Britain - The resurgence of a New Labour Left?

Mar 1999

Nearly two years into the New Labour government, there are signs which indicate that attempts are being made to revive some form of left opposition to Blair's leadership within the Labour Party.

At this stage it is hard to tell how far these tentative moves will go in their claims towards offering a way of challenging Labour's present policies in government, nor how much support and illusions they will be able to generate. Only the future will tell. But already, judging from the basis on which these currents are setting themselves up one can see the limits of their capacity and, above all, political will, to really confront Blair's policies, particularly his pro-business policies against the working class and the unemployed.

In fact, from the point of view of working class interests, these currents are not, in any way, different from the various brands of Labour Lefts which, in the past few decades, have provided a left cover to the anti-working class policies of the Labour party leaders - in government as well as in opposition. If there are differences, however, they are primarily due to the different political context in which these currents are emerging.

The Labour Left's past record

Labour Lefts have long played a role in revamping the Labour Party's tarnished image and boosting its shrinking support among working class people. Some of the policies advocated by these currents in the past may have sounded quite radical at times, at least compared to those of the then party leaders - which was not all that difficult, given Labour's attacks against working class conditions in the 70s and its sharp turn to the right in the 80s. However, these currents never questioned Labour's fundamental role - that of a party which, for the best part of this century, has used and abused the credit it had within the working population in order to act as a political instrument of the capitalist class.

In fact, the Labour Left always proved just as suspicious of the working class as the Labour Party bureaucrats they claimed to challenge - and, above all, of its capacity to fight for its class interests. As a result, they never considered turning their radical- sounding policies into concrete objectives for the working class, let alone for its struggles. Instead, they relied on the willingness of the Labour Party and trade union machineries to endorse these policies, hoping than they would eventually be implemented at some point - which never happened, of course.

The Labour Left's presence in the party's leading bodies, where the apparatus ensured that they were no more than a tiny minority, never gave it any say in the party's decisions. But the Left's NEC members, for instance, were effectively gagged by party rules and prevented from using their position as a platform to rally the membership - assuming their really wanted to. On the other hand, it was convenient for the party leadership to point to these Left figures sitting at the top of the party as proof of its "democratic" nature. For good measure, the Left's figureheads were allowed to make rousing speeches at the party's annual conference and win enthusiastic votes for resolutions which were never implemented in the real world.

The same applied with regard to Labour governments. In the few cases where the Labour Left was allowed anywhere near the levers of power, its representatives only served as ministerial hostages. Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, who joined Wilson's key Industry ministry in March 1974, provided a cover for Labour's policy of subsidising private industry. But once Wilson felt he no longer needed their left credentials, Benn was relegated to the post of energy minister. And rather than resigning, this self- proclaimed "Christian Socialist" proceeded to work out an "ideal" system (or so he said) of production bonuses to boost productivity in the mines (thereby putting pressure on miners to kill themselves at work) while condoning Wilson's attacks against the standards of living of the working class through continuing his participation in government.

On the other hand, more often than not the Labour Left has been used as a springboard for the careers of numerous ambitious politicians. Kinnock, who became party leader in 1983, initiated Labour's right-wing shift, launched the witch-hunt against the Militant Tendency and turned against the Labour councils which were resisting Thatcher's cuts, rose from the ranks of the so- called "soft" Left gathered around the weekly Tribune without whose support he would probably never have been elected to the party leadership. And although Blair himself has never had anything to do with the Left, his own cabinet includes a sizeable array of such former "Labour Left" aspirants - David Blunkett, Clare Short, Tony Banks, Michael Meacher, among others. And this is not to mention the numerous trade-union leaders who were elected to their present positions on a "left" ticket and have now joined Blair's bandwagon.

In any case, the sorry failure of the Labour Lefts to alter in any way the course of Labour's policy over the past three decades - in terms of its government policy in the 1970s, its passive adaptation to Tory policies in the 1980s and its right-wing shift in the 1990s - has exposed the bankruptcy of these currents.

