Friday, May 12, 2006

Labour left: where it wants to be?

The Labour left seems a shedload more cheery after llast Thursday’s local government vote.

A press release from the Labour Representation Committee quotes MP John McDonnell: ‘The labour and trade union movement has arrived at exactly where we want to be with a clearly defined and commonly accepted timetable for a change in the leadership of the party.

‘Tony Blair will be gone by the Autumn of 2007 and the party now has a clear 12 months for a thorough policy debate and the preparation of an alternative leadership candidate.’

Exactly where we want to be? Don’t get me wrong, I’m finding the sight of a mortally wounded Blair suffering real pain as enjoyable as everyone else on the left.

But ‘exactly where we want to be’ is going it some. The hard left, in parliament and the constituencies, remains weaker than at any other point in post-war history. Limited but real gains in the unions have yet to find political expression. Things could certainly be better.

And who exactly is this ‘alternative leadership candidate’? The rest of the statement makes for interesting reading. Depending on how you want to read it, subsequent paragraphs hint that Brown might – just might - secure Campaign Group backing, providing his policies measure up:

‘Over the next year the party will be demanding to know where the Chancellor stands issue by issue, Bill by Bill … Issue after issue over the next year will define Gordon Brown in contrast to the polices supported and demanded by the party and the movement.’

Pressuring Brown to tack left, while keeping the threat of a Campaign Group candidacy in reserve, is exactly the right approach for the time being. Deciding what to do next is the hard bit.

Nobody seriously expects Brown to tick more than a handful of boxes on any meaningful socialist wishlist. As Blair repeatedly points out, the chancellor is ‘New Labour to his fingertips’.

What’s more, the man can be expected to go into neoliberal soundbite overdrive, if only to overcompensate for rightwing press efforts to scare off Middle England. There are already clear pointers that he will be wrapping himself in the Union Jack, for starters.

Then again, what Brown might be prepared to offer behind the scenes is another matter. Remember, this guy is absolutely desperate to be PM. Suppose the early polls pan out something like this: Brown 45% of the electoral college, anointed Blairite standard bearer 40%, Campaign Groupie 15%.

Brown will probably calculate that the Campaign Group will vote for him in preference to a Blairite, no matter what he does or says. Then again, he might feel that there is no harm in making sure of victory.

To proceed by poker analogy, the hard left’s hand is worth at least two pairs. And in some variations such as Omaha hold ‘em, the low hand - skillfully played - gets a split of the pot. The trick will be not to fold immediately on being offered a couple of symbolic policy baubles.

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