What’s left of the Labour left?

Written by Amber Elliott on 28 June 2011 in Interview
Amber Elliott looks at the new face of the opposition party’s outer margin. Can it influence the party in a meaningful way and what values will it represent in the future?

It’s the closing day for Labour leadership nominations, and Diane Abbott is 22 nominations short of the 33 names required for a place on the ballot paper. With three hours to go, her left-wing competition, John McDonnell, withdraws from the race. Minutes left before the 12.30pm deadline, Abbott is still four MPs short.

Fellow MP Ronnie Campbell recalls those final tense moments as PMQs rumbled on in the background. “[Abbott] came in at 12.25pm – I’d put a nomination in for her and she was begging Dennis [Skinner] to run down straight away to put his nomination in.

“‘They’re going to wait for you coming down, Dennis,’ she told him. He didn’t really want to put in a nomination for her, but he did in the end,” Campbell confides. “We would have liked a left candidate to stand, but probably someone more prominent than Diane Abbott.”

It serves as a good example of the underwhelming influence of the left of the Labour Party in recent years, a theme pondered by everyone from Denis MacShane to David Miliband.

Indeed, the left’s imminent death has been predicted more times than that of al-Megrahi.

In Parliament, the Tribune Group limps along while its offshoot, the Socialist Campaign Group, has roughly 14 permanent members (its website hasn’t been updated in years). Even Compass, a softer-left organisation, with the sympathetic ear of some senior Labour MPs, has been criticised for opening up membership to beyond the Labour Party. This move led to the resignation of nine members of Compass’s youth committee, who accused Compass of “estranging itself” from Labour supporters. One Labour MP claims it shows that Compass has “gone off the reservation”.

Yet, a Progress poll of lost Labour voters conducted just before the last election, found that more than a third of party deserters still identified themselves as ‘left-wing’. If there are winnable votes on the left, why do so many accept it’s a force in decline?

Ronnie Campbell is bleak about his ideology’s future. A former miner, who claims Michael Foot’s ‘suicide note’ was “brilliant stuff”, Campbell represents what’s often referred to as the ‘hard left’.

He shows me his speeches from his selection for Blyth Valley in 1987. They’re littered with corrections and spelling mistakes, but he’s proud of the sentiment: “Dear comrades… What we must awaken to active life are the working people who suffer under the current stage of capitalism… If selected, you will find me now, as you will find me several years from now. I believe working people respect consistency. I do not put trust in princes – political or otherwise.”

 Now, Campbell claims: “The left are being marginalised with the emergence of New Labour and whatever comes after.”
I ask how he would define his politics. “I’m proudly left,” he says. “I was hard-left in my early days… but I’ve matured since, like an old wine, I suppose.”

What is ‘hard-left’? “Nationalise everything in sight,” he bellows. “The communist manifesto comes near it in the old days. I never see much of it now – MPs don’t talk about it. Nationalise? Bloody hell, we don’t nationalise. We just pour taxpayers’ money in, rob ‘em and sell off cheap.

“Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, that was the hard left. We haven’t got that kind of MP now. It’s a shame. Ian Lavery comes from the left, but he’s ambitious, so he’s not going to be left for very long, is he?” Campbell chuckles. “Once you have ambitions and get on the greasy pole, your left-wing principles go out of the window. There’s nobody going to select you for a junior minister if you’re on the left of the party.”

Campbell believes that a resurgence of the Labour left is possible, but the circumstances in which it would arise aren’t positive. “The only way we can come back is if it all crashes. If we all go down to the depression, then you could see a big surging of the left. It all depends on what happens with the world economy and how the system’s run. There could be a resurgence. It’s happening in the Middle East, isn’t it? So it could happen here.” It’s not a comparison many would choose to make.

Neal Lawson is scathing about this outlook. As chairman of Compass, an organisation “for the democratic left”, he believes Campbell’s approach lacks “purpose and direction”, and that’s why the left is weak.

“If the best the left can say is that they hope things get so bad that people rise up behind them… that’s why we talk about the good society,” he states, “a vision of what we want the world to be. Positive ideas, not just a life of anxiety and insecurity.

“The left is not well organised in the PLP. It’s in danger of becoming irrelevant, and the party’s in a very bad state – it doesn’t know how bad. These people are clinging onto the same model for party discipline and organisation; it can deliver some things, but not a progressive majority.”

Lawson believes that the left’s renaissance can only happen if there’s an end to party bureaucracy – or “parliamentary Leninism”, as he puts it. “Compass is about creating a more equal, sustainable, democratic world, and how you apply those values when the class system has dissipated, when Labour may be unlikely ever to win a majority on its own again. I hope we’re witnessing the death of one form of socialism – ‘Labourism’ – and the emergence of a new one about coalition, alliance-building, recognition of multiple identities and parties. That’s where a new left will be built.”

Lawson points to UK Uncut as an illustration. “That’s a form of politics with no leaders, no control mechanism. UK Uncut is a great example of new politics.”

