BENNITE NOSTALGICS

Paul Anderson, review of The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Verso, £14.99), Tribune, 22 June 2001

Can it really be 20 years since the Labour deputy leadership battle between Tony Benn and Denis Healey? It seems like only yesterday that this great movement of ours tore itself to pieces over the rival claims of two former Cabinet Ministers – the Left-wing populist aristo and the Right-wing Atlanticist bruiser – to a non-job that really wasn’t worth having.

At the time, although many of my Leftie friends thought Benn was the saviour of socialism, I couldn’t see what was so marvellous about him or the movement of which he was the figurehead. Greater democracy inside the Labour Party was all very well, but it was no panacea. And the Bennite programme, though it contained lots of good things (such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and getting rid of the House of Lords), was undermined by an idiotic nationalist economic policy centred upon withdrawal from the Common Market. Most important, there was no way a Bennite Labour Party could ever win a general election.

As for municipal Left of the era – most visibly Ken Livingstone – well, it was great if you were part of it or had the oppressed-minority credentials to be deemed worthy of a generous grant for your pet project. But otherwise, cheap bus fares aside, forget it.

I’ve moved on politically since the early 1980s, but the Labour left of the early 1980s still leaves me cold. Not so Panitch and Leys, whose book, a history of Labour in the past 30 years from a critical left perspective (now in a second edition four years after its first appearance), is in essence a defence of the continuing relevance of the “new Labour left” – the Bennites, the local government Left and their supporters among ordinary Labour members – of two decades ago.

The authors enthuse about everything from mandatory reselection of MPs to the industrial strategy of the GLC. In line with this, every development since about 1981-82 has been a turn for the worse, from the expulsion of Militant to the record of the Blair government since 1997.

They tell their story well, and there is some sense to it. There were undoubtedly some bright ideas around on the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s about making the state more democratically accountable, and at least some of the Labour left took them seriously. And it’s true that New Labour, with its enthusiasm for deregulation and big business, is not simply the invention of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but the product of a process of accommodation to the market that goes back at least to Neil Kinnock’s assumption of the Labour leadership in 1983.

But it is simplistic to argue, as Panitch and Leys do, that the “new Labour left” was beaten by a conspiracy of right-wingers. Its failure had as much to do with its incompetence, the unpopularity of its political alliance with Trotskyism and the unsustainability of its Little Englander position on Europe. The left of today needs to learn from the early 1980s – but it needs to do so critically and not look back nostalgically to a mythical golden age.

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