Behind Blair's "dictatorship"

Today, the failure of the Labour Left to prevent Blair's victory in the party is generally blamed on his personal role - that of a sort of mean "dictator" who can only maintain his position in an otherwise naive and innocent party thanks to the iron rule he has imposed through devious manoeuvres. However, this demonisation of an admittedly repellant character ignores the fact that most of those who followed Blair down the "New Labour" road (and are still in the leadership of the party) were long-time "Old Labour" figures of this leadership. It also ignores the fact that, on the whole, the party machinery and a majority of its cardholders supported Blair all along - even if most of them probably did not initially see the real content of Blair's policies and many have resigned their membership since.

Such simplistic explanations are certainly convenient for those who want to maintain the illusion that the Labour Party can be changed from within. But they disregard the fact that the changes in the Labour Party over the past decade and its present policy in government are above all the result of social pressures (that of the capitalist class in particular) reflecting the balance of class forces in society.

Indeed, circumstances are different today from what they were in the days of the previous Labour governments. Blair has certainly less room for manoeuvre in the way he runs the Labour Party than Wilson and Callaghan in the 70s, or even Kinnock in the 80s for that matter. He is in office to manage the affairs of a capitalist class which is used to dealing with governments which are openly at its service and totally pliable. What is more, the balance of class forces in society, deeply tilted as it is against the working class, can only encourage the capitalists to demand more from Blair rather than less - that is, a larger share of the national income for themselves. And Blair's job in government is to force the required sacrifices, together with the bosses' direct attacks on jobs and conditions, down the throats of the working population and the unemployed.

But at the same time, the Labour leadership must also maintain the myth that its policy of boosting company profits at the expense of the working population and the unemployed is the only possible way to resolve the general social degradation. In this respect, the Labour leaders benefit from the large political vacuum which exists on the left of the party, due to the weakness and isolation of the revolutionary left. But Labour's virtual monopoly of left-wing politics also comes at a cost. It means that Blair cannot tolerate the emergence of dissident voices within the ranks of the party - at least not if these voices have any chance to be heard in the country. He cannot afford this for fear of encouraging opposition to the policy of his government within the working class and, possibly, providing a focus for the discontent which is bound to grow.

These constraints were already the main factors behind Blair's turn to the right - towards "New Labour" - after he took over from John Smith in 1994, in an effort to adapt the Labour Party to the demands of the wealthy. These were also the reasons for Blair's "cleansing" of those who have already voiced their opposition and potential oppositionists in the party machinery itself, when shortlists of candidates were imposed bureaucratically on constituency parties in the run-up to the 1997 election. And as was shown by the recent developments in the preparation for the election of the Welsh and Scottish assemblies, these methods have not only become the rule but have been tightened up even further.

More generally, there is an uninterrupted flow of reports about enquiries, suspensions, expulsions, vetting, etc.. taking place within the structures of the Labour Party. Interviews inspired by so-called new management techniques seem to be increasingly replacing the election of officers. Gagging orders and pledges of confidentiality are used to prevent officers from talking to anyone, including the membership, about the party's internal affairs or even its policies, beyond the official blurb handed out by press officers. All this indicates that the grip of the leadership on the party and its machinery has not been tightened just for electoral reasons. It is there to stay, to ensure that the party speaks with one voice, that of its leadership - and more importantly, that of the government.

And this means that the space for a Labour Left to re-emerge today is much more limited than in the previous two decades - at least in the radical-sounding form this took before.

The internal opposition to Blair

One of the remarkable features of Blair's rise to power, in the period from the death of former Labour Party leader John Smith to Labour's return to office in May 1997, was the absence of any real challenge from the left within the party itself.

Not that the old Labour Left of the 1980s had ceased to exist, of course. All along, its figureheads remained solidly entrenched in their old power bases - Tony Benn in Chesterfield, Jeremy Corbyn in Islington, Denis Skinner in Bolsover, Ken Livingstone in Brent, etc. But none of them took the risk of being accused of hindering Labour's march to power. True, there were the odd speeches by Tony Benn in the Commons, but they were more often than not about "safe" issues such as foreign policy and did not attract much attention - nor were they meant to. There were a few campaigns too. But these campaigns appeared to raise either matters which were purely internal to the Labour Party (the party's voting system) or symbolic issues (Clause 4 of its constitution). In any case there was no high-profile attempt to expose Blair's increasingly anti-working class orientation and pro-business language.

