Monday, 1 December 1997

Mike Phipps, Labour Left Briefing

Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99)

Ten full weeks before the May 1997 general election, Tony Blair's aides told the media that the new Prime Minister would enter No.10 shortly after 1pm on 2 May to facilitate live reports for lunchtime news bulletins. Such details are typical of this highly informative book by two journalists from a New Statesman/Tribune background. It also encapsulates the authors' dilemma, torn as they are between undis­guised admiration and profound cynicism about New Labour.

The book is firstly a history of how Labour's policies have evolved. Especially good is the clear account of economic policy from Keynesianism to monetarist betrayal, through the Alternative Economic Strategy and the long march back to monetarism under Gordon Brown. This is also a book about the personalities who make up New Labour and their own evolution – or U-turns. One example is the young Frank Field who once complained, "The poor get poorer under Labour." Field of course is now Minister for Welfare Reform, preparing proposals that might truly fulfil this proph­ecy.

The authors are withering about Labour's unswerving bipartisan approach to foreign affairs. Former Shadow Foreign Secretary Jack Cunningham is singled out for his "dilatory work-rate" and "indolence, igno­rance and slavish adherence to the British Government line on Bosnia."

But it's the right-wing defence team of George Robertson, John Reid, John (now Lord) Gilbert – "the most consistently unpleasant back-bench propagandist for NATO and nuclear arms" – and John Spellar, "chief fixer" for the right-wing electricians' union, who come in for the most scathing criticism. "If they weren't all bought up by the bloody CIA, they might as well have been," one Cabinet member is reported as saying. Defence is emblematic of the timidity behind the rhetoric of this government: the policy's a mess, cobbled together primarily to reassure Labour's opponents and the arms industry that things will go on much as before, despite the end of the Cold War and the changing relationship with the US. The Eurofighter, for example, ten years behind schedule and originally targeted at a country which no longer exists (the USSR), will still be built with at least £14 billion of British taxpayers' money.

There are insights into Blair's personal style too. Perhaps the most telling is his attitude to Labour's MEPs, now topical again following the recent suspension of four of them for speaking out against the leader­ship's underhand attempt to remove its opponents by changing the method for selecting candidates. The origin of this scheme lies partly in the modernisers' resentment over a 1995 Guardian advert by 32 MEPs against the ditching of Clause IV. But his frosty relationship with the entire Euro-Labour Group, even those who slavishly support him, indicates Blair's distrust for any public activity in the Party beyond his patronage and control.

Overall, the book's analysis – that New Labour will abandon any principle in the interests of electoral popularity – is rather superficial. The problem is far deeper: the current leadership is ideologically committed to an economic and political project that will inevitably bring it into conflict with the interest of the workers' movement. Still, at 456 pages, this is the most detailed and accessible guide to New Labour yet.

Hazel Croft, Socialist Review

Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99)
The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Verso, £15)

Why has Tony Blair been able to shift the Labour Party so far to the right, and why was the left wing inside the party so impotent in the face of the breathtaking speed of Blair's changes? Both these questions are tackled in those two new books. Safety First is an accessible account written by Paul Anderson, former editor of the left wing Labour paper Tribune, and Nyta Mann, who still writes for the paper. The book puts the New Labour project in the context of the last 50 years and is a useful resource for socialists.

Firstly it's a good read. Here you'll discover that Labour's spin doctor in chief Peter Mandelson once flogged the Communist Party paper, the Morning Star, outside Kilburn tube station. You'll also discover how nearly all the leading figures of the Labour cabinet ­ Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, John Prescott, Robin Cook and Tony Blair himself ­ in the past made speeches which would bar them from even getting selected as a Labour candidate today.

But there is an important point to all this. It illustrates the route travelled by so many who start out wanting to change the capitalist system but see the only route as through electoral and parliamentary means. So the book shows how much Tony Blair and his group of advisers have attacked the traditions of Old Labour, but also shows how Blair's New Labour project is a continuation of the reformist policies of the whole Labour tradition.

So it was not Tony Blair who began the process of 'modernisation'. Rather, many of the biggest rightward shifts, such as the ditching of unilateral nuclear disarmament and accepting most of the anti trade union laws, happened under the leaderships of Neil Kinnock and then John Smith. It was also Kinnock and Smith who began the process of curtailing Labour Party democracy and debate and who began the obsession with image and the media.

Safety First is flawed in its analysis, however. The authors accept much of the 'modernisation' of the Labour Party, agreeing with the expulsion of Militant and accept many of the earlier changes.

The authors of The End of Parliamentary Socialism, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, are much more critical of Labour's shift to the right and Blair's ascendancy. Both authors are associated with the group of left wingers around the late Ralph Miliband, and Leo Panitch continues to edit the yearly socialist journal Socialist Register.

Their book is a much more academic analysis than Safety First. It concentrates on the failure of the Labour left, particularly of those grouped around Benn through the 1970s and 1980s. At its height the movement around Benn attracted thousands of people to meetings up and down the country, culminating in the campaign to get Tony Benn elected as Labour's deputy leader in 1981. Its emphasis was not on mobilising workers' action. Indeed the movement was at its height after the defeats of workers' struggle in the late 1970s and the disillusion which would see Labour booted out of office in 1979.

Rather the Bennites sought to democratise and change the internal structures of the Labour Party itself. This, the authors admit, was its downfall. The Labour left, the book concludes, by 'concentrating on trying to change the Labour Party ... became trapped in that struggle'. And, 'It never solved the problem of having to fight for its goals through unending party committees and conferences without becoming absorbed by them.' This is damning criticism which the authors hope will provide us with important lessons in rebuilding the left today. Pantich and Leys not only argue for a rejuvenation of the kind of debate which the coterie around Tony Blair have extinguished, but for a break with New Labour altogether. This is an important and welcome step which raises one of the key questions of how socialists should organise.

The authors quite rightly argue that 'the route to socialism does not lie through transforming the Labour Party'. They want to build a new form of socialist organisation which avoids the pitfalls of the Benn campaign and which does not get bogged down in a fruitless attempt to change the Labour Party.

The next question is what type of organisation is needed? Unfortunately Panitch and Leys explicitly reject revolutionary organisation. Indeed they argue that the '"Bolshevik" language' (of 'demands', 'lines' and so on) of some of those involved in the Benn campaign 'was not only incapable of reaching out beyond the ranks of organised labour, as Benn could, but also repelled many people who needed to be persuaded'.

Despite the authors' criticism of the Bennite left, their detailed account underplays its weaknesses. They do not examine, for example, how Tony Benn's continued membership of the Callaghan government gave left credibility to massive spending cuts implemented by the Labour government.

And missing throughout the account is the dynamic of class struggle. So there is no sense of the mood of anger and bitterness seething beneath the surface which would sweep Labour into power on 1 May. Indeed the authors accept that Blair's victory was due in large part to the 'Labour modernisers' ruthless redesign of party policy to win back former Conservative voters in the marginal seats of 'Middle England'.

The rejection of revolutionary strategy and organisation ultimately leaves the authors with nowhere to go except along a similar road of a mix of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity. But it was this similar strategy which proved disastrous for so many socialists in the early 1980s, channelling their energies away from revolution and towards reform.