Friday, 22 July 1994


New Statesman & Society, 22 July 1994

At first sight, the Labour left looks washed up with nowhere to go. But Paul Anderson wonders whether Tony Blair's election could revive its fortunes

It is customary to write off the Labour left – and it is easy to see why. In the past ten years it has suffered an inexorable decline in numbers and in influence, both in the Parliamentary Labour Party and among Labour's ordinary members. Tony Benn's narrow defeat by Denis Healey for the party' s deputy leadership in 1981 seems a lifetime away. Almost as distant are the GLC and the 1983 election manifesto – the infamous "longest suicide note in history" – with its promises of withdrawal from Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament and widespread nationalisation.

In parliament, the left is hopelessly split between the 26-strong hard-left Campaign Group, which no longer has a single representative on the party's national executive committee or in the shadow cabinet, and the 100-strong but ineffectual and inactive soft-left-cum-centre-right Tribune Group, whose left-wingers are in an increasingly beleaguered minority to the centre-right (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson are all members of Tribune).

Outside parliament, the left has lost its local government base and is weak in all but a handful of constituency parties and trade unions. In Labour's leadership election, the two left-leaning candidates, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, (both of them accomplices, however unwilling, in Labour's rightward drift since the mid-1980s), were outside chances from the start. Ideologically, the Labour left is divided on economic policy, Europe, electoral reform and a host of other key questions.

In the circumstances, talk of an impending Labour left revival might seem little short of lunatic. Yet the prospect of Blair as leader does seem to have led to an outbreak of cautious left optimism at Westminster. Some Labour left-wingers reckon his brand of centrist social democracy will encourage the left to pull together in the opposite direction; others reckon Prescott's expected strong performance will give the left greater influence.

According to Peter Hain, the MP for Neath, "the prospects for a new alliance on the left are better today than for ages. There's a sense of flux on the left of the party. And after the Euro-elections and with a new leadership, there's a curious contradiction in the party between optimism about our chances in the next election and a sullen demoralisation at the grass roots. People recognise that we can't win by default, that we have to build a new agenda for radical policies. It's a great opportunity."

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Hain, who isrunning for the NEC this year on a "friend of the activists" ticket, has been attempting to engineer a rapprochement between the Tribune left and the Campaign Group since 1987 – and every attempt has ended in failure. Most recently, as secretary of the Tribune Group from summer 1992 until late last year, he tried to use opposition to the Maastricht treaty and to Labour's cautious economic policy as the basis for a left realignment. He was rewarded with the secession of the (pro-Maastricht) European Parliamentary Labour Party Tribune Group from its Westminster sister and the emnity of Gordon Brown. Main was ultimately ousted (along with his allies among the group's officers) after publishing a pamphlet considered too explicitly critical of the shadow chancellor. Even he admits that, if Blair adopts the sort of inclusive style of leadership associated with John Smith, it could take some time for the left to get its act together.

But there are signs that things might just be moving in Main's direction. On the parliamentary left, the Tribune Group coup against Hain and his comrades reinforced the already strong feeling among Tribune left-wingers that the group is beyond redemption and that a new, genuinely left, initiative is required – a feeling that has been further strengthened by four of the five current Tribune Group officers nominating Blair for the Labour leadership. Several left Tribunites are expected to allow their membership of the group to lapse this year, although there is disagreement among them about what to do next: a few will join the Campaign Group but most will not.

Meanwhile, the Campaign Group has also changed as the influence has waned of the old guard who can remember why Campaign split from Tribune in 1982 (for the record, the crunch issue was the register of internal party groups designed by the party leadership as a means of getting rid of Militant). Campaign's current chair, Alan Simpson, is open to the idea of working with left Tribunites – he was on the platform at the "What's Left?" conference earlier this month organised by Tribune newspaper, whose board has been chaired for the past year by Hain. He is less sanguine than Hain about the likelihood of a rapid realignment of the left, but nevertheless detects an air of promise. "There are big dilemmas over the organisational framework of the left in parliament," he says. "I don't see any prospect for a new organisational alignment for a little while yet. What's good is the growing dialogue about issues. That's a really helpful change."

On its own, this wouldn't amount to much. In the absence of a resurgence of the left in the constituencies, manoeuvring between parliamentary caucuses involving, at most, some 50 MPs, nearly all on the back benches, is, in itself, inconsequential. But there is more. Least significant is the speculation that a defeated Margaret Beckett might make an explicit pitch to lead the left from the back benches; far more important is the decision by the front-benchers and NEC members closest to the Tribune Group left to attempt to revive the Supper Club, the secretive soft-left forum set up in the Kinnock era to allow such politicians as Bryan Gould, Michael Meacher, Clare Short and David Blunkett to talk politics out of earshot of colleagues who would report to the leader's office anyone who dissented from the Kinnock line.