It was several months after the election before any signs of opposition to Blair's policies began to appear, in the form of murmured protestations among some Labour MPs in the Commons over Brown's plans against single mothers and the disabled. These murmurings were widely publicised in the media but there was no follow-up. Above all, the protestors were cautious not to break the Parliamentary Party's rules. They did not register their protest among a wider audience, let alone take the initiative of organising any kind of public protest against the planned attacks - despite the fact that these attacks contradicted the commitments made in the manifesto on the basis of which they had been elected.

There have been, however, two more consistent challenges to Blair's diktats within the party. The first was the setting up of the so-called "Grassroots Alliance", as an anti-Blair coalition which brought together some activists from the old Labour Left and representatives of the Tribune- aligned "soft left". In the election for the constituency parties' seats on the National Executive, this coalition made a breakthrough by taking four seats out of six. In the small world of the Labour Party machinery this must have caused a real storm, given the efforts which had been devoted to bringing the local parties into line. In any case this success, registered in a postal ballot, demonstrated unquestionably the growing hostility of a large section of Labour's cardholders. That being said, despite the involvement of individuals like Liz Davies, who used to be associated with the so-called "hard Left", the criticisms levelled by the Grassroots Alliance have been extremely blurred, more or less limited to Blair's policy on welfare and the NHS and the internal regime of the party. In any case, for the time being, there has been no attempt to build a focus of opposition against the government's policy - neither inside nor outside the party.

The second challenge to Blair, and by far the most prominent so far, has come from an old figure of the Labour Left, Ken Livingstone. Following the government's decision to set up a Greater London Authority with an elected mayor at its head, Ken Livingstone made a bid to represent the Labour Party in this election, due to be held next year. As a former Labour leader of the Greater London Council which was disbanded in 1986, Livingstone was certainly the most natural candidate, all the more so as all opinion polls gave him a comfortable majority against all other contenders - including Richard Branson.

Predictably, however, Livingstone's bid was opposed by the Labour leadership. Instead, the party leadership intends to impose a shortlist of candidates, to be decided in March, for this Summer's ballot, in which London's 69,000 members are meant to choose the party's candidate. Among the names mentioned more of less officially for this shortlist are those of Bob Ayling, the job-slashing chief executive of British Airways, Richard Branson and Jack Cunningham, among others. This has resulted in the present "Let Ken Stand" campaign, which aims at imposing Livingstone's right to be included in the party's shortlist. But this time, it is not a low-key campaign confined within the Labour Party. On the contrary, Livingstone is using used every means available to publicise his bid and his determination to challenge Blair's ruling - from posters and leaflets to a full-page advertisement in the Evening Standard, London's evening paper, various programmes in the media and a 1000- strong public rally at Westminster Central Hall.

What makes Livingstone's campaign an open challenge to Blair is not, however, what he stands for, but merely the fact that he has chosen to seek support against a diktat by the party leadership not just among party members, but among the entire London population.

In fact, Livingstone has been busy trying to reassure Londoners, and specially the better-offs among them, who may be worried about the level of council taxes, as to his intentions once elected. Against those reminding him of the GLC's past policy of cutting transport fares and increasing rates while he was in charge, Livingstone retorts that in the present context he would not consider cutting fares since the capacity of the London transport system would not be able to cope with the resulting increase in passengers! At the same time, just like Blair and Brown did in the run-up to the general election, Livingstone has been canvassing the City for business support.

As to Blair's policies in government, Livingstone has very little to say about them. Like most trade-union leaders, he blames interest rates and the pound for the dire state of the economy - not the policy of the bosses, nor the government's pro-business policy. And rather than challenging Blair's attacks against the poor and the working class, Livingstone looks the other way and claims that Labour's aims in terms of environment, discrimination, police accountability, fighting poverty, etc.. are now identical to those he has always defended. He goes on proclaiming (in the advertisement published in the Evening Standard) that "there is simply no question whatever of my seeking to use the mayorship as a platform to wage political warfare against this government" and even proposing elsewhere that the Labour leadership takes full control of his election campaign and manifesto. But in fact, all this is designed to appear as a crafty exercise for anyone trying to read between the lines, while giving no obvious pretext to the party leadership to pin him down as a danger for the government. This is all politicking.

