Are the loonies coming back?

The left has been in the doldrums for nearly 20 years. But Scotland and Wales, as well as London, cr

The election of Ken Livingstone as mayor of London is now regarded as a fait accompli by the government itself. The fact of it, next month, will be an irritating reminder of the limits of new Labour power. Ken's success will also raise a larger and longer-term issue: the victory of new Labour's left.

Livingstone's campaign is supported by, and many of his workers drawn from, the London Socialist Alliance, a coalition of mainly Marxist parties including the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain. The Alliance will itself put forward candidates for the London assembly, the best known among whom is Paul Foot, the radical journalist. For the first time since the 1980s, socialist groups have a large cause and a nationally known figure to rally around.

The mayoral campaign will not take place in a vacuum. The Scots elections last year saw the emergence of the Scottish Socialist Party, whose leader, Tommy Sheridan, has in the past year shown himself able to sustain both a high profile within the Scottish Parliament and to build his party - which now claims to be recruiting 50 members a month. In Wales, the First Secretary parachuted in by the Labour leadership, Alun Michael, was removed in an internal party coup by the man the party wanted all along, Rhodri Morgan - a figure well to the left of both Michael and new Labour.

When, next month, the expected Livingstone victory is complemented by the loss of hundreds of local council seats, the new Labour project will stand exposed in the political arena as it never has before. It will be a time for the left - both within and without the party - to seek to advance. It will command three red bases in London, Scotland and Wales; it will have both personalities and causes; and it will strike new Labour in three significant areas.

The first will be the theme of inequality. New Labour's fairly unambiguous stance has been that unequal outcomes are the outcomes of the market, and it cannot do much about them. To try and rectify them beyond the provision of a decent minimum for the poor, together with modernised state education and medical services, would be both oppressive and politically unwise. The locus classicus of new Labour statements in this area is that of Stephen Byers a year ago, giving his first speech as Trade and Industry Secretary in the City of London: "The reality is", he said, "that wealth creation is now more important than wealth distribution. Governments should not hinder entrepreneurs, but work to ensure the market functions properly and contributes to creating a strong, just and fair society."

Most who would consider themselves new Labourites, or centre-leftists, or modern social democrats, now agree with the American political philosopher Michael Walzer, who argued in an essay in Dissent in 1998 that: "Simple equality (of the material kind) is the bad utopianism of the old left . . . political conflict and the competition for leadership always make for power inequalities, and entrepreneurial activity always makes for economic inequalities . . . none of this can be prevented without endless tyrannical interventions in ordinary life. It was an historical mistake of large proportions, for which we on the left have paid heavily."

Anthony Giddens, who more than any other figure has attempted to create and defend a theoretical structure for the Third Way, has in his latest book, The Third Way and its Critics, given an even more robust defence of unequal outcomes than either Byers or Walzer, writing that: "incentives are necessary to encourage those of talent to progress . . . rather than seeking to suppress these consequences we should accept them."

Though intellectually honest, this is politically risky. It is easily represented as updated Thatcherism, and always open to criticism from a left populism that sees it as a rationale for the new Labourite lifestyle and that of new Labour's business supporters.

John Wilson, a political philosopher, tried to give new Labour equality a pragmatic grounding in a Smith Institute pamphlet earlier this year. Wilson, too, accepts that "an equal-worth society would allow great variations of individual fortune", but he is evidently unhappy with the effects of this in practice.

"The problem is", he said, "that while you can say it's a good thing that everyone should have a better chance and that this will lead to different outcomes, this can be easily flipped over to be simple applause for success. Entrepreneurialism is seen to be a good thing - but it's not clear how this is squared with fairness. In the end, I think nothing is clear in this area: it's possible you just can't do much, in a globalised world where the economies are as open as they are."

This unhappy resignation is opposed, root and branch, by the left. Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party has equality as a central tenet - to the point of illustrating its website with a painting of a Soviet demonstration, a kind of subliminal endorsement of the great totalitarian, but egalitarian, regime of the last century.

Livingstone, in his wilderness years between the destruction of the Greater London Council and his reincarnation as the independent socialist candidate for London mayor, developed a critique of globalisation, its institutions and its effects that incline him towards those who demonstrated last year on the streets of Seattle and London, and this year on the streets of Washington, against world trade and capitalism.

Both the Welsh and Scottish nationalists flirt with these attitudes when it suits them. Even new Labour, in its wholehearted embrace of the globalist position and its attendant and widening inequalities, has no defence against an attack that claims it is unfair. This will be especially the case if the national or global economy takes a downward turn, as recent events suggest it might. Inequalities will then stand more nakedly exposed because the tide will no longer be raising all boats.

