23 October 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 31 2003

One of the most depressing features of the past few months has been the way the traditional left has responded to the increasingly apparent difficulties of the Blair government as its second term drifts listlessly on.

Most of the traditional left — by which I mean the Leninists outside the Labour Party, the hard left inside it and quite a lot of the Tribune left — appears content to mix wallowing in schadenfreude with a barrage of negatives: no to the euro, no to PFI, no to foundation hospitals, no to top-up fees, no to US and British troops in Iraq, et cetera et cetra.

Part of my problem here is that I can’t see why most of the things the left opposes should be opposed so vehemently, or indeed at all. Although there are obvious problems with PFI, particularly in the way it can create a “two-tier” workforce with workers in private companies enjoying substantially worse pay and conditions than their public sector counterparts, I’ve yet to hear a convincing case for believing that a new PFI school is worse than no new school. On foundation hospitals, I get the terrible feeling I’ve missed something important, because I just can’t work out what all the sound and fury signifies. I’m against top-up fees — a straightforward graduate tax would make much more sense — but I’d rather have them than continue to starve higher education of funds. Opposition in principle to British participation in the euro is a mark of political cretinism pure and simple. And immediate withdrawal of the US and British forces in Iraq is a recipe for a bloodbath.

And so I could go on. What really bugs me, however, is that a string of noes is, on its own, so utterly reactive and uninspiring. At precisely the moment that the government has lost momentum and needs a new direction, the traditional left has nothing constructive to say.

Things were not always thus. The left of the 1960s and 1970s was certainly no stranger to obsessive negativity — no to the Common Market, no to incomes policy, no to spending cuts — and it had plenty of other faults, not least a programme that was economically suspect and deeply unattractive to the majority of voters. But at least it had a programme, a set of policies, however misguided, that constituted a positive alternative to the drift and crisis management of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Today, the traditional Left lacks even an incredible alternative programme.

Which is not to say that there is no alternative. Indeed, there is one outlined rather elegantly in a book published last week — Robin Cook’s The Point of Departure.

Most of the book comprises an account of Cook’s last two years in government as leader of the Commons — and most press commentary on it has concentrated on its revelations about Cabinet arguments in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

This is undoubtedly fascinating stuff, as indeed is Cook’s story of how his hopes for democratic reform of the House of Lords were scuppered, which make it clear precisely who was the villain of the piece: “It is an awkward truth for modernisers to face, but the reason we are to be lumbered with an all-appointed House of Lords is because that is what Tony Blair had always wanted.”

But the part of the book that is most important is the chapter “Where do we go from here?”, in which Cook outlines his thoughts on how to reinvigorate the Government.

He does not shy from criticism, but his emphasis is almost entirely on positive alternatives. He argues convincingly for what he calls “value-based politics” instead of the technocratic managerialism that currently characterises the Government’s approach. Labour, he says, should explicitly embrace egalitarianism, make the case for more regulation in the public interest, particularly in pension provision and to protect the environment, and adopt radical policies to revitalise Britain’s democracy: a largely elected second chamber, the return of powers to local councils that have been taken away by successive governments and, most important, proportional representation for the House of Commons. On the international front, the government should embrace Europe enthusiastically, setting a target date for entering the euro, and press for a stronger United Nations capable of reining in the US.

Little of this will go down well with the traditional left, with its hostility to Europe and constitutional reform. But it’s a better starting point than anything it has come up with — even though the chances that the government will take a blind bit of notice are as slim as slim can be.

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