Friday, 14 May 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 1999

There! It wasn't so bad really, was it? OK, I admit, Labour doesn't have a majority in either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. OK, Plaid Cymru did much better than anyone expected, winning in Rhondda, Islwyn and Llanelli. And OK, two wild leftists – Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan – made it into the Scottish Parliament, along with a Green.

In truth, however, Great Britain's first elections using a system of proportional representation were nothing like the disaster that Labour supporters of first past the post thought they would be.

The voters in Scotland and Wales confounded everyone who had predicted that they would be too stupid to understand how the additional member system works. Most voters found it simple to pick a constituency candidate and then to vote for a party's regional list – and a significant minority decided to use their list votes to send a shot across the bows of the big party machines.

In Scotland, although Labour did not do as well as it would have done under first past the post– at least in terms of seats – the party proved itself well adapted to fighting a PR election and emerged with a haul of seats beyond the wildest dreams of party strategists even two months ago. The Scottish National Party was emphatically defeated. In Wales, a campaign designed more for damage-limitation than anything else came close to winning an overall Assembly majority. In neither country did the far-right win anything – and the success of the far Left in Scotland was token.

At the same time, it has done Labour no lasting harm to have its weaknesses exposed by the new electoral system. To put it in plain English, the Labour establishment in south Wales deserved a boot up the arse for its complacency, incompetence and nepotism – and it got it. The Millbank machine deserved the same for using union block votes to fix the party leadership in Wales for Alun Michael – and it got it. The effect can only be beneficial for Labour. It is clear that the party cannot remain a fiefdom of fat late-middle-aged male fixers if it is to retain its dominance of the country's politics. It has to reconnect with Welsh society, and urgently. In Scotland, the victory of Canavan is a timely reminder to the Labour machine that there is a price to be paid for barring dissidents and eccentrics from standing for public office.

As for the supposedly inevitable horrors of coalition politics, well, they now seem little more than chimerical. In both Scotland and Wales, it is apparent that the smaller parties on which Labour will have to rely for support when push comes to shove – the Lib Dems and, in Wales, Plaid Cymru – are not interested in extracting maximum short-term advantage out of their position. Rather they want to establish themselves as dependable, if on occasion critical, partners with Labour. Labour will not be held to ransom, even if it will have to take into account other points of view, for example on tuition fees.

Other things being equal, then, the experience of the Scottish and Welsh elections should strengthen the case for using PR to elect the Commons. The problem is that other things are not equal. Strangely enough, given the scale of its first-term constitutional programme, new Labour has never been more than a reluctant convert to the cause of constitutional reform. All the measures promised in its 1997 manifesto – devolution to Scotland and Wales, abolition of hereditary peers, PR for Europe, a referendum on electoral reform for Commons elections, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights – were inherited from the Labour Party of Neil Kinnock and John Smith. And now that they are largely in place (with the exception of Lords reform), all the signs are that the government has no enthusiasm for taking things further.

The Jenkins Commission's recommendations for changing the electoral system are gathering dust, and the promised referendum on them is unlikely to take place before the next general election. The prospects for elected regional assemblies in England and an elected second chamber are even more distant, if they can be said to exist at all.

Which is not to knock what the government has done so far. Britain's creaking constitution needed a radical overhaul, and New Labour has made a start on it. The problem is that the job is only half-finished – and looks likely to stay that way. What a wasted opportunity.

Saturday, 1 May 1999


Red Pepper, May 1999

A coalition of radical left groups and parties has been formed to fight next month's European elections in England.

The Socialist Alliance was set up at the end of March at a meeting in Birmingham attended by members of a variety of national and local socialist groups, the largest of them the Socialist Party, formerly the Militant Tendency. The Alliance will run candidates in most English regions. Similar socialist groupings announced last year that they would be running candidates in Scotland and Wales.

The elections are taking place for the first time using a regional list system of proportional representation: to win a seat it will be necessary to win between 8 per cent and 20 per cent of the vote depending on region.

Alliance candidates are confident of their chances. Mike Davies, who heads the Alliance list in Yorkshire and Humberside, said: 'It's not just a matter of fighting valiantly and building a socialist campaign. I don't see why we shouldn't win a seat.' Davies said that the Euro-election campaign would be given momentum by the local election campaign, especially in Hull, where 20 Left Alliance candidates are running for the council. Just over 11 per cent of the vote in the region will guarantee a seat.

