Perspectives on 1994-1997: Left failures?
The period prior to the 1997 elections looks distant, from the current perspective of the Labour Party. Copies of Will Hutton’s bullish book, The State We’re In, now forlornly grace charity shop shelves. The rhetoric of Blair, which then seemed to rout all before it, is now mockingly mirrored in the address of equally empty hair-do, David Cameron. Only the polls give some cause for comfort; the Labour Party was scoring in the 50% region more often than not pre-1997. Cameron’s Tories have thus still not sealed the deal with the electorate, despite an ailing government.
Yet, if we are not to repeat the same mistakes, the period of reform of the Party from 1981-1997 is a crucial area for investigation and lesson-taking, as at least one other blogger recognises. Paul searches for the causes of a failed Labour government and finds them in the choice of ‘the Left’ not to hold the feet of the government to the fire, partly out of delight that an 18 year wildnerness that encompassed the Thatcher Years had ended. Rather than agency and wilful treason, Paul sees structure, though added to which is the failed agency of activists – who didn’t act when perhaps they should have. I wish to suggest a difference of nuance.
That discussion revolves around where ‘we’, the activists, the members of a political party, went wrong. It assumes that ‘we’ want some accountability between the membership of the Labour Party and its leadership, and that the possibility is open within the structures of membership to achieve that accountability. The fault for its absence, would therefore be ours. However I don’t think that some of these premises hold true, and moreover I think the subject is really quite complex when we start considering things like the composition and goals of the Party membership, which are not uniform, despite the pretences of the Left to be the entirety of the grassroots.
We should consider, for example, that in the period 1994-1997, a hundred thousand people joined the Labour Party. Who were they? I have little useful statistical information to hand beyond a few recent books on Labour Party history. New Labour history and whatever I can cull from the internet and I do not know that the research exists – but I would guess that the ‘progressive alliance’ built up by New Labour triangulation recruited altogether different types of members to Labour, who neither knew nor cared for what the Labour Party used to be, or what the socialist Left expected it to be. They were not working class nor would they understand what that was if asked.
I frankly admit that my opinions on this are probably coloured by my experience at Oxford, where a large proportion of the members of the Labour Club were timeservers and careerists. From social to social, the conversations being held with individuals about every political subject were just depressing by how completely they revealed the chasm between the embryonic masters and fixers of the Party and ‘real life’, i.e. the genuinely hard time of it the rest of us have in finding a job and keeping food on the table. The culmination of this was when one member told me he’d rather be a Conservative than a Trotskyite.
Think that through for a moment. As politically disagreeable as we might find some Trotskyites, on the other hand, many of them live lives of ascetic poverty to devote themselves to a fight for wages, services and generally a better deal for working people. Far from the energetic posers of the student campus, most of the Trotskyites I have known are singularly dedicated. This effect is only lessened because, against the backdrop of capitalist hegemony and working class depoliticization, Trotskyites look like they are trying to use the working class to their own advantage, rather than simply acting as a catalyst for otherwise inchoate demands that arise from present social relations.
Compare that to what the Conservative Party is composed of and stands for.
Whether or not that is actually the case that such people began to arrive in the Party in greater numbers, I can’t prove or disprove. What I do know is that Labour’s vote in 1997 increased radically its support from the top of the demographics tables. Labour had won elections in the past without doing that. If we assume that the change in tone even between Smith and Blair attracted people who weren’t socialists-of-necessity (as one tends to find the working class) then we shouldn’t be talking about Left failures, more Right successes. The battles over Clause IV (with 90% CLP assent to the change, and 65% of members in support) and the Union bloc vote seem to reinforce this.
The Left did its best with the materials to hand. Every Right success, however, disillusioned the Left and caused their capitulation or their fall away from politics proper. Not to say that the Left hasn’t made mistakes; whilst maintaining some semblance of national organisation and national strategy is important, the Left relied on its high-profile figures altogether too much, and grew to love talking to itself rather than using a national network of activists to build and reinforce local networks, perhaps winning the odd local fight and consolidating itself. Yet to reap strength from any solid strategy takes time, which works in favour of the other side.
Even a Left that had a solid blood-and-toil strategy in place would not have been able to get rid of Labour’s leader, whose alliance with business secured the high profile endorsements of the News of the World and the Sun and secured access to a big tranche of funds with which to fight the election. There’s also the issue that Labour could probably have run Genghis Khan against John Major’s Conservatives and still pulled off an overall majority in the House of Commons in 1997. However even the very disunity of the Tories was in part attributable to depoliticization. Without Communism or even the Trades Unions around which to gather, the Tories had internal differences to fight out.
As the Left had gathered strength, it would have changed the objective condition of depoliticization, in turn re-uniting the Tories, not to mention stressing once more the relationship between working class Labour members and activists and the PLP. Meanwhile, in this alternative timeline, Tony would still have been pressing onwards – though the 12 years in government may have been compressed into five or six, with the Tories sorting themselves out and business and the media rediscovering their natural affinity with that Party. My basic point is, by the mid-90s, whatever Labour members and activists did, we couldn’t have avoided this Labour government.
It existed in the space where angry popular disaffection with the Conservatives met a popular retreat from engagement with politics at everything bar the most facile of levels. Our mistake at that point wasn’t in holding Tony et al to the basic ethos and promise of the Labour movement, but in seeing them as any different from the Conservatives in the general thrust of their attitudes to business, to popular participation in government and to the welfare services which we expect that the State will provide. Whatever the strains placed on people when in situ, in high positions of State, by the security services or the global financial system, it was never the goal of Tony Blair and his coterie to enact socialist changes.
Anyone paying attention will have noted that in opposition, Blair and Brown were dead set against ID cards, decried Tory attacks on civil liberties and so forth. We know how that turned out. Blair in his maiden speech made an impassioned plea against tax relief for the wealthy, and against multinational companies who would use the north of England for as long as suited them, before departing to pastures greener. Yet his government presided over the non-dom scandal and cuts and loopholes that allowed the wealthy to escape taxation, though the poor and middling paid it through the nose.
By 1997, having courted Rupert Murdoch and others, it was a different ball game from 1983. Our mistake was not in holding the government to its promises; having scaled down its promises to five simple issues which even most Conservatives would be for (*), it kept every one. Our mistake was in seeing the new government as a vehicle of change. Having believed in it, only to be rudely brought down to earth once more, many members of the Party wandered off – both from Left and Right, as the current state of the Labour Party attests. All of this, which is so much surmise, begets another question then.
Having established that we haven’t held the Party leadership to account, and that Labour can trudge along quite merrily even while the most class conscious battalions of the movement are dead-set against the leadership, we really need to ask, is it possible to hold our leaders to account? This is a question I’ll be searching for answers to over the remaining five chapters of Paul’s own “What is to be done?”
(*) Cut class sizes for infants, speed legal proceedings against young offenders, reduce NHS waiting lists, maintain low inflation and move 250,000 young people from welfare to work. Source: Andrew Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party, Second Edition, p230.