Once Blair et al dreamed of a hegemonic project that would dominate the centre left for decades. At this rate they’ll be lucky to salvage anything from the wreckage.
Which reminded me of something I wrote for Casablanca (anyone else remember Casablanca?) in October 1994. To set the scene, John Major’s Conservative government had been re-elected two years earlier; John Smith had died in May; Tony Blair (the then Shadow Home Secretary) had been elected to lead the Labour Party in July; Melanie Phillips was still writing for the Observer; and Barry Norman presented Film 94. I don’t understand the bit about Bill Clinton.
A gloom of one’s own
Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?
When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.
Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.
About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.
That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.
Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?
What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.
What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).
It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.
What I didn’t consider was what would happen if Blair and his acolytes succeeded and then failed, by failing to sort out the succession. Or succeeded and then washed their hands of the whole thing, for that matter. Essentially, Blair’s done to Labour what Thatcher did to the Tories. Leaving… what? Will:
There was always the risk that New Labour was an ironic echo of a former political era. The commitment to the original values of Labour, but without the policies of Labour, always teetered on the edge of farce. The language of ‘tackling poverty’, ‘democratic empowerment’, being ‘progressive’ was not invented, but borrowed from the initial tragedy of failed socialist ambitions. … But to take that socialist vocabulary, then to marry it to Thatcherism, was to invite failure for a second time as farce. Should we be all that surprised that inequality is rising as fast as it is?
But then again, maybe New Labour was the tragedy, because if one thing is certain it’s that it’s about to be followed by a farce. … Within two years, the country will have elected a new government on the basis of no policies whatsoever, and which we have so little confidence in that the honesty or otherwise of their claims is no longer even discussed. The Conservative Party have succeeded in losing all of their unpleasant political baggage by dumping any form of baggage whatsoever.
‘More work! Less pay!’
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- Phil on Earthbound skyhooks: Rawls and Dworkin
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