But this should not come as a surprise. Despite his standing as a prominent Labour Left figure, Livingstone has always been primarily a maverick and an opportunist, for whom fighting for power mattered more than fighting for ideas and astuteness was more important than principles. This has helped him to survive many confrontations with the Labour Party hierarchy, without losing out in the process. On the other hand, his association with various groups on the Left in the late 70s and early 80s and his demagogic search for popularity while at the head of the GLC, together with a skilled use of the media, allowed him to build the public image of a no-nonsense and bold politician who is prepared to stand up against the powerful and any party leader (as he did against Kinnock in the 80s) - an image which has been and could again become popular among many workers.

Thanks to this image and to the mere fact of his campaign, Livingstone appears today as someone who is prepared to take on Blair - even if he refrains from criticising the government openly and says in advance that he will submit to the party's decisions once elected. In the absence of any other choice, he could very well become a symbol for all the discontent and be in a position to use the London Mayor's position as a springboard in the Labour party for a more promising career. And this may well be part of his ambition. But whether there is anything for working people in this "choice" between him and Blair's clique is extremely doubtful.

An "external" Labour Left

Another challenge to Blair's policies has come from the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, where MEPs' discontent has been more vocal than in the Commons. The 68 Labour MEPs had been elected before the generalised vetting of candidates was introduced in the party; Strasbourg was a lot further from Downing Street than the House of Commons and therefore Blair's control over his MEPs was far less tight. What sparked off the crisis was not, in fact, dissent over the government's social policy, but its intention to introduce regional lists for the euro- elections. MEPs saw this, probably correctly, as an attempt by Blair to take over control of the selection process and get rid of unwanted MEPs. So they started a campaign against the new system, until the party's NEC issued a gagging order preventing MEPs from discussing the matter with local party organisations. When four MEPs refused to comply, they were suspended. Faced with the threat of being deselected in this year's euro-election, two of them retaliated by saying that they would stand against the official Labour candidates. The pair - Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr - were immediately expelled.

Since then Ken Coates has set up the Independent Labour Network (ILN) as a loose association which, according to one of its founding documents, "does not seek to become another political party" but intends "to provide a political space for the left".

While the political significance and militant influence of the ILN outside Coates' own stronghold in Nottingham are difficult to gauge (although the ILN claims to have established groups in various parts of the country) its orientation is worth a closer examination in that it is indicative of the impotent position in which the Labour Left is now confined.

Thus the same document goes on to say that the ILN's aim is "to promote association between those who have supported the traditional social programmes of the Labour Party" and that it "seeks to ensure that there is a political party speaking for ordinary people. Its preferred means of achieving this is by exerting sufficient pressure, internal and external, on New Labour to force the Labour Party to return to this role. Only if this proved impossible would it be necessary to consider forming a new Party of Labour." The contents of the "traditional social programmes of the Labour Party" are listed in the same document - such as for instance "the introduction of strong measures for the redistribution of income and the restoration of full-employment", "defence and improvement of the welfare state", the replacement of quangos by democratic accountable bodies, etc..

That Ken Coates should see a difference between the Pre-Blair Labour Party and Blair's "New Labour" is understandable - after all he was made an MEP under John Smith, whereas Blair has expelled him and probably killed his MEP career in Strasbourg. But it is nevertheless ironical that a representative of the Labour Left, which has never ever succeeded in forcing a Labour government to implement any of these policies, should still carry on crediting the pre-Blair Labour Party with alleged "traditional policies" which it never had - except, at the very best, on paper. Since Ken Coates is certainly not so naive as to hope that the ILN will be able to achieve from outside the Labour Party what a much more powerful Labour Left failed to achieve from inside, this means that the only perspective he has to offer is to turn the Labour Party's clock back so that the Labour Left can return to its role as a formal but powerless opposition within the party's comfortable structures.

