The Short answer

Powerful historical forces are at work in the Middle East, the global economy and the climate that will unpick the status quo, writes Clare Short. Can the left reinvent itself to meet the challenge?
September 2007

The short answer to the question 'What became of the Labour Left?' is that Blair crushed the democratic structures of the party and therefore most of the membership that was unhappy with New Labour left the party.

It is notable that the constituency vote in the deputy leadership contest was only 96,756. The fall off in membership has been massive and this has changed the nature of the party. The voting between the different candidates tells the story.

In the constituency section, Harriet Harman got the highest vote with 23,344. Hilary Benn was next with 20,921, Jon Cruddas got 16,469 and Alan Johnson 16,052. This left 11,247 for Peter Hain and 8,723 for Hazel Blears. In the trade union section, Jon Cruddas got 58,800 votes, Peter Hain 42,934, Hilary Benn 31,890, Alan Johnson 29,445, Harriet Harman 28,131 and Hazel Blears 24,417.

There was little significant political difference between the candidates. They were all loyal to the Blair legacy, with the exception of a gentle critique from Cruddas, who was brave enough to say out loud that Iraq had been wrong, that the grassroots of the party were withering and that there was a need for more generosity to failed asylum seekers. The fact that he got the support of one in six of the constituency members tells us a lot about the political outlook of those who have retained their party membership.

Massive historical change

There are, however, some bigger questions underpinning this sorry picture. Across Europe, membership of social democrat parties is ageing and declining. Turnout in elections is also in decline and differences between right and left parties of little significance. And yet, across the world there is a mood of concern about growing inequality, atomisation and loss of belonging. And everywhere there is a sense of gloom about the Middle East, the threat of global warming, the more general strain on environmental resources and the terrible levels of poverty in developing countries.

Massive historical change is taking place and the future of human civilisation is under threat from the consequence of climate change. But the political elite of the world have swapped the discourse of politics for the techniques of advertising agencies. Thus the focus groups throw up the sound bites that are fed back to the people by telling them what they want to hear.

But British foreign policy is subcontracted to a USA that is so infected by hubris that it believes it can secure its future oil supplies by imposing its will on a Middle East that is exploding with justified anger. International law and the moral authority of the UN are being broken at a time when we need unprecedented international co-operation to deal with global warming. And Britain feels rich only because house prices have tripled in 10 years and consumer debt is at an all time high.

It is true that Gordon Brown has reduced inequality by replacing the Tories' family income supplement for low paid workers with more generous tax credits for workers and pensioners. And there has been increased spending on public services. But this has been done in a destructive ethos building on Thatcher's reforms of endless reorganisation and centralised targets that have demoralised the workforce and crushed creativity.

Left in dismay

The left has crumbled and looks on in dismay. But the truth is that there was never one coherent left. It was united in a broad ethos of passionate feelings and suspicion of leadership, but this was an umbrella under which rested very different traditions.

There were the vanguardist Trotskyists who entered the party in the 1970s and 1980s. There was also a strand of residual communist sympathisers who saw a strong centralised state and extensive public ownership as the model for the future. Then there were the social democrats who found the Scandinavian model of society attractive; and then assorted pacifists, sincere Christian socialists and local activists.

In the face of a ruthless New Labour machine, with a lust for power at any price, and the massive patronage power that lies in the hands of the controllers of the British state, this disorganised old left had little to say that was coherent and no organisational base.

Powerful historical forces are at work in the Middle East, the global economy and the climate that will unpick the status quo. The danger is that this will drive politics far to the right. The left will have to reinvent itself. It is not clear whether the Labour Party will by then have anything to contribute.

Clare Short was secretary of state for international development from 1997 to May 2003, when she resigned over the Iraq war. She later left the Labour Party and now sits as an independent MP for Birmingham Ladywood

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