44 red pepper oct/nov2007
crippling impact it has had on the left is remarkable. Under Blair, No 10 and the Labour Party head office were obsessively concerned with every parliamentary candidate’s selection. Left-wing hopefuls, like Christine Shawcroft or Mark Seddon, were stopped at all costs. Party workers were tasked with personal lobbying for the leadership’s preferred choice, or were even told to chase up certain postal votes but not others. On the flip side, safe New Labour candidates were coached before selection meetings – events often packed with supporters. Blair was said to have taken a close personal interest in many selections. These same tactics have been used for elections to policy forums and in choosing Labour conference delegates. Conference management has been staggering. The renowned ‘delegate liaison’ staff – experts in armtwisting – work tirelessly to ensure correct speakers are chosen and votes go the right way.
‘Theweakness oftheleftis seen in the extentto which thepartymachinehas becomeinvolved in virtuallyeveryselection ofneutered parliamentarycandidates, mainlyto ensurethatleftcandidates areexcluded ordefeated’ Alan Simpson MP, Campaign Group
The upshot of this style has been the loss of many activists. Alienated by the war and policies such as the patchwork privatisation of the NHS, many feel a lack of influence over the direction of the party and leave. Labour’s membership tumbled from 407,000 in 1997 to just 177,000 in May 2007. This hollowing-out has accentuated the effectiveness of the leadership’s tactics – it is easier to manage a party that is an empty shell. The weakness of the parliamentary left follows from this. Critically-minded MPs take strength from local campaigning groups. Without them they can feel isolated and more vulnerable to pressure from the leadership. This was demonstrated starkly in the failure of a challenger to secure enough MPs’ nominations to take on Brown.
Fragmentation But it would be wrong to see the left as a helpless victim of attacks from the Labour right. Alan Simpson traces the left’s weakness back to its own ‘fragmentation’ in the mid 1980s. He says that events like the Socialist Conferences in Chesterfield – which drew together a broad spectrum of activists and thinkers between 1985 and 1987 – ‘contributed to the erosion of the left. There was nothing wrong with getting Tony Benn to stand [as
party leader in 1988], but this happened at the same time as people were jumping ship. It led to a diminished left in the Labour Party. ‘The Chesterfield stuff was the origins of Blairism,’ Simpson believes, ‘because we lost the discipline of the collective and said “the personal is the political, so everyone go off and do your own thing” The right then picked up this individualism and ran with it. The left was dispersed, resulting in the chaos we have now.’ An alternative view would posit that Chesterfieldstyle connections between social movements and the Labour left could not have such a causal impact. After all, they did not lead to fragmentation in other times – for example, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when activists joined a more open Labour Party in significant numbers and added their energy to the traditional left. Indeed, it was these kinds of connections that John McDonnell attempted to rebuild in his leadership campaign, which comprised nearly a year of travelling and speaking to countless meetings. He is now channelling this momentum into the Labour Representation Committee, ‘a national network of Labour Party activists and trade unionists who are fighting for socialism in the Labour Party’, which is pointedly ‘open to members of the Labour Party or of no party at all’. Many argue that it is in opening practical and intellectual connections with campaigning movements that the future of the Labour left lies. McDonnell’s leadership bid caused ruptures within the Campaign Group. He did not enjoy the full support of its members, some of whom, including Alan Simpson, backed Meacher instead. The big unions refused to back either Meacher or McDonnell, despite the fact that both men stood on a platform that promised to increase union power and stop privatisation. Unions work within constraints – they often take the view that their members’ interests are best served by working with the Labour leadership, or in this case the leader-in-waiting. Within the union movement there is also a dense network of reciprocal ties that inhibit a union from going it alone. The large unions thought that a challenger to Gordon Brown would have no chance, and most of the smaller ones followed suit. Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, believes that the process wasn’t helped by tactical errors. ‘I think there was a miscalculation in the deal between Michael Meacher and John McDonnell on that Monday afternoon [when nominations for the party leadership were due to close and it was clear that neither had enough support on his own, so Meacher stood down in favour of McDonnell],’ he says. ‘I never thought it would be the case that Meacher’s supporters would all switch to McDonnell, but I think most of McDonnell’s would have backed Meacher.’ By contrast, when it came to the deputy leadership contest the lack of an obvious front-runner meant unions were more willing to throw their weight behind a candidate – Cruddas had the backing of the UK’s