The Alliance's best chances are probably in the West Midlands and East Midlands. In the West Midlands, where just over 11 per cent of vote will guarantee a seat, there are strong independent left networks in Walsall and Coventry. In the East Midlands, where just over 14 per cent will guarantee a seat, the high-profile former Labour MEP Ken Coates heads the Alliance list.

The Alliance is short of cash, and it has little time to organise an effective campaign. But its main problem is that it has not managed to persuade either the Green Party or Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party to join it or to refrain from running competing candidates — which means that the left-of-Labour vote will be split. The Greens made it clear last year when Coates and fellow rebel MEP Hugh Kerr were expelled from Labour that they had no interest in an electoral arrangement with anyone, and Scargill has ensured that the SLP has rebuffed all advances from other socialists.

The problem is particularly apparent in London, where a coalition of left groups has been meeting for more than a year and, other things being equal, the Alliance might have expected to do well. Scargill himself heads the SLP list in the capital and the media-friendly Jean Lambert is top of the Greens' list.

The Alliance is not standing in the two regions where the Greens have their greatest hopes of winning seats, the South East and the South West.


New Times, May 1999

Paul Anderson reports from the American left’s annual bean feast in New York

As talking-shops go, it's difficult to beat the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. It is the American left's big East Coast gathering, held every easter or thereabouts for the past 17 years.

This year, nearly 2,000 people came along to Manhattan Community College on the Lower West Side between 9 and 11 April to listen to the big-name speakers – Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Staughton Lynd, Manning Marable, the Reverend Al Sharpton – and to take their pick among more than 100 panel discussions spread through the weekend.

All of American left-wing life was there: members of Democratic Socialists of America (the more radical of two US affiliates to the Socialist International and the core of the Democratic Party's left wing), environmentalists, feminists, black activists, trade unionists, writers and editors from the Nation, Dissent, Monthly Review and Mother Jones, radical broadcasters, a smattering of Trotskyist and Maoist sectarians.

If that sounds chaotic, it was – but not completely. Anyone who can pay $100 can run a panel, and some of the things people decide to discuss are obscure or eccentric, to say the least. I could have spent Saturday afternoon immersed in 'A left defence of Heidegger' or 'Marxist-Leninist ideology is alive and well'.

Such exotica are very much on the fringe, however. The core of the conference programme is put together by DSA and its friends and is anything but crazy. I went to excellent sessions on the next US presidential election, on the state of non-corporate media and on European social democracy – and I was told I missed some of the best discussions.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest talking points was Kosovo – on which there is no more of a consensus on the US left than there is on the European left.

The argument goes right to the heart of DSA, with one of its co-chairs, the political scientist Bogdan Denitch, giving forceful backing to deployment of Nato ground troops against Slobodan Milosevic and another, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, coming out strongly against the Nato bombing. My sense was that Denitch's position had greater support – but that might just be because I agree with him.

Kosovo apart, the great obsession of the conference was a hardy perennial: the marginalisation of the American left and how to overcome it.

That the left is up against it there can be no doubt. DSA, the biggest organisation on the left and the nearest thing there is to a European social democratic party, has only 10,000 members, and although it has considerable influence in the leadership of the trade union movement, in the Democratic Party its position (and more generally the position of the left) is weaker than for many years.

The Democrats' progressive caucus in Congress has more than 70 members, making it the second biggest organised body of opinion in Congress after the Republicans' conservative caucus. But since funding was withdrawn from the caucuses in the wake of the 1994 Republican Congressional landslide, they have been far less powerful than they used to be. Left-leaning Democrats in Congress have been unable to force any significant concessions from Bill Clinton since his administration took a sharp turn to the right in 1994. And no one I talked to thought there was any hope of the Democrats choosing a presidential candidate next year who came from anywhere but the far right of the party.

Clinton has been such a disaster in the eyes of most DSAers that they cannot understand why Tony Blair has been so keen to emulate his political strategy and to draw him into discussions of the 'Third Way'. DSA's 'project' has since its inception in the 1960s been completion of the American welfare state along European social democratic lines. DSA members cannot fathom how a European social democratic leader could want to get into bed with a president who has done more to dismantle social protection than the Republicans that preceded him.

Yet for all this, there is a vibrancy about the American left that is extraordinarily refreshing. American left publishing is in a far healthier state than left publishing over here. There's a culture of local organisation and agitation as healthy as any in Britain. And Socialist Scholars was – as in previous years – bigger, more inclusive and more exciting than any event the British left has put on in living memory. There's plenty we can learn from the other side of the pond even if we decide we want to keep our welfare state.