“I welcome what Compass is doing, because this factional stuff is a zero sum game,” says Jon Cruddas, sat in his parliamentary office. The Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham’s ideology is difficult to pin down. One person close to him describes him as “not of left or right – a floating voter in the Labour Party”, while new MP Lisa Nandy says he’s “distinctly different from the shadow cabinet mainstream”. A lazier description could be ‘soft left’.

There’s nothing soft about Cruddas, mind. He’s raw London Labour – a man who took on the BNP and won. He crashes his feet onto his desk and wheezes with laughter.

“Labour became a party of centralised government,” he says, “but it’s at its best when part of broader alliances, dating back to Keir Hardie. The pressure will come from outside the party. The solutions aren’t going to be, as Ed Balls might say, ‘endogenously created’. They’re broader movements and ideas.”

But the idea of creating ‘broad alliances’ on the left, across parties and including outside interests, is not new. Radical left thinker Ken Coates spent four decades trying to give greater coherence to militant left politics. In his 1971 book, The Crisis of British Socialism, he wrote: “What is really required is for all socialists to ask themselves how they propose to put their ideas into practice… It remains very plain that all the socialist organisations together need an alliance, not only with the effective single-issue pressure groups for civil liberties and welfare rights, but with the archetypal organisations of labour, the trade unions.

“It will become necessary for some brave souls to start again, and seek to coalesce in the wilderness, with all these people who want to be socialists, believe in creating a democratic movement in which they can argue while building together, and are not afraid of a difficult, and possibly long, haul.” It rings true for someone like Lawson 40 years later. Yet it still has not materialised.

Certainly, pressure for radical reform is low within Parliament. The most prominent left-wing grouping is the Socialist Campaign Group, but it’s no longer a serious thorn in the side of the party. Former MP and member of the Group Bob Clay has even called for it to disband. “I put a disproportionate amount of my time into an effort to turn the Campaign Group into an ally of Labour Party socialists outside Parliament,” he wrote last year. “It gives me no pleasure to suggest now that the group has lost any purpose in its continued existence.”

Jeremy Corbyn, a current Group member, remembers a better time. “I joined in 1983. It was a large organisation, with 40 or 50 MPs. There were big discussions about economic policy, the miners’ strike and foreign policy debates.

“In one hilarious meeting, the Greenham [Common] Women addressed us,” he recalls. “They were trying to buy bolt-cutters to cut the fences at Greenham Common, but anytime they turned up at a shop anywhere near, they were denied the right to buy them. So, each Campaign Group member agreed to buy one set of bolt-cutters and donate to the Greenham Women. Which we duly did!”

Now, other left-wing clusters are overshadowing the Campaign Group.  MPs Kelvin Hopkins and Grahame Morris along with Dr Éoin Clarke have recently established a new left-wing Labour think tank called GEER UK (Gender, Environment, Equality and Race UK). It has been dubbed a possible ‘Red Labour’ alternative to Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour. Separately, former Labour leadership hopeful Michael Meacher has founded a new regular meeting in Parliament for those on the left. It has attracted some new Labour MPs.

Lisa Nandy, part of the 2010 intake, says: “I’ve never been to the Campaign Group, but I expect that Meacher’s group pulls in broader sections of views than the former.” Nandy herself has been described as “one of the few left-wing members” of the latest intake. She concedes that she could be defined as “soft-left…. slightly left-of-centre”.

But, she maintains, definitions of left and right do not reveal much about where people in the party sit: “The left/right spectrum is less helpful now than it’s ever been.” Why is Nandy one of very few self-identified left-wingers in Parliament? It could be partly due to allegations that the Labour Party machine actively blocks potential left-wing MPs. “I’d never been for selection before Wigan,” says Nandy. “And there was very little input from anyone in the party. That was a lot to do with there being so many going on at any one time.”

Corbyn is blunter about Nandy’s selection. “They didn’t want her. No way. She slipped through the net.

“The party leadership, throughout history, has tried to influence candidate selection,” he continues, “but outright blocking of candidates is unusual. Now, people like Christine Shawcroft, for example, are prevented from becoming candidates in winnable seats. The party machine moves in to influence the voting when hustings meetings take place on selection.”

Left-wingers like NEC member Shawcroft and journalist Mark Seddon were just two names mentioned to me. In 2002, at a by-election, Seddon was removed from the Labour candidacy shortlist. In 2010, he accused the party of “engineering” the shortlist for Stoke-on-Trent Central, now Tristram Hunt’s seat. Other stories include Victoria Street Labour staff applying pressure against local selection of left-wing candidates.

“They don’t want trouble-makers,” says one Labour MP. “There are aspects of it that are absolutely horrible. It’s a really cruel business. Why would people on the left want to put themselves in that position?”

“The party machine is very good at overseeing the selection process, scandalously so,” says Lawson. “This is supposed to be the neutral civil service of the party and it’s far from it. It’s in the pocket of its own bureaucratic space which is conservative with a small ‘c’ and makes sure no one gets through who is going to upset their closeted view of the world.”

Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, says that the party is prejudiced against the left even when they get elected. “People were punished politically for taking a stance. There’s no doubt that’s happened to me. I’m the only member of the 2005 Labour intake who’s never been offered a job. Frankly, I don’t believe that all Labour MPs elected at the same time have a wider range of skills and abilities. You do pay a political price. It’s made very clear that thinking out of the box isn’t particularly helpful.”