The constitution is the second large area of struggle - not because new Labour has done too little, but, perversely, because it has done too much. The initiatives the government has taken in Northern Ireland, Wales and, above all others, Scotland have resulted in, or have not stopped, trends that are London-centric and politically radical, if not always in a standard leftist way. In Northern Ireland, devolution has been suspended as the IRA refuses to disarm. Sinn Fein, its political wing, calculates that, sooner or later, the Protestant/unionist community will be outnumbered by Catholics/nationalists, and is prepared to play a long game. In Wales, the devastation of the Conservative Party gave a large boost to Plaid Cymru, free to pose as a party to the left of Labour, at least in the Valleys. In Scotland, the tide still runs both to the left and for more devolution: the Scottish commentator Joyce McMillan, in a recent talk, said of devolution that it was "too late for Scotland and too early for England" - a comment that neatly captures the facts of Scotland's continuing demands and the English regions' continuing apathy.

Anthony Barnett, the creator of Charter 88, is among those constitutional radicals who are disappointed in the government. Charter 88 - which he no longer leads - will in late spring publish what it claims is a major statement: Rescuing Democracy is designed to be at once a harsh critique of the government's record on the constitution and a programme for completing what it has chaotically started.

"There were", says Barnett, "two positions on the left when Labour came in: the first, which said that this lot won't do anything; and the second, to which I belonged, which said they would have to do a lot. We were both wrong. They did some things, but they did not do what I assumed they would, which was to adopt a coherent approach to reform. It's piecemeal, patching up the old.

"Many believe that, with Lords reform shelved indefinitely, this is the end of the matter, and any hope of a coherent approach is gone. Now we could see a disastrous position from the government's point of view, if they get back in next time without a majority in England, dependent on Welsh and Scottish seats. Then it starts to unravel; then they won't be able to hold it."

The last area of struggle is relatively new, inchoate and perhaps the most dangerous for this, or any future government. A new spirit is discernible in the support that Livingstone has mobilised: it goes across the spectrum, into areas like business and finance, where he should be anathema. It is found especially in rootless, singles-dominated London, which prizes pizzazz, rebellion and the easy identification with "victimhood" that Livingstone vicariously permits.

The comforting part of this assumption is that it tends to be shallow and evanescent, and that the fundamental considerations will apply in the voting booth. However, there may be a deeper and more disturbing trend. In an arresting inaugural lecture last year, Barry Richards, Professor of Human Relations at the University of East London, married two concepts of considerable relevance to contemporary politics in rich societies.

The first was of the "therapeutic" dimension to politics, where the politician takes upon himself a healing side that identifies with, and in some sense neutralises, general anxieties. The second was the notion of "compression": that a public figure compresses within himself a series of messages such as caring, vanity, sexual licence, intelligence, decisiveness or vulnerability, so that the reassuring, authoritative side is softened or even contrasted by other, more pleasurable or exciting aspects. Both Diana, Princess of Wales and Bill Clinton epitomise this "compression". Richards notes of Clinton that: "in the compressed public culture of the millennial era . . . it is possible for the electorate to be as fully acquainted with the President's need for sexual intimacy as they are with his welfare policies and for his authority to be undimmed by this."

As Richards acknowledged in conversation, Tony Blair shares Clinton's political approach, but not his vulnerabilities: indeed, among modern political leaders, Blair is perhaps less of a "victim" than any other, projecting an image of strength, decisiveness and of family loyalty - an image so conventional that it is almost, in this era of "damaged" politicians, unconventional and unsympathetic.

Livingstone, by contrast, is highly "damaged": with a controversial past, unmarried and without children, with no university degree, a love of newts and the past and present butt of "establishment" hatred. His publicly available emotional narratives are richer than anyone else's in the mayoral race, and much richer than those of Frank Dobson who has the old-fashioned view that private life is private.

Like most Hollywood narratives, from Star Wars through to Braveheart, the stories woven about the rebels in the political arena are those of Davids against oppressive Goliaths, able to cock a snook, thwart their plans and make them look foolish - even, at times, toppling them. As politics ceases to be urgent in comfortable societies, so it becomes more and more open to being marshalled into such story lines. New Labour benefited from that when the Tories were in power; now, being in power itself, it too suffers, with the left portraying it, in the words of Mike Marquese, a prominent member of London Labour who has now joined the London Socialist Alliance, as "the British establishment's preferred instrument of government".

Despite the rumblings and the warnings, veterans remain cautious. Michael Rustin, who co-edits the radical journal Soundings, says: "Yes, there is a space opened up to the left of Labour, but it's not clear what will fill it. It's also not clear that Livingstone could be the spearhead; in fact, his campaign so far has been conspicuous for its lack of politics. I want to see emerge a more articulate critique of capitalism: that may take some time."

But the critique is emerging. Next month, the left will have a very large base, thanks in part to the growth of proportional representation. It has some new clothes, over some old nostrums, but it is back.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?