So far, there has been only one poorly attended meeting, and that after months of talking about a revival – but the very fact that it happened shows that there are worries that Blair will reintroduce a Kinnock-style disciplinarian regime. Soft-left front-benchers are particularly concerned about the future role of Peter Mandelson, the Labour public relations chief in the late 1980s and a hate figure at the time for soft-left shadow cabinet members, who accused him of manipulating the media against them. Mandelson has worked on Blair's campaign, and the soft left is looking out to see how he is rewarded. "If he's allowed to go round trashing people again there will be all-out revolt," says one frontbencher. "That said, it's early days yet. Blair's not like Kinnock. He's basically a nice bloke."

But the most difficult area for Blair to manage in the short run will probably not be the shadow cabinet soft left or left backbenchers but relations with the unions. The issue here is not so much the constitutional niceties of their relationship to Labour – although plenty of union leaders are sore about Blair's role in the Omov row last year, no one expects any attempt at further constitutional change this side of a general election – but economic policy.

The unions' disaffection with Labour on the economy goes back to the run-up to the 1992 general election, when they were unhappy at the party's refusal to adopt sufficiently aggressive policies against unemployment. The disgruntlement went public, however, only with shadow chancellor Gordon Brown's refusal to endorse devaluation of the pound, even after Black Wednesday forced sterling out of the ERM. Ever since then, there has been barely coded trade union criticism of Brown's excessive caution, most consistently from GMB general secretary John Edmonds (another speaker at the Tribune "What's Left?" conference) and Transport and General Workers Union general secretary Bill Morris. It was Edmonds whose series of interventions on the need for full employment forced Smith to declare at the TUC Congress in Brighton last year that full employment was a central Labour goal, and both union leaders have made a string of speeches during this leadership election campaign carefully designed to force each one of the candidates to endorse the unions' economic policy agenda.

Where all this gets interesting is in the unions' determination to press their case through Labour conference this year – blockbuster motions from the big unions are expected giving targets for full employment and for a minimum wage – and in their increasingly fraternal relations with the left in parliament and outside. It's not just a matter of Tribune conferences. Although Edmonds himself is pro-Europe and the GMB backed Maastricht, his union has made a point of endorsing Full Employment Forum, the think-tank set up by Bryan Gould last year after his resignation from the shadow cabinet over the party's pro-Europe economic policy in 1992. (Full Employment Forum has also set up its own group of MPs, which, som believe, might form the basis for the realignment of the parliamentary left sough by Peter Hain.)

This hardly means that the split on Europe that debilitated the Labour left's response to Maastricht is no longer significant: with the 1996 intergovernmental conference on European Union coming up, there is still potential for spectacular bust-ups. But the fact that Brown's Eurosceptic and Euro-Keynesian critics are now prepared to act together should be causing alarm bells to ring in the Blair camp, particularly if he has decided to keep Brown in the shadow chancellorship as a reward for his backing in the leadership contest.

None of which is to say that Labour is set for civil war under Blair. There is no appetite for a return to the bad old days of the early 1980s in any section of the party – and the left remains weak and divided, whatever the signs that it might b getting over the worst of its impotent fractiousness. Most important of all, Blair himself can ensure Labour's political differences are successfully contained. He has written to several soft-left shadow cabinet members who did not back his leadership to say that he wants them on board, and his pronouncements on dissent in the party during the campaign have been relaxed.

"I don't mind having a debate with peopl on the left," he told NSS last week. "I think it's very important. What is tiresome is when you don't actually get people debating with you. They just sort of abuse you by saying 'Oh well, it's SDP Mark Two' or 'It's not really socialism' without ever explaining what they mean by socialism. I've put forward what I believe the Labour Party and socialism is about. If people want to knock that down, that's fine, but they should use arguments to do so.".

As long as his promises of tolerance an openness are put into practice, and as long as the soft left feels wanted in Blair's shadow cabinet, he should have no more difficult a ride than his predecessor. But Smith did not have a particularly easy time, and Blair honeymoon will not last forever – it might even come to an end this October in Blackpool if the unions win their trial of strength. Whether he has the management skills necessary to deal with the run-ins when they inevitably start is one of the many unknowns about him.

