Things didn't get better

Reasons to be Cheerful: from punk to new Labour through the eyes of a dedicated troublemaker


It is no joke being a stand-up comedian in the Socialist Workers Party, one of the less jolly organisations on the miserabilist left - especially since Tony Cliff's death broke up his double act with Paul Foot. Mark Steel admits to being embarrassed by the way his more earnest comrades mix up punchlines with party lines. "One night, when I commented to an SWP member in the audience that the act which followed me had gone down badly, she looked at me in horror. 'You shouldn't say that. He's one of the most active people in the local Labour Party, and very good on South Africa.' "

Steel's account of his life "from punk to new Labour" tries hard to have some fun with the rituals of the far left. He recalls meetings in dingy pubs where, amid the factional bun-fighting, "an SWP member would point out the links between the threat to the local bus service and the defeat of the German revolution in 1923".

It turns out that I am about the same age as Steel, from a similarly soulless southern town, and that we both got involved with the left after buying a paper at an Anti-Nazi League carnival - he bought Socialist Worker, I took the Next Step, paper of the late Revolutionary Communist Party. Yet while some of us decided years ago that the parties of the old left were not the way to create a better society, the SWP has carried on in the same routine ever since. What is the secret of this impressive resilience?

Perhaps both the strength and weakness of the SWP is that it has always been open to the influence of each new current of protest. Through the 1980s, it continued to have a powerful emotional attachment to what remained of the organised labour movement, a sentiment evident in Steel's awestruck attitude towards striking workers: "[Given a lift] in the front of a train with a militant trade unionist on account of helping out on his picket line! That was my childhood and adult dreams rolled into one." In the 1990s, the SWP latched on to short-lived protest movements such as the anti-poll tax campaign. Now the SWP has made itself almost indistinguishable from the anti-capitalists protesting in Seattle or Quebec, despite its rejection of left-wing politics.

Tail-ending whomever happens to be passing, the SWP could never become the revolutionary leadership that it aspired to be. But it could always find something to provide a glimmer of hope, however dim. "Even in the post-miners' strike Eighties, there were sparks of defiance," Steel recalls. "There were a series of enormous demonstrations against apartheid, and every party lit up when The Specials' 'Free Nelson Mandela' came on."

Steel describes how, through the years, the "extra-parliamentary" left remained trapped in a fatal embrace with the Labour Party, like a sulky partner that stomps off in a huff but always comes home by bedtime. He wept when Neil Kinnock's Labour lost the 1992 election - "one of the most awful experiences of my life" - and compares the victory of Tony Blair in 1997 to "the greatest night of sex you ever had". He even describes Michael Portillo's defeat in Enfield Southgate as "the defining moment of a generation, like VE Day or the moon landing". I don't think he's joking.

Which leaves me wondering what exactly Steel has to be so cheerful about (apart from the Radio 4 series and the newspaper columns, which seem to cause him a little embarrassment). After all, he is not in the same happy position as John O'Farrell, the author of Things Can Only Get Better, who is now a prospective Labour MP. As Steel says, the socialist project he signed up to 20 years ago has failed and, although the detested Tories have gone, he hated the new Labour government so much that he stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate in the London elections last year.

In spite of everything, the SWP retains its faith in the old-time religion, proving that faith alone can take you a long way - although not all the way to the promised land. Writing about those who thought they could change the world by reforming the Labour Party, Steel observes that these "honourable aspirations" were "based upon a condition common on the left - self-delusion". His own story reveals that, whatever else it has lost down the years, the left retains that particular quality.

"The happy ending," Steel concludes, "is that one of the most popular films of all time is Spartacus." So the socialists might have been crucified, but at least they are hanging in there together, presumably singing "Always look on the bright side of life".

Mick Hume is the editor of spiked (

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast