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29 September 1998

The Return of the Left?

Despite Labour's National Executive elections, the left is not on the march says James Heartfield

It looks bad for UK prime minister Tony Blair: in the election to New Labour's National Executive Council the left's Grassroots Alliance candidates beat the New Labour slate by 342 000 multi-votes to 311 000 (in a 35 per cent turn-out). The Grassroots Alliance's star candidate, Islington lawyer Liz Davies, was rejected by the New Labour hierarchy as a candidate for the Leeds East constituency in last year's elections as a rabid 'Trot', supporter of the 'far-left' London Labour Briefing journal.

To make things worse, a list prepared by party officials at Millbank Tower of conference delegates who should be stopped from speaking was leaked to the press, along with the unflattering description of party members as 'old-left wing teacher', 'naive' and even 'needs a friend'. It all added to the picture of a rebellious left-leaning membership being reined-in by a Stalinist party apparatus. The apparent alienation of New Labour from its own party members confirms the recent row over a party fund-raiser who denounced his own comrades as losers and misfits last month.

The Grassroots Alliance was pulled together from the informal grouping that fought to get Ken Livingstone elected to the NEC last year, bloodying Peter Mandelson's nose in the process. This time Millbank panicked early on that the Grassroots Alliance would pick up a strong vote and started putting out warning signals that their own chosen slate of candidates, known as 'Members' First', would not be the members first choice. Old trouper Neil Kinnock was brought out of Euro-retirement to do his left-knocking turn one more time. According to Liz Davies 'party members saw through the lies and distortions and voted for a socialist alternative'.

After the denunciation of the top bosses as 'greedy bastards' by Trades Union Congress secretary John Edmondson two weeks ago, and now the victory of the Grassroots Alliance, it seems as if left-wing politics is making a comeback. At least that is how the papers are reporting it, but appearances can be deceptive.

The Grassroots Alliance victory is an embarrassment for party managers, but does not represent a wider shift in society, at least not one that is out of step with New Labour. Both the leadership and the Grassroots Alliance have made a virtue out of party democracy. The leadership gave party members more weight when it introduced the 'one-man, one-vote' system to reduce the influence of the unions in the choice of party leader (though the NEC elections still retain weighted voting for unions and MPs).

Under the old Labour system party members were never really expected to have any influence on decision-making, which was cooked up between the parliamentary party and trade union leaders. Constituency parties were an afterthought, to keep middle class supporters of the party busy around election time. It was only the left's agitation in party wards in the eighties that gave party members any influence at all, as small left-wing caucuses gained power to deselect sitting MPs they did not favour. But in the nineties the party members were demoralised by a string of election defeats and becoming much more moderate and pragmatic in their approach. It was these chastened left-wingers who elected Tony Blair as party leader.

The Grassroots Alliance has keyed into the resentment of ordinary members at the slick news management and tight party control exercised by the officials at Millbank Tower. Confronted with the gaudy array of corporate sponsorship at the conference, delegates' nostalgia for that old time religion was doubtless confirmed. But nostalgia is all it is. The Grassroots Alliance is no alternative to the leadership, socialist or otherwise.

The left always had a problem formulating policies that were in any sense an alternative to those of the mainstream party leadership, preferring instead to demand a more radical version of the same policies. The current Grassroots Alliance is no different. Liz Davies makes much of the role of the grassroots in forcing a minimum wage policy on the government. They are a better guide than Labour's friends in big business, she says in the Guardian (28 September). But in fact the minimum wage was supported by many in industry. The bosses think-tank, the Henley Centre for Forecasting's pre-election report 'A Matter of Months' welcomed the measure as 'in a sense ... an incomes policy' that would 'provide moral authority to any Labour government facing industrial unrest in the public sector'.

Davies' rhetorical attacks on business seem radical. But in fact rhetorical denunciations of the greedy eighties and fat-cat bosses can be found in such New Labour publications as the two 'Third Way' pamphlets, by Tony Blair and his 'guru' Tony Giddens respectively. Labour has often in the past reconciled support for capitalism with denunciations of individual capitalists. After all, even the Tories set up a committee to investigate excessive executive pay. Davies' assault on corporate sponsorship is only a more radical variant of Blair's own attacks on sleaze.

The rallying call of the Grassroots Alliance, more party democracy, is also part of New Labour's original appeal. The fact is that it was Blair who elevated the dwindling number of party members in importance, with the initial voting reforms, as a counterweight to the unions' block vote. With Labour's membership on the slide once again, the left's vote amounts to just over a sixth of the party's 382 000 members, or 64 000. That 64 000 people could be persuaded to thumb their noses at Tony Blair is not an unexpected return of the left, but a dead certainty.

Ken Livingstone boasted that the Grassroots Alliance was meticulous in weeding out 'nutters' from its candidates, which was why he was sure that Davies was no 'Trot'. The Alliance's candidate selection was probably even more cautious than Millbank's, and was further evidence of the way that the left's radicalism is entirely bounded by the political approach of the New Labour leadership. Liz Davies, as she has insisted again and again, is entirely at home in Blair's party.

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