Monday, 18 July 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 15 July 1994

The international plan for the partition of Bosnia finalised in Geneva last week and endorsed by the Group of Seven summit in Naples at the week­end is a shabby capitulation to Serbian a­gression.

The long and the short of it is that unless the Bosnian government accepts by 17 July Serb control of more than half its terri­tory, it will face international sanctions, with­drawal of the United Nations' humanitarian relief effort and an end to the protection of "safe havens" by UN troops.

Unsurprisingly, President Alija Izetbegovic's government is less than happy with the plan—but the threats against it if it refuses to comply are of such magnitude that it has no alternative but to accept. Despite all the rhetoric of the international community about the importance of maintaining Bosnia's terri­torial integrity—a rhetoric employed with particular enthusiasm by President Bill Clin­ton—partition of Bosnia is now virtually inevitable.

The British and French govern­ments have at long last got what they wanted from the very beginning of the Bosnia crisis, before it erupted into war: the dismember­ment of a state that their "expert" foreign ministries had declared unviable before it was even created and which they never lifted a finger to help.

Of course, there is some ground for hope. There is a slim chance that the Serbs will refuse to say that they will give up a third of the land they have grabbed, thereby ensuring that existing sanctions on them are not lifted and that the arms embargo on Bosnia is removed. The Bosnian government's forces have already started to win the war against the Serbs, who are increasingly demoralised even though they are better armed.

By the end of the year, armed at last with the tanks, heavy artillery and ground attack aircraft that they have been denied throughout this war (unlike the Serbs, who have had the Yugoslav army's tanks and artillery from the start), the Bosnian forces might even have got to the point of breaking the Serbs' supply lines through northern Bosnia to the western towns of Banja Luka and Prijedor.

If that happened, it is not inconceivable that the Serbs would be forced to sue for peace on terms that allowed the re-creation of a secular, multi-ethnic, democratic Bosnia covering the whole of its internationally recognised territory.

But such an outcome essentially depends on Slobodan Milosevic and his puppet Radovan Karadzic really being as stupid as they ap­pear. For, if they reject the partition plan, they will be looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Given what they are after, it makes far more sense for them to take what the international community is offering them with open arms: a large chunk of Bosnia in a continuous swathe, their "ethnic cleansing" accepted as a fait accompli, the lifting of sanctions, no relaxation of the international constraints on the ability of the Bosnian government to de­fend itself. Unless they are idiots, Milosevic and Karadzic must be thinking that Christmas has come early. They are being offered pre­cisely what they have been holding out for.

The brutal truth is that, even by the stand­ards that David Owen and his various partners have set as "mediators" in negotiations among what they call "the warring factions", the past few weeks' diplomacy in Geneva have been an extraordinarily cynical perfor­mance. It is difficult to imagine an outcome more favourable to the Serbs if Owen had been on their payroll.

Perhaps, if the partition plan could be real­istically expected to bring the killing to an end, there might be something—not much, just something—going for it. But there is no reason to believe that it will do any such thing. On one hand, the likelihood is that, like the Palestinians after the partition of Palestine in 1948 and and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the defeated Bosnians will turn to increasingly desperate ideologies and actions to retrieve what they feel has been seized from them.

So far, the Bosnian government has done remarkably well in controlling the more militant Islamists: contrary to what most of the British news media seem to believe, Bos­nia remains a secular democracy; and, although the majority of the population in areas under government control is Muslim, it remains committed to religious tolerance and multi-ethnicity. Partition could make the pressure for the creation of an Islamic state irresistible; it will certainly encourage the growth of militant Islam, perhaps with a ter­rorist current.

On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that the Serbs will suddenly lay down their arms. The Milosevic regime survives on war: with its economy in tatters, it continues to exist only because it is able to persuade its population that Serbia is surrounded by enemies and is battling for national survival. If the Bosnian war fizzles out after partition, Milosevic will have to look for new targets. Partition of Bosnia makes it more not less likely that Serbia will turn its attentions to Kosova or Macedonia.

Of course, in the long run Milosevic's Greater Serbia is doomed. As Branka Magas argued in NSS last month, Serbia is such an economic basket-case and faces such internal social tensions that it is difficult to imagine the Milosevic regime surviving for ever, even with the help of all the tools of the totalitarian police state.

But it might hang on for decades rather than months or years before it falls as a result of its internal weakness. A compre­hensive defeat on the battlefield, on the other hand, would greatly hasten the process. In the end, the key to lasting peace in the Balkans is to lift the arms embargo so that the Bosnians can inflict that defeat.

