Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Reds under the Newly Made Bed

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Reds under the Newly Made Bed

Article excerpt

Whatever happened to the left wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party? To the Campaign Group and What's Left? The answer is barely audible

We know about new Labour. But does new Labour have a new left? The unions are supine, MPs awed and grateful. One-time rebels are respectable members of the government. Peter Hain, a leading figure on what used to be the soft left, is now a minister at the Welsh Office; Tony Banks is minister for sport. Even a member of the hard-left Campaign Group such as Alice Mashon has a lowly job as Chris Smith's PPS.

In the new Parliamentary Labour Party a rebel is as rare as an ocelot. "It would be like putting a big target above your head and asking Mandelson to shoot," explains one first-timer. No one wants to be seen as left-wing - unless it's by their local party, as far as possible from London. "Under new Labour, you can't afford to be labelled as left," says another. "Once you are, you're anathematised."

So far the most forceful criticism of Tony Blair has come from the Liberal Democrats and the old Labour right. We've had the Alice-through-the-looking-glass spectacle of Roy Hattersley demanding redistribution of wealth; and of the AEEU, the right-wing engineering workers' union, attacking the prime movers behind Labour's Party into Power reforms as "right-wing Trotskyists trying to outdo each other in their extremism and outrageousness".

In the Commons the new intake have buried themselves in constituency work, to the point where Clive Soley, the solicitous PLP chair, has been warning them not to turn into "supercouncillors". Occasionally, like a naughty schoolchild, a new MP will confess to having said something slightly risque on an obscure local radio programme. But loyalty still wins over the politician's compulsive desire for publicity, and grumbles about student fees, for instance - are aired to ministers behind the scenes.

"Different people have different sticking points," says Doug Naysmith, the Socialist Health Association stalwart who now represents Bristol North-West. "In my case, while I like what Tessa Jowell is doing [as minister for public health], I'm less happy about the Private Finance Initiative. I certainly wouldn't want to see it extended throughout the NHS."

In today's PLP, says Naysmith (who would not place himself on the left): "There's no organised left that isn't the hard left." That means the 31-strong Campaign Group, which counts among its members names such as Tony Benn, Diane Abbott, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. The group still runs a slate for elections to the National Executive Committee, but is likely to lose influence if the PIP reforms go through, as MPs will no longer be able to stand in the NEC constituency section which is elected by ordinary party members.

But the group is widely considered- not just by Blairites - "dead as a dodo". According to Campaign Group News, only six new MPs have joined: Ann Cryer (Keighley), her son John Cryer (Hornchurch), Eileen Gordon (Romford), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) and Mike Wood (Batley and Spen). Others go to meetings without joining.

It must be said that membership is not a great career move. Since the election, Diane Abbott has been removed from the Treasury Select Committee and Jeremy Corbyn from the Social Security Select Committee. There are real fears of expulsions under the clause in the new PLP code of conduct that prohibits "bringing the party into disrepute". Two MPs whose names come up in this context are Corbyn and Alan Simpson, the thoughtful MP for Nottingham South.

So why join - an act akin to showing blazing lights during a wartime air raid? McDonnell, who was Livingstone's deputy on the GLC, cites "old loyalties and a certain huddling together for warmth". For John Cryer, whose father was the Labour MP Bob Cryer, the group "is a forum where ideas and issues can be discussed. It supports a lot of the things that I support: universal benefits, redistribution of wealth, public ownership. …

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