15 September 2009


I wouldn't claim that either Peter Mandelson's speech at the LSE on Monday or Gordon Brown's strangely halting oration at the TUC on Tuesday mark the end of Labour's woes, but they are at least an intellectual el-Alamein. There's rather more fight left than I thought in what had appeared over the summer to be the lifeless corpse of New Labour -- and I'm beginning to think I was wrong to be quite so pessimistic in my last post on Labour's prospects.

There is a clear theme in the Brown-Mandelson offensive, which is all about how the government's actions in the past year have staved off -- or at least helped stave off -- an extraordinary economic disaster, and how it is the height of stupidity to advocate, as the Tories have done, axeing public spending at once when only public spending is keeping the economy afloat. What we need to do, according to Mandelson-Brown, is keep the state stimulus to demand going until we're out of the woods.

The Tory press – and the BBC, with notable exceptions – have made the story Labour's acceptance of "cuts", and of course the cretino-left has joined in, claiming that there's no difference except in degree between Tory austerity and Labour austerity.

But there is a very big difference. Both Brown and Mandelson made it clear that, over time, the money borrowed to shore up the banks and to keep demand alive in the world economy will have to be paid back. The thing is that it's over time. They made it equally clear that doing it at once, before vigorous growth has resumed, would be disastrous, and that the crucial task after the pay-back starts is to make sure that what will inevitably be austerity is also egalitarian.

Stafford Cripps 1947 or what? I'm impressed and not a little surprised that they've taken this line and done so with conviction. Now we need to make it the common sense of 2010: it's time for punitive taxes on incomes over £100,000, a new green pre-fab scheme for housing, nationalisation of public transport ... Ah, we can dream.

10 September 2009


I was going to go off on one on Seumas Milne's piece defending the Hitler-Stalin pact in the Guardian today, but Norm has done it already. Someone ought to republish Victor Gollancz's collection Betrayal of the Left ASAP.

7 September 2009


There's an excellent piece by Ian Aitken in Tribune here on the outbreak of the second world war.

6 September 2009


I spent this afternoon in a field in south Norfolk with some friends at the annual Burston school strike rally. It's a commemoration of an heroic struggle for working-class education: two socialist teachers were fired in 1914 by the local school board (dominated by farmers) for objecting to their pupils being taken out of school to work -- so they set up an independent school with the support of the labour movement and kept it going for 25 years.

The rally has been the big leftie East Anglian event for as long as I can remember, and there have been plenty worse than today's: at least it didn't rain. But there was something quite sad about it today. The overwhelming majority of adults there were 50 or over, and the theme, solidarity with the Cuban revolution after 50 years, was entirely uninspiring. Tony Benn didn't turn up because he was ill, so instead (or maybe not) we were treated to an interminably dull speech by Richard Howitt, Labour's East Anglian MEP.

Meanwhile, the paper sellers from the Leninist sects worked the 200-strong crowd: Morning Star, Socialist Worker, Socialist, Socialist Appeal. They all had stalls underneath B&Q gazebos, as did the Socialist Party of Great Britain -- whose grizzled militants had forgotten the box of Socialist Standards they were supposed to bring and so were selling only pamphlets written in 1910 -- and what was once the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), which was flogging the autobiography of the late Reg Birch and old Chinese editions of J V Stalin on the national question.

But they didn't do too well. Most of the people at the bash were sell-out reformists from the Labour Party in Ipswich and Norwich who just wanted a day out in the sun drinking beer, and paper sales were thin on the ground. The Maoists were first out, taking down their gazebo at 4pm to head for their red base in Stockwell; by 4.30pm the Socialist Workers' stall was reduced to inhaling helium from Unison's balloons to make them talk squeaky.

I drank some beer, ate some lunch, said hello to some good comrades I've not seen for some time, played with some kids. Altogether, an excellent afternoon. But it showed the old left is dead.

3 September 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 September 2009

And so – we’re into the final straight. This autumn’s political conferences mark the beginning of a very long election campaign that looks likely to end with Labour being defeated next spring. All right, it’s not over until it’s over, you never know what might turn up, and all that.

But the Tory lead in the opinion polls is so consistent and so large that it would take a minor miracle for Labour to win even though the Tories need a very big swing to win a Commons majority.

Which is extremely depressing – and not just because the Tories are such third-rate incompetent reactionaries (though of course they are), but also because Labour seems in such poor shape to bounce back after a defeat.

Labour’s problems start at the top. Let’s assume that Gordon Brown remains Labour leader and PM right up to the election – I’m still hoping he doesn’t, but that’s by-the-way – and that not too many of the current cabinet lose their seats. Brown might do a Jim Callaghan and hang on as party leader for a while, but hunch says that he won’t and that the contest to succeed him will be open – the first Labour leadership election since 1983 in which one candidate is not a shoo-in. My guess is that the main contenders will be Ed Balls and David Miliband, but I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few others have a go: Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas (as long as they’re still MPs), maybe Peter Mandelson (if he can find a way of returning as an MP), perhaps two or three others. OK, it’s not quite a barren field – but none of them exactly gets the juices flowing. There isn’t a Blair or even a Kinnock.

And that, if you like, is the end of the not-so-bad news, because everything else looks dire for Labour. Outside its upper echelons, the parliamentary Labour Party has never been shorter of talent – and that is before the departure of 100 or more retiring MPs and goodness knows how many others who will lose their seats at the general election. Labour MPs’ morale is by all accounts still at rock bottom after the expenses scandal. At the grass roots, Labour is in a terrible state, its membership dwindling and disillusioned and its local government representation weaker than for 30 years. The trade unions are worse led and shorter of cash and activists than at any time in living memory. There is little sign of intelligent life among the left-leaning think-tanks (with the partial exception of Compass) or in most of the left press (present company excepted, of course).

It’s true that there is also no evidence of the deep-rooted ideological disagreements and personal back-biting that did Labour so much damage the last time it was turfed out of government, in 1979. It’s difficult to envisage Labour conference in 2011 embracing withdrawal from Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament and widespread nationalisation – and I certainly can’t picture four former members of the government defecting from Labour to set up a rival centrist party in January 2012.

But just because it’s not the same as 1979 doesn’t mean that it might not be just as bad. The 1980s were dreadful for Labour, and no one in his or her right mind wants to relive the miners’ strike, Militant, rate-capping and Red Wedge. It was nevertheless when Labour began the long process of rebuilding that culminated in its victory in 1997. The Bennite insurgency of the early 1980s might have been destructive, deluded and transitory, but it brought a whole new generation into Labour politics – and the election defeats of 1979, 1983 and 1987 (along with the defeats of the miners’ and Wapping strikes) forced Labour to rethink and renew its whole programme, for the most part for the better.

In other words, there was sufficient energy and enthusiasm about Labour after 1979 for the party to emerge fitter and stronger from what appeared for several years to be a life-threatening crisis. What’s worrying today is that the never-say-die spirit is so notable by its absence. At every level, Labour seems tired, resigned and confused, and there’s no new generation of activists waiting in the wings.

Maybe that will all change before the election: I hope it does, and that Labour runs a dynamic campaign and wins. Perhaps if Labour loses it will be only by a small margin and it will recover quickly, with a fresh leader and the Tories’ popularity evaporating as they axe public services. But I have a horrible feeling in my bones that we could be in for a long and thankless exile wandering in the wilderness.