I once met Roy Hattersley on a train, and was extremely rude to him. This occurred right in the middle of the anti-left witch hunt in the Labour Party, and was always something I've been rather proud of. In the last year or so, though, I have at times almost regretted my outburst.
Hattersley after all seems like a veritable Bolshevik compared to the Blairites. Hattersley stands for comprehensive education, Blair and his acolytes for the London Oratory. Hattersley greets with hostility the morality trip that Blair, Straw and the like take with unstinting enthusiasm.
Hattersley believes that fiscal probity is an inadequate response from Labour to the terrible attacks carried out on the poor in the Thatcher
Major years. Blair and Brown make it the foundation of future government policy.
All this seems to be in such stark contrast to the relative silence of so much of the Labour left. Take for instance the new gagging clause introduced by Blair and his `men in the dark'. It is a pernicious little weapon, which is supposedly designed to prevent Labour MPs from `bringing the party into disrepute'.
Of course, calling on the party to break all links with the TUC (Stephen Byers), or announcing that the party should put aside all talk of socialism (Kim Howells), surely two cornerstones on which the party's `reputation' was built, are not viewed as disciplinary matters at all.
Here then is an anti-left disciplinary measure, and yet the left of the party, rather like rabbits caught in headlights, seems to be offering very little resistance to it. Yet again it has been left to Hattersley, and even Susan Crosland, the widow of the former champion of the Labour right, Anthony, to launch the offensive against the clause. Crosand said that she didn't think her husband would want to be part of any party which seemed to want to stifle political debate. Hattersley was even more scathing, denouncing a substitution of image for substance and empty slogans for ideas.
After all, the whole reason that the left gives for being in the Labour Party is that it is a vehicle which, pushed in the right direction, can bring about at the very least substantial reform, if not the transformation of society altogether. This is why many of them, good committed socialists, joined the party in the first place. Yet now they find themselves in a party that is promising no reform of any substance, and a disciplinary procedure designed to stop them complaining about it.
But they have a problem all of them have in common to a greater or lesser degree a faith in parliament as an agent of change, and faith in Labour as the party that will bring about that change. So they are trapped into worrying about doing or saying anything that might be portrayed as causing division in the party, and therefore be electorally damaging.
Recently a statement issued by the Socialist Workers Party condemning the Blairite attempt to break with the unions and abandon even the pretence of being socialist hit the front pages of the serious press. The reason for this was that three Labour MPs, along with large numbers of Labour activists, put their name to the statement. A whole hullabaloo followed with much controversy over whether the MPs had actually signed.
Surely though, whether they had or not (they definitely had!) was not the key question. That had to be why, when the very heart of everything they believed their party stood for was under threat of being torn out, was it left to the SWP to challenge where Labour was going? Why wasn't the left up in arms, carrying the argument throughout the party, launching its statement, fighting for the very heart and soul of its party?
Of course, the Labour left has an answer of sorts. It says that `its day will come'. Indeed some have even worked out the rosy scenario. Some time ago I saw Tony Benn on the Clive Anderson show explaining that Blair would eventually split from Labour, as Ramsay MacDonald had done, leaving the real Labour Party to regroup and fight again.
Yet the whole project of the left is one that has failed again and again. It is a project that is trapped in an even more difficult situation now than in the past. Today's decaying capitalism, and in particular Britain's relative decline within this decay, makes the granting of even minor reforms a course that leads to confrontation with those who control real wealth and power in society.
Labour has never at the best of times confronted such people. When the system seemed to be going well it may have been able to make some reforms, but when it goes badly it has always bowed to capitalism's needs and turned its back on those who voted Labour. Blair is exceptional in so much as he has turned his back on his electorate even before they've elected him.
The left has in the past made advances, and may do so again. Yet every advance has hit the reality of Labourism. So a generation of good socialists find themselves silenced and abandoned. The lesson has to be, not that they themselves are personally weak or cowardly, but that they are tied to a road to change that leads to a dead end. The road to socialism is blocked off to Labour. The vehicle the Labour left has chosen is wrong time for a new vehicle on a very different road!