Magazine article The Spectator

Almost as Striking as the Tory Silence - the Total Incoherence of the Labour Left

Magazine article The Spectator

Almost as Striking as the Tory Silence - the Total Incoherence of the Labour Left

Article excerpt

One of the most important political developments of the last ten years has been the abject failure of the Labour Left. Though never remarked upon, the absence of a strong and coherent left-wing voice has been of great moment. Ever since its birth, the Labour movement has been defined as much by a romantic tradition of eloquent rebels as by its leaders; think of Aneurin Bevan and Attlee, or Michael Foot and Harold Wilson. Foot and Bevan were incomparable: masters of oratory, capable of inspiring mass emotion or destroying an enemy with a phrase.

One would have expected Tony Blair of all Labour leaders - coming from the Right of the party and always open to charges of betrayal - to have generated his antithesis, as Attlee generated Bevan. But he has not done so. There is a disaffected left-wing in the Labour party, but it is a shadowy, incoherent rump. No great man or woman has emerged to give it shape or purpose. There are men of obvious decency, like the agonised Nottingham MP Alan Simpson. There are men with a spark of brilliance, like George Galloway. There are men of mischief, like the QC Robert Marshall-- Andrews. But the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. There is no organisation to provide discipline and drive. Attempts to provide one, through the Campaign Group or Tribune - now being revived by Ian Davidson, Gordon Brown's back-bench organiser - have failed. The failure of the Left to find a method of taking on Tony Blair is as noteworthy as the inability of the Tories to find a voice in opposition.

Both political tragedies were on display when the Commons was recalled to debate Iraq on Tuesday. A ragged 53 Labour rebels voted against the government motion, and there was a handful of powerful speeches, by Galloway, Tam Dalyell and others. But most were barely articulate, in some cases bordering on half-witted. There was no sense of will. The organisational drive and ruthlessness which were such urgent features of the Left under previous Labour governments has been appropriated by No. 10. This is a mysterious process which cries out for more research. New Labour has been far more unscrupulous than any previous government about using the powers of the Prime Minister to assert dominance. Its leading figures gained a clear-sighted, Marxist understanding of power in the desperate struggles of the 1970s. Though they have since forgotten much of the associated communist dogma, they have retained the methodology. It was all on display last week: the careful use of selective information (the Evening Standard hoardings screamed all day `Saddam's Nuclear Secrets Revealed' - closer inspection showed that the only secret was that there were no nuclear secrets); the marginalisation or smearing of political opponents, the masterful use where necessary of House of Commons procedure to suppress debate. The old-fashioned Labour Left, by contrast, has forgotten everything that once made it such a spectacular, if sinister, force.

The same observation applies to the Tories. They no longer know how to oppose, and last week's debate demonstrated the problem. The image of a puce Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, jabbing his hand at the jeering Conservative benches and furiously stating `We are only asking the questions that the official opposition have failed to ask', will endure. Kennedy was putting his finger on a growing anxiety on the Tory benches, and one that came to a head at the meeting of the 1922 Committee on Monday night. …

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