‘modernisation’. Rather, many of the biggest rightward shifts, such as the ditching of unilateral nuclear disarmament and accepting most of the anti trade union laws, happened under the leaderships of Neil Kinnock and then John Smith. It was also Kinnock and Smith who began the process of curtailing Labour Party democracy and debate and who began the obsession with image and the media.
Safety First is flawed in its analysis, however. The authors accept much of the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, agreeing with the expulsion of Militant and accept many of the earlier changes.
The authors of The End of Parliamentary Socialism, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, are much more critical of Labour’s shift to the right and Blair’s ascendancy. Both authors are associated with the group of left wingers around the late Ralph Miliband, and Leo Panitch continues to edit the yearly socialist journal Socialist Register.
Their book is a much more academic analysis than Safety First. It concentrates on the failure of the Labour left, particularly of those grouped around Benn through the 1970s and 1980s. At its height the movement around Benn attracted thousands of people to meetings up and down the country, culminating in the campaign to get Tony Benn elected as Labour’s deputy leader in 1981. Its emphasis was not on mobilising workers’ action. Indeed the movement was at its height after the defeats of workers’ struggle in the late 1970s and the disillusion which would see Labour booted out of office in 1979.
Rather the Bennites sought to democratise and change the internal structures of the Labour Party itself. This, the authors admit, was its downfall. The Labour left, the book concludes, by ‘concentrating on trying to change the Labour Party … became trapped in that struggle’. And, ‘It never solved the problem of having to fight for its goals through unending party committees and conferences without becoming absorbed by them.’ This is damning criticism which the authors hope will provide us with important lessons in rebuilding the left today. Pantich and Leys not only argue for a rejuvenation of the kind of debate which the coterie around Tony Blair have extinguished, but for a break with New Labour altogether. This is an important and welcome step which raises one of the key questions of how socialists should organise.
The authors quite rightly argue that ‘the route to socialism does not lie through transforming the Labour Party’. They want to build a new form of socialist organisation which avoids the pitfalls of the Benn campaign and which does not get bogged down in a fruitless attempt to change the Labour Party.
The next question is what type of organisation is needed? Unfortunately Panitch and Leys explicitly reject revolutionary organisation. Indeed they argue that the ‘”Bolshevik” language’ (of ‘demands’, ‘lines’ and so on) of some of those involved in the Benn campaign ‘was not only incapable of reaching out beyond the ranks of organised labour, as Benn could, but also repelled many people who needed to be persuaded’.
Despite the authors’ criticism of the Bennite left, their detailed account underplays its weaknesses. They do not examine, for example, how Tony Benn’s continued membership of the Callaghan government gave left credibility to massive spending cuts implemented by the Labour government.
And missing throughout the account is the dynamic of class struggle. So there is no sense of the mood of anger and bitterness seething beneath the surface which would sweep Labour into power on 1 May. Indeed the authors accept that Blair’s victory was due in large part to the ‘Labour modernisers’ ruthless redesign of party policy to win back former Conservative voters in the marginal seats of ‘Middle England’.
The rejection of revolutionary strategy and organisation ultimately leaves the authors with nowhere to go except along a similar road of a mix of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity. But it was this similar strategy which proved disastrous for so many socialists in the early 1980s, channelling their energies away from revolution and towards reform.