Thursday, 23 October 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 31 2003

One of the most depressing features of the past few months has been the way the traditional left has responded to the increasingly apparent difficulties of the Blair government as its second term drifts listlessly on.

Most of the traditional left — by which I mean the Leninists outside the Labour Party, the hard left inside it and quite a lot of the Tribune left — appears content to mix wallowing in schadenfreude with a barrage of negatives: no to the euro, no to PFI, no to foundation hospitals, no to top-up fees, no to US and British troops in Iraq, et cetera et cetra.

Part of my problem here is that I can’t see why most of the things the left opposes should be opposed so vehemently, or indeed at all. Although there are obvious problems with PFI, particularly in the way it can create a “two-tier” workforce with workers in private companies enjoying substantially worse pay and conditions than their public sector counterparts, I’ve yet to hear a convincing case for believing that a new PFI school is worse than no new school. On foundation hospitals, I get the terrible feeling I’ve missed something important, because I just can’t work out what all the sound and fury signifies. I’m against top-up fees — a straightforward graduate tax would make much more sense — but I’d rather have them than continue to starve higher education of funds. Opposition in principle to British participation in the euro is a mark of political cretinism pure and simple. And immediate withdrawal of the US and British forces in Iraq is a recipe for a bloodbath.

And so I could go on. What really bugs me, however, is that a string of noes is, on its own, so utterly reactive and uninspiring. At precisely the moment that the government has lost momentum and needs a new direction, the traditional left has nothing constructive to say.

Things were not always thus. The left of the 1960s and 1970s was certainly no stranger to obsessive negativity — no to the Common Market, no to incomes policy, no to spending cuts — and it had plenty of other faults, not least a programme that was economically suspect and deeply unattractive to the majority of voters. But at least it had a programme, a set of policies, however misguided, that constituted a positive alternative to the drift and crisis management of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Today, the traditional Left lacks even an incredible alternative programme.

Which is not to say that there is no alternative. Indeed, there is one outlined rather elegantly in a book published last week — Robin Cook’s The Point of Departure.

Most of the book comprises an account of Cook’s last two years in government as leader of the Commons — and most press commentary on it has concentrated on its revelations about Cabinet arguments in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

This is undoubtedly fascinating stuff, as indeed is Cook’s story of how his hopes for democratic reform of the House of Lords were scuppered, which make it clear precisely who was the villain of the piece: “It is an awkward truth for modernisers to face, but the reason we are to be lumbered with an all-appointed House of Lords is because that is what Tony Blair had always wanted.”

But the part of the book that is most important is the chapter “Where do we go from here?”, in which Cook outlines his thoughts on how to reinvigorate the Government.

He does not shy from criticism, but his emphasis is almost entirely on positive alternatives. He argues convincingly for what he calls “value-based politics” instead of the technocratic managerialism that currently characterises the Government’s approach. Labour, he says, should explicitly embrace egalitarianism, make the case for more regulation in the public interest, particularly in pension provision and to protect the environment, and adopt radical policies to revitalise Britain’s democracy: a largely elected second chamber, the return of powers to local councils that have been taken away by successive governments and, most important, proportional representation for the House of Commons. On the international front, the government should embrace Europe enthusiastically, setting a target date for entering the euro, and press for a stronger United Nations capable of reining in the US.

Little of this will go down well with the traditional left, with its hostility to Europe and constitutional reform. But it’s a better starting point than anything it has come up with — even though the chances that the government will take a blind bit of notice are as slim as slim can be.

Wednesday, 8 October 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 3 2003

Stephen Frears's dramatisation of the events that led to Gordon Brown not fighting Tony Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994, The Deal, screened by Channel Four last Sunday, was an entertaining confection — of that there can be no doubt.

But whether it was an accurate portrayal of what went on before and during the legendary meeting in the Granita restaurant in Islington is another matter.

As one Vikki Leffman put it in a letter to the Guardian this week:

“Some minor points which could have been easily checked were not. How do I know? I served the Blair/Brown table and owned the restaurant. No tablecloths, wrong table, we never served rabbit, Gordon did eat, the walls were blue . . . But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?”

It wasn’t just the tablecloths. The Deal was also weak on the political context. The impression it gave was that Brown would have been a shoo-in for the Labour leadership on John Smith’s death if only he hadn’t waited until after Smith’s funeral to start thinking about running — rather than jumping the gun as Blair did — and if only Peter Mandelson hadn’t backed Blair.

The reality was different. Brown had certainly been the most favourably positioned of Labour’s younger politicans to make a leadership bid on the previous occasion on which there had been a vacancy — in 1992, after the resignation of Neil Kinnock.

Then he had come under strong pressure, not only from Labour’s “modernisers” but also from a large part of its soft Left (including Tribune), to take his chance. He was seen as the only credible challenger to Smith, the decent, honest but terminally dull “safe pair of hands” who was the union barons’ choice. Brown seriously considered his options until the very last minute — I remember holding open a slot in Tribune one press day in anticipation of an announcement from him that he was entering the fray. But the announcement never came. Brown bottled out, pledged his support for Smith, and Smith won easily against Bryan Gould, whose campaign was doomed from the start by his fundamentalist Euroscepticism.

By the time Smith died in May 1994, however, Brown was no longer Labour’s up-and-coming golden boy. Appointed shadow chancellor by Smith in July 1992, he quickly alienated much of his erstwhile support. During that summer, as the pound came under increasing speculative pressure in the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, he refused to argue for the devaluation that just about every economist believed the British economy needed. Then, when that devaluation came so spectacularly on “Black Wednesday”, he refused to welcome it. For the next 18 months, he stubbornly stuck to his guns, rejecting all calls to attack the beleaguered Major Government from the Left. Instead, he lambasted its tax increases.

In retrospect, this might appear a strategy of genius — but that wasn’t the way it played at the time in the Labour Party. From 1992 to 1994, Brown was subjected to an endless barrage of criticism from the left and the unions for failing to embrace a radical Keynesian economic policy. He responded by adopting what one colleague described as a “bunker mentality” — and his popularity in the party plummeted. He only just scraped on to the National Executive Committee in autumn 1993.

Meanwhile, Blair’s stock rose inexorably. As shadow Home Secretary from 1992, he made an extraordinary impact, outflanking the Tories on law and order with his rhetoric of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” and “responsibilities as well as rights”. By late 1993, it was Blair not Brown who was Labour most lustrous rising star.

The point here is that — whatever deal was struck at Granita — Brown was by then negotiating from a position of weakness. By the time of the meeting, Blair had established himself as the hot favourite to win the Labour leadership. If Brown had decided to enter the contest, he would not have won — and he knew it. He might even have lost his job as shadow chancellor.

His only strong card was that his entering the race would syphon off some of Blair’s support — possibly enough to allow Robin Cook or another soft left candidate to come through the middle. (Cook was certainly considering his options at the time: I know because I kept open a slot on the New Statesman on press day for an announcement that never came . . .) Brown knew that if he declared he would not stand, no one else would enter the contest apart from the no-hopers John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, and Blair would become unstoppable.

So both men had an incentive to come to an arrangement. But if Blair really did tell Brown that, in return for not standing, Brown could be not only an all-powerful Chancellor but also his anointed successor, he was an extraordinarily soft touch.