The Left

The Beaten Generation

Via Norm, I read this very interesting piece I had missed in last week’s Guardian on the two sons of the late Marxist academic Ralph Milliband.

David and Ed are of course very closely involved at a senior level in New Labour, albeit on different sides of the Blair-Brown divide. Tony Benn, whose son has also adopted similar politics to the Milliband brothers, had this to say in a diary entry in 1993,

“Ralph Miliband came for about an hour and a half today … He was saying how his sons say to him, ‘Oh, Dad, how would you do that? Would it work? What are your positive proposals?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the same with my sons.’ He was very relieved to hear that. I think he thought he was very out of date.”

While political parents fear their children growing up to stand on the opposite end of the spectrum it is interesting that many of the sons and daughters of noted left-wing politicians or thinkers, have rather than follow their parents or totally rebel against them, instead taken up different positions within the broad left’s camp.

In the old Communist Party it was not at all uncommon to find the sons and daughters of an older generation of ‘traditional communists’ at the forefront of the revisionist, eurocommunist ‘modernisers’ and the Labour Party is full of examples.

I wonder why this is?

On a possibly related theme British Spin has some interesting comments on the thirtysomething generation of former student politicians who make up a loyal core of Blairites (and there are plenty more names that could be added to his already lengthy list).

This is a cohort of MP’s shaped by battling trotskyites, supporting the Kinnock reforms and backing the Blair/Brown takeover of the party. They rose as the functionaries and menials of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson leadership team. They know each other, their leaders and to be frank, not too much else

I think perhaps we are looking at a generational question. I don’t share the New Labour loyalties of the likes of Twigg and Fitzsimmons but in a much more minor and localised way I also cut my political teeth in the battles in the Labour Party Young Socialists and student politics in the back end of the eighties.

A common thread among people whose early political experiences where in the mid-late 1980’s is a fierce hostility to the posture politics of the ultra-left and a much stronger focus, as Tony Benn suggests, on practicalities and results. Even many of those who don’t count ourselves as being Blairites, have very little time for Toy Town Revolutionaries and are much more likely to make electoral calculations than other previous generations.

I am sure there are lots of possible explanations for why this might be (and I’d be very interested to hear some) but my feeling is that it has much to do with the Thatcher years. Those who entered political activity in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s did so in times when Labour and the Tories were taking turns at running the country – even if the left was out of power there must have been the feeling that a Labour government was just around the corner.

But I was nine years old when Thatcher came to power and 27 when we finally got a Labour government. I worked in two failed election campaigns and saw the very real effects of what Thatcherism brought to the industrial North while the leaders of the left led us to defeat after defeat and not just in elections.

Perhaps that could explain why I find it hard to tolerate people on the left who engage in campaigns to bring down a Labour Prime Minister without having in place a credible alternative and with apparently little concern for the risk of the Tories coming back.

Matt Johnson, the songwriter behind The The , described the children of Thatcherism thus:

The beaten generation, the beaten generation
Reared on a diet of prejudice and mis-information
The beaten generation, the beaten generation
Open your eyes, open your imagination

Well we didn’t really go for the last line did we? Instead of the politics of the imagination we voted to get rid of Clause Four and signed up to an approach which had little room for idealism and had a much greater emphasis on such unromantic notions as winning power, improving things a bit and keeping the Tories out.

It didn’t mean we stopped thinking or caring about the broader picture, the long term future or that we lost core values and principles but while many of us felt disappointed by some or even much of what followed, the Beaten Generation has, I think, remained The Very Pragmatic Generation.