New Times, May 1999

Paul Anderson talks to Peter Hain about Welsh devolution and his plea for the left to engage with the Blair government

'A friend said to me the other day: "You've worked your guts out on the referendum campaign and ever since to do yourself out of a job,"' says Peter Hain in his room in the Welsh Office in Whitehall. 'And he was right. The powers that go with my job as a Welsh Office minister will transfer as from 1 July to the new Welsh assembly.'

The MP for Neath is in London only briefly. His main job until 6 May, when Wales votes for the 60-member assembly, is as co-ordinator of Labour's election campaign in Wales, and it's a job that does not allow him much time in Westminster.

After the controversy surrounding the choice of Labour's leader in Wales – Alun Michael, favoured by Tony Blair, beat Rhodri Morgan for the position, but only because several unions backed him with their block votes without balloting their members – Labour's commanding lead in the opinion polls has slipped alarmingly.

The party is still almost certain to emerge as the biggest party in the assembly, but there is a strong possibility that it will not win an overall majority. The election is using the additional member system of proportional representation, and the latest polls suggest that Plaid Cymru will do better than anyone expected, particularly in the 'top-up' seats elected on a regional basis to make the overall result more accurately reflect parties' shares of the vote.

Hain is sceptical about some of the more extravagant interpretations of the poll data that have appeared in the press. 'Some of the people being polled think they're being asked what their second choice is,' he says. 'There's a lot of confusion.' He dismisses the idea that Michael might fail to win a top-up seat in the Mid and West Wales electoral.

But he is candid about Labour's task. 'The party's gone through a really rough time over the past year. And I think the government has failed to get its message across to its core supporters.'

With this in mind, Labour is concentrating its focus on bread-and-butter issues. ' We have to connect the devolution of power with better decisions on schools and jobs and so on.'

Labour's campaign in Wales has a distinctly more left-wing feel to it than the 1997 general election campaign – which is hardly surprising as Hain has a reputation as one of the most left-wing members of the government.

It is nearly 30 years since he first came to public attention as a South African Young Liberal advocate of direct action against apartheid and more than 20 since he first established himself as a spokesman of the Labour left. But even as recently as 1995, his book Ayes to the Left laid out a 'libertarian socialist' strategy for Labour that in many of its key elements – Keynesian expansionism in economics at United Kingdom and European level, interventionism in industrial policy, radical civil libertarianism – was implicitly critical of Tony Blair's conception of 'modernisation'.

His latest pamphlet, A Welsh Third Way?, recently published by Tribune, holds back on criticising the government of which he is part. Indeed, it buzzes with enthusiasm, arguing that new Labour is the true inheritor of the libertarian socialist tradition.

Hain dismisses the notion that he wrote it because he had been put under pressure from on high. 'I simply thought that the Third Way debate needed some positioning in terms of socialist traditions. You can't write a pamphlet unless it's been cleared. But it was my idea and I wrote it myself.'

Too many on the left seem unwilling to recognise just how much the Blair government has achieved, he says. 'On the economy, what's very striking is that we've done what no Labour government has done before: we haven't blown it in the first two years after hitting an enormous crisis. We've enjoyed the confidence of the markets and the City. And yet we are injecting record amounts of spending into health and education and other public service priorities in the next three years.

'The pitch of the government has been to middle England and to the Daily Mail rather than the Daily Mirror. Yet there is a huge amount of redistribution. The minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the increases in child benefit and the 10p starting rate of income tax, all have attacked poverty and boosted low incomes. I wouldn't call Gordon Brown a traditional Keynesian chancellor – and he wouldn't want to accept that label – but people on the left should at least acknowledge that it's significant that a government of the left has managed to implement some radical economic policies while not being under furious attack in traditional fashion.'

Not that success is confined to the economy. 'The constitutional agenda – I mean, here we have a supposedly right-wing Labour leader and government about to roll over the House of Lords – fairness at work, the right to roam, they're considerable achievements.' The pamphlet, he says, is a plea to the rest of the left to engage. 'Engaging doesn't mean sacrificing principles. It means getting into the Realpolitik of the Labour Party and engaging with it. The Labour government is the only show in town. If the left doesn't get involved, it will have sold the pass. But, with the exception of a few small groups, I don't feel there's any serious engagement from the left at all.’