Friday, 22 June 2001


Paul Anderson, review of The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Verso, £14.99), Tribune, 22 June 2001

Can it really be 20 years since the Labour deputy leadership battle between Tony Benn and Denis Healey? It seems like only yesterday that this great movement of ours tore itself to pieces over the rival claims of two former Cabinet Ministers – the Left-wing populist aristo and the Right-wing Atlanticist bruiser – to a non-job that really wasn’t worth having.

At the time, although many of my Leftie friends thought Benn was the saviour of socialism, I couldn’t see what was so marvellous about him or the movement of which he was the figurehead. Greater democracy inside the Labour Party was all very well, but it was no panacea. And the Bennite programme, though it contained lots of good things (such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and getting rid of the House of Lords), was undermined by an idiotic nationalist economic policy centred upon withdrawal from the Common Market. Most important, there was no way a Bennite Labour Party could ever win a general election.

As for municipal Left of the era – most visibly Ken Livingstone – well, it was great if you were part of it or had the oppressed-minority credentials to be deemed worthy of a generous grant for your pet project. But otherwise, cheap bus fares aside, forget it.

I’ve moved on politically since the early 1980s, but the Labour left of the early 1980s still leaves me cold. Not so Panitch and Leys, whose book, a history of Labour in the past 30 years from a critical left perspective (now in a second edition four years after its first appearance), is in essence a defence of the continuing relevance of the “new Labour left” – the Bennites, the local government Left and their supporters among ordinary Labour members – of two decades ago.

The authors enthuse about everything from mandatory reselection of MPs to the industrial strategy of the GLC. In line with this, every development since about 1981-82 has been a turn for the worse, from the expulsion of Militant to the record of the Blair government since 1997.

They tell their story well, and there is some sense to it. There were undoubtedly some bright ideas around on the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s about making the state more democratically accountable, and at least some of the Labour left took them seriously. And it’s true that New Labour, with its enthusiasm for deregulation and big business, is not simply the invention of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but the product of a process of accommodation to the market that goes back at least to Neil Kinnock’s assumption of the Labour leadership in 1983.

But it is simplistic to argue, as Panitch and Leys do, that the “new Labour left” was beaten by a conspiracy of right-wingers. Its failure had as much to do with its incompetence, the unpopularity of its political alliance with Trotskyism and the unsustainability of its Little Englander position on Europe. The left of today needs to learn from the early 1980s – but it needs to do so critically and not look back nostalgically to a mythical golden age.

Friday, 8 June 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 June 2001

Trust Tony Blair to ruin it all. There I was last Friday, feeling a little tired after staying up most of the night watching the election but in an unusually upbeat mood – Tories routed, few Labour losses, Lib Dems up, Trots and Stalinists consigned to the dustbin of history. And then he makes David Blunkett Home Secretary and fires Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, giving his job to Jack Straw.

Yes, it’s the nightmare scenario. Labour’s most instinctive authoritarian as guardian of our civil liberties and a former evangelist Europhobe running our relations with Europe.

It is Straw who scares me more. Blunkett’s populist rhetoric on law and order is more extreme than his predecessor’s. And his prejudices – particularly against homosexuality – are more markedly conservative. (He once famously outraged the readers of this paper with a column in which he described his “revulsion at the idea of touching another man”.) But, at risk of tempting fate, I can’t for the moment imagine how he can be any worse than Straw in terms of policy.

Straw, however, is almost certain to be much, much worse than Cook in the Foreign Office. And that’s not just because Straw was so uninspiring in the Home Office.

Some on the left have attacked Cook for hypocrisy, arguing that his promise of an ethical basis for foreign policy was broken by arms sales to Indonesia, sanctions against Iraq and military intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

I have some sympathy with these critics on arms-to-Indonesia, on which Cook’s opposition was over-ruled by Blair, and rather less on Iraq, where sanctions were (and are) a blunt instrument to deal with the real villain of the piece, Saddam Hussein.

But on the whole I think Cook did an excellent job in difficult circumstances. His roles in the Kosovo and Sierra Leone interventions were entirely honourable, particularly his part in persuading the West to issue the threat of invasion of Kosovo by ground troops, which did more than anything else to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw.

Equally important, in his four years in office Cook did more than any other politician to repair the damage done to Britain’s relations with the European Union by the Tories. Unlike Blair and Gordon Brown he was and is at ease in European politics. He did his best to persuade the other Governments of the EU that Britain was serious about signing up for the euro. He did not lecture them time and again on the supposed need for deregulation and flexible labour markets. And he did not side automatically with the US on every question. On “Son of Star Wars” in particular he was a voice for restraint.

It is in the conduct of our relations with Europe that Cook will be most missed. Straw comes to Foreign Office with no experience of European politics and, more important, carrying all the baggage of an unrepentant early-1980s Labour Little Englander.

Twenty years ago, of course, anti-Europeanism was dominant in the Labour Party. But few were quite so obsessively Europhobic as Straw. A founder of the notoriously anti-European Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee, he was a consistent propagandist for the anti-European cause (not least in the pages of Tribune). In 1980, he told a special Labour conference that “a central part of our manifesto must be a pledge to withdraw from the Common Market immediately”. He made his first moves up the greasy pole after becoming an MP as a protege of Peter Shore, Labour’s most ardent anti-European of the period.

All of which was a long time ago – and of course people change their minds. But, unlike most other current Labour leaders who were anti-European in the early 1980s, Straw has never given even the slightest hint that he thinks differently now. For the past four years he has been one of the Cabinet’s most consistent opponents of the euro.

So why is he now Foreign Secretary? The most straightforward explanation is that Blair and Brown have decided to give up on joining the euro for some time – which is more plausible than most commentators suggest. Otherwise, the only half-credible explanation I have heard is that it is part of an elaborate gambit to avoid press reports of a split between the publicly pro-euro Cook and the publicly agnostic Brown. According to this scenario, Straw has secretly abandoned Euroscepticism, but has agreed to play mum until Brown produces a report recommending euro entry. The Foreign Secretary then fakes a Damascene conversion and – hey presto! – the great British public votes for the single currency.

I can’t believe Blair is stupid enough to think that such a crude coup de theatre would possibly work. But then I didn’t think he’d be stupid enough to fire Robin Cook.