I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read in the past five years by leftists listing their disappointments with Tony Blair’s government. For some, it’s the war on Iraq, for others the private finance initiative or selection in schools or rights at work. I’ve written quite a few pieces along these lines myself, most of them castigating Blair for his timidity on Europe and constitutional reform.
But in truth I don’t feel particularly let down. I didn’t have great hopes of the government in the first place. And — OK, except on Europe and constitutional reform — the government has not done significantly worse than I expected.
In fact, today I’m much more disappointed with the left than I am with the government. Back in 1997, my own personal great expectation was that the left would be revived by the experience of Labour in government.
This wasn’t because I shared the Trotskyist delusion that the masses would be radicalised through suffering betrayal by perfidious social democracy. I just thought that even a boringly centrist Labour government would open up political space for the left that had been closed off by 18 years of Conservative government. As the 60s hippy guru Richard Neville said, there might be no more than an inch between Labour and the Tories, but it’s the inch in which we live.
After all, the left had blossomed under the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s. Those were the decades of radical workplace activism, the student revolt, the rise of the women’s movement and gay liberation, squatting, protests against the Vietnam war, the rediscovery of western Marxism.
True, it had all ended in tears, in the “winter of discontent” and Margaret Thatcher’s election victory. And true, there was plenty that was dreadful about the left in the 1960s and 1970s: the bureaucratic mindset and myopia of much of the trade union left, the lunatic Leninist sects with their revolutionary posturing, the widespread sympathy for Soviet totalitarianism, the bone-headed anti-Europeanism that dominated the Labour left, the incomprehensible jargon of Althusserian academics — and so I could go on.
But, hey, by 1997, the worst of the 60s and 70s left had been consigned to the dustbin of history. The Communist Party, still in 1979 the largest and most influential organisation to Labour’s left, had long since imploded. The largest part of its diaspora – the bit with the money, Democratic Left – had renounced Leninism and embraced social democracy. The various true-believer Trotskyist and Stalinist sects, much reduced in membership, were utterly marginal. No one was pro-Soviet any more except nostalgically, because the Soviet Union no longer existed. Anti-Europeanism seemed to have been abandoned by all but a diehard rump of the Labour left. Althusserianism was but a distant memory.
Of course, there were new idiocies abroad. Some young guns had embraced a naive anti-capitalism that blamed all the world’s troubles on the business activities of McDonalds and Coca-Cola. Others were already reduced to blaming everything on Blair, the closet Tory who had hi-jacked the Labour Party and ended its commitment to socialism. On the whole, though, the prospects for an intelligent, engaged and vibrant British left seemed to me better in 1997 than for many years before.
Eight years on, I don’t know how I could have got it so completely wrong. Far from reviving under Labour, the left has continued to decline — in numbers, influence and relevance.
OK, I’ll accept that the rise of popular opposition to the Iraq war gave the left a boost. But it was the very worst part of the left that benefited: the diehard Leninists of the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain, who appointed themselves as the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition. And their hard-core revolutionary defeatism and facile anti-imperialism did more harm than good even in the short term. All that remains from the mass mobilisation of 2003 is the grotesque sideshow of George Galloway, the SWP and a handful of reactionary Islamists in the Respect Coalition. After the election in Iraq, their support for the murderous Sunni-supremacist “resistance” looks like going down in history as the early-21st-century equivalent of the old Communist Party of Great Britain’s endorsement of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.
Iraq apart, all that most of the left has done since 1997 is moan. It whinges about Blair, it whinges about spin, it whinges about PFI, it whinges — just like in the 1970s — about Europe. There isn’t a coherent left political programme of any description, let alone one that is creative and forward-looking. No one on the left has an alternative economic strategy that is even vaguely credible. Hardly anyone has the faintest idea of what a different foreign policy might comprise. (Setting a deadline for getting out of Iraq, as Robin Cook suggested in a jointly authored piece with Douglas Hurd and Menzies Campbell, is laughably stupid, and the resurgent anti-European Labour left’s plans to dish the EU constitution, in alliance with the Daily Mail, are beneath contempt.) There aren’t even very many leftists — even Fabians and Demosites — coming up with specific domestic policy bright ideas. For the most part, the left’s line is that if the government is for something, it must be bad.
I’m not denying that there’s plenty the government has done that ought to be opposed. But a left that is merely negative, a left without a project, can never flourish. Eight more years like the last eight, and the left might as well pack its bags and go home.