The prospects for the British Left seem dire; and the situation is entirely different from in the past. (Written in 2010)
Overall, I am extremely pessimistic about the prospect of building a progressive movement in Britain. I had hoped in the mid-2000s that the total abandonment by New Labour of progressive politics in general and the huge opposition to the Iraq War in particular would lead to a serious organisation to the left of Labour coming into existence. Instead, all we got was George Galloway blending his own egocentric personality with an illiberal cultural relativist agenda in the form of his politically marginal Respect Party.
Since 2010 Labour has been in opposition to the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government. About what to do there are two contrasting opinions among people on the left.
On the one hand, there is the view that however awful New Labour was between 1997 and 2010 in government, nonetheless it is the only political organisation that working people have to advance their interests. We should, therefore, work for a Labour government to be elected in 2015 because even the worst Labour government is better than this. Of course in the meantime we can campaign and try to move Labour leftwards.
On the other hand, there is the view that the Blair-Brown governments crossed the Rubicon. New Labour in office abandoned social democracy, built up capitalist power and inequality, sought to diminish personal and civic liberties and actively promoted a sycophantic pro-Americanism around the globe. The people actively engaged in that project still lead the Labour Party today. Asking working people to put their faith and aspirations in Labour is, therefore, dishonest and will yield nothing but disappointment.
Superficially in this debate one can find similarities in the ending of the Blair-Brown governments in 2010 with the close of the Wilson-Callaghan years in 1979. Perhaps the most significant similarity is that Labour in opposition tends, at least initially after losing office, to start moving leftwards. And that was apparent in the symbolic election of Ed as opposed to David Miliband as party leader. But on closer examination there are two crucial differences between then and now.
First, unlike New Labour, the Labour Governments 1964-79 never abandoned social democracy. Wilson’s self-declared remit was left-leaning: to advance the well-being of working people within the post-war consensus and to be progressive in social, civic and personal affairs. In the latter, if not so much in the former, Labour chalked up significant success: abolition of the death penalty, legalisation of male homosexuality and abortion, lowering the age of majority to eighteen, etc. So in 1979 one could argue: “Labour is basically sound, but what we want is a more left-wing and progressive version of it. Let’s join and see what we can do”
The second crucial difference between now and then is that when Labour lost office in 1979, the left had never been so strong in the constituency parties and in the trade unions. There was real hope that by “mucking in” the left could win through. In 2010 Diane Abbott, the left-over of the Bennite Left was on the leadership ballot paper thanks only to the self-interested charity of New Labour MPs, who wanted to prevent the election being characterised as one between four white middle-class men. The movement behind Abbott was tiny and marginal. Few socialists remain active in the Labour Party.
My conclusion is that the situation in 2010 is fundamentally different from the one in 1979. The stain of New Labour cannot be washed away even in half a decade. Socialists cannot be, and cannot be seen to be, the junior partners of the people who managed New Labour after 1994, both in government and opposition. The Labour Party will not change its spots soon. If the left has a future it is not with Miliband and Balls. Tactically we might vote for them in elections, but that is all.