Friday, 8 July 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 8 July 1994

Just as in 1992, the "race" for the Labour leadership is no such thing. Like John Smith then, Tony Blair is certain to be elected by a landslide, and the result is that the whole show has become rather tedious. The interesting question is not who wins on 21 July, but what Blair will do when he becomes leader – and so far he has proved himself adept at not revealing too much apart from his broad political philosophy.

But if Blair is pretty much home and dry, the same cannot be said of either of the contestants for the job of deputy leader. Here there is a real race going on between Margaret Beckett and John Prescott, and the signs are that it is going to be a close-run thing. All the opinion polls put them neck and neck.

Whom to choose? A difficult question, not least because of the amorphous nature of the deputy leader's job description. Indeed, there is a strong case, most eloquently advanced in the past couple of weeks by Tony Wright, the MP for Cannock and Burntwood, that the deputy leadership of the Labour Party is not really a job at all. Just about everything the deputy leader does, the argument goes, from filling in for the leader at prime minister's questions to chairing various national executive sub-committees, could quite easily be done by other senior Labour politicians. On this view, just about the only thing that a deputy leader is useful for is what Beckett has been doing since Smith's death – leading the party between a leader's death or resignation and the election of another leader. And there's no reason that such a caretaker leader could not be elected by the NEC as and when the need arose.

Of course, in practice, what Labour's deputy leadership has meant has depended on the incumbent and the period. When Labour is in office, it is generally a post conferred to give status to its holder. Out of office, the deputy leadership can be more important. With Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley, the post was perceived as crucial because each

provided right-wing respectability to a left-wing leader – which is why the two serious attempts to unseat them from the left (Tony Benn's 1981 challenge to Healey and Pres-cott's 1988 challenge to Hattersley) were so vigorously opposed by the party machine. In 1992, the idea behind Smith's support for Beckett getting the job was that as a right-wing man, he needed a left-wing woman to provide "balance".

Nevertheless, for all the symbolic importance that the deputy leadership has had in recent years, it is difficult to work out precisely what the last three deputy leaders have done as deputy leaders that goes beyond the symbolic. Healey managed to be deputy at the same time as holding down the shadow foreign affairs portfolio; Hattersley was shadow chancellor and then shadow home secretary – neither of them exactly part-time jobs – while he was deputy.

It is true that Beckett was charged mainly with sorting out the party's campaigns and organisation – but that was largely because of pressure from Prescott, who based his 1992 deputy leadership campaign on a promise to turn the job into a campaigning one if he was elected. As she has found in the past couple of years, travelling the country whipping up party morale sounds like a great idea but is rather difficult to put into practice except at election times. Reinvigorating the Labour Party is a mammoth task, certainly too big for even the most dynamic politician to take on single-handed. It is no surprise that we have heard rather less about "the need for a campaigning deputy leader" than we did in 1988 and 1992.

So we are back to making a decision on the basis of who would better complement Blair in the way that Healey complemented Foot or Hattersley complemented Kinnock. Is there anything to choose between Beckett and Prescott? Certainly not on political grounds. If 15 years ago Beckett was very definitely on the hard left, she has not been for at least five years, and there is nothing in her personal manifesto to suggest that the Campaign Group is being other than sentimental in giving her its support. Contrary to the Guardian's view that she is "too much a creature of old left labourism for comfort", these days Beckett, like Prescott, is very much a mainstream Labour politician, just a little to the left of the party's centre.

Both Beckett and Prescott have been key figures in Labour policy-making in the past five years, and both can be assumed to back its broad thrust if not every last detail. Both are more Eurosceptical than Blair, both are hostile to electoral reform, both like the idea of cutting defence expenditure to continental European levels. Of course there are differences in nuance between them – but either would provide much the same political balance to Blair.

Which brings the decision down to such matters as style and personality. Beckett is undoubtedly the more cautious by temperament – though whether this is a good or bad thing is arguable. Her critics say that she is dull and plodding, her friends that she is sober and dependable. Similarly, Prescott's energy and enthusiasm for policy innovation are recognised by all – but there are widely differing assessments of their worth. His critics describe him as a loose cannon and say that some of his policy ideas are half-baked; his friends say that his energy is a great strength and argue that most of his policy ideas have been sound. Prescott has the advantage of being and sounding working-class, say his supporters; Beckett is a woman, say hers. Then there are the questions of who has more experience (probably Beckett), who is better on television (definitely Prescott), who is more effective in parliament (definitely Beckett) and who is more inspiring on the stump (definitely Prescott).