One MP suggests that even a promotion to shadow cabinet for left-winger Diane Abbott was not as significant as it might seem. “[Abbott] was quite interested in the housing brief,” the MP says. “One of the reasons they were quite happy for her to do public health was because there is more consensus in the Labour Party on many of the issues. She’s not in a position where there are going to be confrontations.”

The supposed blocking of Labour left candidates, and lack of career prospects once they enter Parliament, means that there’s been a “hollowing-out” of potential leftie leaders, as one MP put it to me.

Lawson agrees: “People like Tony Benn emerge in conditions that create Benns – the militant shop steward movements, the alternative economic strategy of the 1970s. A mixture of ideas and social forces combine to create the circumstances. You may get rogue figures today, like George Galloway or Ken Livingstone, but they don’t have the same resonance that a Benn might.”

Upon being elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband declared, “I am a socialist”. But are his credentials enough to justify the title ‘Red Ed’, or is his colour fading?

Ronnie Campbell is not enthusiastic about the amount of red in Ed. “He’s a right-winger,” he says, “not left, in any sense of the imagination. I haven’t got a problem with Ed. He was my second choice. It just wasn’t much of a choice.”

But Lawson sees potential in Miliband’s approach: “He’s too cautious, too careful, but his instincts are right. Wanting a more equal world gets him out of bed. The danger is, he’s not moving far or fast enough.”

He concedes: “Maybe I see what I want to; I’ve grown up with him politically. He broadly wants to go in the direction Compass does, which is why we backed him. Most ‘soft centre-left’ ingredients are there, but they’re not sharp enough, or resonating.”

Cruddas opens his arms wide and chuckles. “Ed’s letting it kick off. He wants the party to have a few rows. The alternative is that it becomes listless.”

His ideal vision for Ed is radical. “There are huge opportunities for Labour. Ed should say, ‘Look, this is a Liberal government, not a Conservative government. It’s destroying many things that characterise this country: forests, waterways, ports, the NHS, the BBC, the Royal Mail. Essential architecture that makes England unique is being threatened.’ Labour should focus on conserving them, and take the game onto the Tory turf, in terms of saying we’re more conservative than the Conservatives.”

Cruddas, once darling of the left, stood as a candidate in the 2007 deputy leadership contest and received 19.39 per cent of the vote, more than any other candidate in the first round. Harriet Harman eventually won, but Cruddas’ strong showing – he was eliminated in the penultimate round – prompted The Sun to question ‘Why Labour is lurching left’. Yet, he ruled himself out of the 2010 election because he wants to influence policy.

I ask how that’s going. He sees potential in building a left that brings in external social movements and other parties. Does it suit Labour to pursue an alliance with the Lib Dems? He replies: “Some will go, ‘But, oh no, we’re Labour’. People know that we’re Labour. Steady as she goes, then. Maybe it’ll drop in our lap. I don’t think so. And no cursory reading of history suggests it will.”

Lawson is another who believes Labour should make friends with Lib Dems. “Labour’s in a deep hole, and it has to figure out how it works with other parties,” he reasons. “Many people on the left of the Lib Dems are far to the left of the Labour Party. Give me Shirley Williams and Charles Kennedy over Peter Mandelson.”

For both, Labour has to stop thinking along party lines. “This whole left/right thing needs to be recalibrated,” says Cruddas. “You have bits of the trade union movement, and campaign groups, but they’re not divisions like they were in the 1980s. We’re in the middle of a profound identity crisis.”

Lawson adds: “There are deep-seated problems with what New Labour did, and until the left can discuss that, examine and understand what went wrong, we’re never going to work out what goes right next time.”

Campbell and Clark are dubious about a union with other parties, especially the Lib Dems. “If this progressive alliance thinks that the Liberals are anywhere near standing with us, you just have to look at what they’re prepared to vote for,” Campbell says.

Clark agrees: “It’s a big mistake to talk about a progressive alliance as a headline policy. We need to get our own message clear. Concentrating so much fire on the Liberals in the last year, while it may have been enjoyable for some, has been a complete waste of time.”

Tony Benn, a prominent force of radical politics, once suggested: “The Labour Party has never been a socialist party; it’s just always had socialists in it”. The current left of the party is a straggly mix of visions and directions.

Certainly, the ‘hard left’ is becoming more difficult to identify among parliamentarians. And those broadly defined as ‘soft-left’ don’t feel that the definition ‘left’ applies to the modern Labour Party at all.

So, what is left on the left? It appears to be a ragbag of rebels, true socialists, trade unionists and a fading breed of Ronnie Campbells.

But the Labour left is not dead: it lacks a leader, and common themes. Like a jumble sale jigsaw, it’s missing pieces.

Until someone comes along to put it all back together again, the Labour left will remain an obscure concept that’s easier to dismiss than to spend time fixing.

Tags: Compass, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn, Jon Cruddas, Katy Clark, Labour Left, Labour Party, Neal Lawson, Ronnie Campbell, Tony Benn

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