Like the US left in 1968, a section of the British left wants to spite its own faceby Matt Cavanagh / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
In a recent edition of the London Review of Books, John Lanchester derided New Labour’s philosophy as being “to do everything necessary to win power and then, once in office, to do as much as possible of the stuff it wanted to do consistent with not frightening the electorate and losing the next election.” But is this really so shaming a thing for a political party to have to admit to? “Trying to do as much as possible of the stuff you want to do consistent with not losing the next election” seems like a pretty neutral summary of democratic politics. And surely it is healthy for the left to try to distinguish itself by “the stuff it wants to do” rather than by a lofty distaste for the mucky business of ensuring it gets a chance to do it.
Lanchester has, ironically, succumbed to the malaise he himself diagnosed in 2003, in which the left is “always quick to denounce a compromise, declare a sellout… [because] in some secret part of ourselves, we would prefer to be uncompromisedly out of office than compromisingly, muddyingly, stainedly in it.”
This is an inherent disadvantage for Labour. Tory governments can rely on their supporters to be tolerant—to forgive their party almost anything simply for being in power. For some Labour supporters it is the opposite: when their party is in government, they won’t forgive it anything. But all governments have to compromise, and all governments have to be selective with the truth. Neither Wilson nor Callaghan, for example, was any less selective with the truth than Blair. The difference is that the media has made “trust” the story (as it did with Clinton, himself no more selective with the truth, on the issues that mattered, than Kennedy or Johnson). Similarly, Wilson and Callaghan, like Blair, were natural compromisers and realists. It was Denis Healey, their chancellor, who defined Labour’s mission by quoting the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski: “eroding by inches the conditions that produce avoidable misery.”
Of course, the focus should really be not on hypothetical alternatives from Labour’s past, but the actual alternative in the present. Back in 2003, Lanchester was “amazed” by how quickly people forgot “the day-in, day-out ignominy of being ruled by men like… Michael Howard.” Yet now he too is saying there is no difference between the parties, that they are both unelectable. This can’t be…