It's a very difficult choice – and all for a job that doesn't really matter. In the end, the best way to settle it is probably to toss a coin.

Friday, 1 July 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 1 July 1994

John Major's use of the British veto at the European summit in Corfu to prevent the appointment of Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene as Jacques Delors' successor at the head of the European Commission was, of course, largely motivated by domestic considerations. Contrary to the Tory spin doctors' view in the wake of their party's "not as bad as expected" humiliation in the European elections, Major's position in his party remains extremely vulnerable. Kicking Johnny Foreigner, particularly if he's a fat Belgian federalist, goes down a treat with the xenophobes on the Tory right – and that reduces the likelihood of a credible challenge to Major's leadership this autumn.

But it would be wrong to consider Major's performance entirely through the prism of British politics. Dehaene would have been vetoed even if the British Tories were riding high in the polls – and not just because he is a Euro-federalist. Dehaene is from the left of European Christian Democracy, a man who could have been expected to pursue an economic agenda as President of the Commission not unlike Delors' social-democratic one. He is the sort of person, in other words, who might have revived those reflationary, public works elements of Delors' white paper to which the British government has so successfully led the opposition over the past few months. And that is precisely what the Tories don't want.

For them, unemployment is a good thing: it keeps wages low and workers cowed. It can be reduced only by people "pricing themselves into jobs". Moreover, as things stand, the Tories reckon that they have done enough to scupper any possibility of Euro-Keynesian measures to attack the mass unemployment that is eating away at the social fabric of the entire continent – and they are well pleased. It's certainly no time to risk some social-Christian do-gooder trying to dream up schemes to set people back to work.

That such a point of view is both morally bankrupt and economically illiterate should be apparent to anyone – but the unfortunate fact is that the Tories and their allies on the free-market right have done serious damage to the prospects for a Euro-Keynesian response to the unemployment crisis, and that has important implications for the left throughout Europe.

Euro-Keynesianism remains the best way of attacking European unemployment. Demand needs to be increased throughout the continent, and the impossibility of any individual European state going it alone with reflation was amply demonstrated by the failure of Frangois Mitterrand's socialist experiment in the early 1980s: combined European action, preferably through European Union institutions, is just about the only way for the EU countries to reflate without causing massive balance-of-payments problems.

But the political balance in Europe is now such that implementation of a Euro-Keynesian strategy is unlikely. Right-wing election victories in France and Italy in the past 18 months have reinforced the already strong pro-austerity consensus among EU governments, and Delors' hopes that his white paper's programme of deregulation would buy off opposition to its proposals for large-scale public spending proved wrong. It is going to take a few left election victories if Euro-Keynesianism is to have a chance.

So does that mean that there is nothing practically that can be done about unemployment? By no means. Stimulating the overall level of demand in the economy is only part of the picture: even within the constraints of austerity, there are actions that can be taken that would significantly cut the dole queue.

What is not needed is further labour market deregulation as part of a desperate attempt to reduce west European wages to Polish or even Malaysian levels. West European competitiveness is never going to be a matter of undercutting Asian or east European sweat
shops: western Europe's future has to be high-skill and technologically advanced. In line with this, as social democratic parties throughout western Europe argue, it is crucial that education and training are constantly improved.

But, as John Prescott has said very clearly during the Labour leadership contest, improved education and training do not of themselves generate very many jobs. Other measures are also needed. Progressive redistribution of income and wealth through the tax and benefits systems has a beneficial effect because poor people tend to spend a greater proportion of their incomes on domestically produced goods. Shifting consumption from private to public sector by raising taxes to pay for public transport and construction programmes stimulates the economy because public works programmes involve few imports. Taxation can also be used to provide incentives to entrepreneur-ship and to subsidise public-sector service jobs. The benefits system can be reformed to make it easier for people to come off social security and go to work.

Whether such measures are enough to ensure full employment, in the sense of everyone who wants a job having a job, without politically unsustainable levels of tax is, however, a moot point. It could be that even the most vigorous feasible application of policies for job-creation reduces unemployment only by a little. What then? It is here that we have to start to think much more radically, about schemes for sharing out the available work – by cutting weekly working hours, reducing the age of retirement, encouraging job sharing, making it easier to take years off work to study at any age and so on – and about the possibilities of developing a "twin economy" partially isolated from the normal economy and with its own money, as advocated by the think tank Demos. It is a mark of the conservatism of British politics that such ideas are anathema to every established party.