And how does Coates propose to return the Labour Party to its past orientation? Coates does mention once that the ILN should "help to organise protests against the ill- effects of New Labour's attacks". However, this is obviously not his preferred means of "exerting sufficient pressure on New Labour" since there is no mention in the ILN's documents of the kind of protests he has in mind nor of whom he plans to involve in these protests. On the other hand, there is an extensive discussion of the prospect of the ILN standing candidates in this year's euro-election : "We have concluded that the appropriate challenge in the European Elections should come from an alliance of those social and environmental groups who have been opposing the impact of adverse market decisions and greedy "entrepreneurs" however "dynamic" they may be. So that the ILN seeks an alliance, as inclusive as possible, which would enable pensioners, students, the disabled, and a multitude of environmental defence groups, to make common cause for electoral support." This is obviously a recipe for Coates to build an electoral coalition around his own name to regain his seat in Strasbourg. But, leaving this aside and assuming the ILN's ambitions go further than that, this statement and the rest of the ILN's documents present some very noticeable features. First they make a lot of references to the welfare state, the NHS and various disadvantaged social groups, but there is hardly any reference to the conditions of working people and the massive growth of unemployment - and none whatsoever to the working class as such - even though this was part of the traditional phraseology of the Labour Left. Second, they pin to the wall "greedy entrepreneurs" - which is more or less the terminology used by Brown himself to underline the difference that should be made between "good" and "bad" bosses - whereas they do not even mention the wave of large-scale redundancies and factory closures by respectable (and profitable) companies since Blair came into office nor the enormous profits piled up by the capitalist class. Finally, all sorts of groups are invited to support the ILN's alliance in the euro-election, but no mention is made of the support of the largest social group of all, that of trade-union members - no doubt to avoid upsetting potential or existing friends among the trade-union bureaucracy.

None of these omissions is accidental. The ILN has a clear orientation towards the Labour Party as an institution and a machinery, which it sees as the key to all problems in this society whereas the direct intervention of the "ordinary people" has no role to play, except through the ballot box. For all its claims to uphold the values which used to be those of the Labour Left, it also shows an obvious sensitivity to the dominant social pressures of the day - by excluding class issues or indeed any role for the working class and ignoring the criminal responsibility of the capitalist class and their system in today's social degradation - just as Blair and New Labour do.

The stakes today

These are only the first instances of a return of the Labour Left. Some of these left protagonists will probably disappear and new ones will materialise. But they will all share the same characteristics.

They have nothing to say to the working class, no perspective to offer to fight the attacks of the bosses, let alone to resolve the problems posed by today's social degradation. In challenging Blair's leadership, they choose to focus on issues which are either irrelevant to the urgent problems confronting the working class (e.g. Labour's internal workings, the environment) or, in the case of the NHS and the welfare system, approached in a way which carefully avoids to question Labour's pro-business policy. In short the main objective of these Labour Left currents is to have a "broader" appeal among the same petty-bourgeois electorate targeted by Blair. On the other hand, by taking as read the "need" for companies to make profits at the expense of workers' jobs and conditions, they deny the need for the working class to rebuild its confidence in order to reverse the balance of class forces to its advantage. And this is primarily because they fear the strength of the working class - a strength which, if used, would inevitably push them aside as well.

This is why revolutionaries have to be absolutely clear in their assessment of these so-called "left oppositions" to Blair. It may be the case that a Livingstone or a Coates is able to attract at some point a significant amount of support, including from some sections of the working class. But if this happened, it would not be of any benefit to those workers who would be lured into supporting tired representatives of a bankrupt Labour Left like Coates or demagogues like Livingstone, who have nothing to offer them. It would be just another dead end after so many others.

Jumping on the bandwagon of Livingstone's campaign or seeking an electoral alliance with Coates, as a number of groups on the revolutionary left have done, might be a way of winning the ear of some of the disgruntled Labour Party members or supporters who are looking towards these characters. But to tell them what?

Our responsibility, as revolutionaries, is to warn these workers, as well as the working class as a whole, against such dead ends. Our message must be that they should not expect anything from the Livingstones and the Coates and that instead, if they want things to change, they should prepare themselves for the future battles - in other words, that they should prepare themselves to use the weapons of the class struggle in order to challenge the right of the capitalist class to rip off working people and the unemployed and impose deprivation on whole sections of society.

For revolutionaries, this is the only possible message to propagate in the present period. And prefacing it with ambiguous speeches about the alleged "courage" that dissident reformists like Coates and Livingstone are supposed to have, simply because they are "standing up" against Blair, will not help us to get our message across.

2 March 1999