Roy Hattersley makes an appeal for opponents of Tony Blair in the Labour Party to stay in the party and, in the words of Hugh Gaitskell “fight, fight and fight again”.
Certainly there is no point in people who are serious about progressive politics leaving the only game in town and the far left is littered with the skeletons of failed alternatives, although I don’t think even Hattersley would mourn the departure of the Trotskyists who wrecked the party in the 1980’s.
As the website Cut It Up shows though there are many decent democratic socialists who have been driven to leave the party over the Iraq issue and that is bad news for a party that needs an activist base.
I’ve always liked and respected Roy Hattersley – his brand of staunch social democratic politics have never really been fashionable. When he was deputy leader of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock he was mocked by the left as being either a ‘witchunter’ or a rather stodgy right-winger. Now I suspect he is rather dismissed as a stodgy old-style statist social democrat. But his politics are guided by a strong mind and strong principles.
His attempt to present himself in recent years as the preserver of Labour’s core traditional values, based on “the ideas of RH Tawney and Tony Crosland” as he puts it, hasn’t been entirely a success however. I think has rather overdone the slightly self-mocking ‘Look, even I seem a radical lefty compared with Blair’ line.
His latest offering exposes what for me is the central weakeness with his analysis of New Labour – he thinks it is a tendency completely alien to his and the party’s values.
He refers to the Blairites as an “invading army” and says it is time to take them on:
“The task of recreating a real Labour party is far from hopeless. In every constituency there are men and women who want to rescue the party from the cuckoos in its nest. They need to be convinced – as they were when Labour was saved from a less successful infiltration in the early 1980s – that there are like-minded people all over the country”.
It is a worthy appeal and one which hopefully decent democratic socialists will head. But I think Hattersley does himself no favours by comparing the Blairistas to Derek Hatton’s Militant tendency.
Peter Kilfoyle, the man who destroyed Militant so effectively in the heartland on Merseyside in the 1980’s, has made a similar comparison not so long ago:
“Older members recall the internal triumph over sectarianism and wonder whether it was worth it, as a new sectarianism takes hold – one defined by the combination of a perceived neo-Thatcherite economic policy with a quasi-liberal social policy. It is little wonder that those who were committed to Labour before year zero of The Project feel so disaffected,” he wrote in the Guardian.
While it is true that The Project has been characterised by dogmatism, zealotry, intolerence and authoritarianism throughout, the last few months have really moved the goalposts and there really is no point in pretending that Blairism is something totally alien to the Labour Party, imposed from outside. The likes of Blunkett, Prescott, Beckett and yes even Alan Milburn all have lengthy histories in the party and like many Labour ministers before them began their lives on the left of the party. They weren’t imposed on the party, they didnt infiltrate the party, they have been part of a process. Whether you like that process or not, there really is no point in creating the illusion that Labour has been captured by an alien sect.
This is particularly useless as an approach at a moment when there are many people who might have easily been categorised as New Labour in the past who are open to a fresh approach – some even within the cabinet.
There is a recognition among many that Labour needs to reinject itself with a sense of genuine radicalism and begin to make an impact in key areas of policy. The debate about what direction that radicalism should go in is just begining. Peter Hain has offered his vision of a decentralised libertarian socialist approach but what are Hattersley and Kilfoyle offering? What are the discontented trade union centre-left offering? Are there any new ideas or do they really, as I suspect, wish to return to post-war statist social-democratic solutions?
If Labour is to re-energise the membership and re-unite, putting the divisions over Iraq behind it, there is a need for a real debate over the future direction of the party. Not an eighties style factional battle against an ‘enemy within’ carried out in committee rooms but a genuine attempt to marry the undoubted unorthodoxy and electoral success of New Labour with the commitment to core left values represented by the likes of Hattersley.