At one of the endless meetings to decide who should stand as the left’s “unity” candidate against Gordon Brown, one veteran member of the awkward squad was heard to voice his scepticism about Michael Meacher’s claim to have 21 MPs backing him. “That can’t be possible,” he said. “There aren’t that many prats left in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party].”
The spectacle of Labour’s left-wing rump scrabbling for nominations has been unedifying. Meacher, a war horse who served as a minister under Harold Wilson and stood for deputy leader almost a quarter of a century ago, was eventually forced to admit he had no hope of garnering the votes. After apparently accepting defeat graciously, his team briefed that they would not be able to deliver their nominations to McDonnell, who was just too far to the left. One insider from the McDonnell camp said: “It has been pathetic. It just confirms what people say about the left and its complete inability to organise or agree on anything.”
Brown has always been dismissive of the Labour left as represented in its different ways by Meacher and McDonnell. During the first hustings organised by the Fabian Society, the Chancellor exchanged the barest of greetings with the challengers, preferring to sit alone in the green room before the debate began. When it did, he was withering: “I welcome the contest, welcome the debate we are having,” he said. “It just seems here that the left hand doesn’t know what the extreme left hand is doing.” Others in the party are equally disdainful. One former minister said: “John McDonnell has almost nothing good to say about what new Labour has achieved in government. That’s a strange basis for a leadership challenge.”
As Brown prepares to face down the real threat of the Cameron-led Conservatives, the left has never seemed more irrelevant within the party. Its anti-capitalist, anti-corporate instincts fly in the face of new Labour’s modernising tendency, reinforced by a selection process that has delivered only MPs loyal to the Blair-Brown ideology. It is quite simply impossible to imagine a left-wing firebrand in the party under the age of 45. The system does not allow for it.
But whether Brown likes it or not, his leadership opponents (and McDonnell in particular) represent a real constituency of activists in the country who have fallen out of love with the Labour government. Brown has just begun his “listen and learn” journey around the constituencies. What he may not know is that McDonnell has been speaking to packed meetings of disillusioned party members, trade unionists and single-issue campaigners since he announced his intention to stand as leader last July. During his nine-month UK tour, he has galvanised those involved with local campaigns on low pay, migrant workers, the environment and the Iraq war – people who once would have worked within the party.
These activists, shut out by new Labour, could still return to haunt the new leader of the party. McDonnell’s campaign was always doomed, but he is already looking to the next cause. He is convinced that local environmental campaigns will test the contradictions of Brown’s position on green issues to the limit. The Chancellor remains particularly vulnerable on his approach to the aviation industry. Attention in McDonnell’s Hayes and Harlington constituency will turn to proposals for a third runway for Heathrow, which campaigners are convinced Brown has already given the nod to. If, as McDonnell predicts, opposition to Heathrow expansion becomes the focus of the biggest environmental campaign in 21st-century Europe, Brown could find himself ambushed by some very crude politics of opposition. An encampment of green campaigners outside the world’s busiest international airport would certainly draw attention.
At the more mundane level of Westminster, Brown will be painfully aware that McDonnell’s tiny band of parliamentary supporters could have the power to inflict damage on a Labour government working with a small majority. If the next election is as close as many predict, he may be dependent on these people to push through his legislative programme. Even in the present set-up, they have made it difficult during votes on trust schools, Trident and the reform of the prison and probation services. This may explain why Brown has been talking about the possibility of electoral reform. When asked in private about his party’s historic opposition to proportional representation, Brown is now given to saying enigmatically, “there’s more than one form of PR”. An alliance with a Liberal Democrat party dominated by centre-right figures such as Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg may be more palatable than making concessions to the “prats” and naysayers of the Labour left.
But there is a wider issue. Tony Blair always judged a policy by how much the left hated it. Any reform opposed by the “forces of conservatism” within his party must, by definition, be the right one. This is also Brown’s instinct, but it is no longer a viable position. Concerns about the invasion of Iraq should not have been dismissed simply because the traditional left mobilised against it. Similarly, the left’s critique of the private finance initiative and the introduction of “contestability” into schools and hospitals should not be brushed aside simply because some of its proponents still believe in the overthrow of capitalism.
The real question is whether a new centre left can emerge under Brown to provide a critical foil to his purist new Labour tendencies. The leadership contest would suggest there is a vacuum in between Meacher and Brown where Robin Cook once stood. In fact, there are people working in this space. The group of MPs gathered around the centre-left campaign group Compass, who include the deputy leadership contender Jon Cruddas and Jon Trickett, is one place where they can be found. This loose alliance was hugely effective in organising opposition to Trident, for example, while remaining within the Labour fold.
There is also the group of MPs led by the former ministers John Denham and Angela Eagle, which I once dubbed Real New Labour. Although these MPs remain loyal to the Blair-Brown project, they believe it must be saved from itself. This constellation was prominent in opposing the government’s recent schools reforms, pro posing an alternative white paper. Their manifesto, Rebuilding the Coalition, published during Labour’s last party conference, suggested a subtle change of direction to win back the members and voters who have deserted the party in droves. Denham is now preparing a speech for the Fabian Society, in which he will propose a strategy for winning back the Labour vote in the south. Rather than sticking to the present orthodoxy, which is obsessed with holding to the centre ground, Denham suggests there is an aspirational group of voters who could be attracted by a more progressive message centred on affordable housing, access to good childcare and public services. Although they would probably prefer to call themselves progressives, radicals or even egalitarians, rather than “the left”, this is a group Brown will ignore at his peril. They represent a genuine mainstream strand of thought within the party that, in spite of all the setbacks, has remained loyal.
But what if it turns out that Brown is not a man of the left at all? There are those within the academia who now situate the leader-in-waiting firmly in the Thatcherite tradition. According to Simon Lee, of Hull University, who is about to publish a book on Brown’s political philosophy, the Chancellor should not be seen as a socialist at all. “This is British state liberalism. Whether it is Cameron or Brown, we are now stranded on the common ground identified by Keith Joseph.” Anyone who doubts this analysis should read Brown’s lectures celebrating the work of that great figure of liberal economics, Adam Smith.
The new Labour settlement with the market is not just an act of pragmatism. Brown believes it can deliver for the poorest in society, just as Blair and Thatcher did. For those around Brown, especially his closest ally, Ed Balls, any deviation from this position is not intellectually sustainable. For them, the left is beneath contempt.
There was no reason for Brown to take seriously a challenge from the likes of Meacher or McDonnell. But the circumstances he is likely to face in the coming months and years may force him to engage with the wider left. With eco-campaigners preparing to sit in front of the bulldozers to oppose airport expansion, a rump at Westminster determined to vote against reform as a matter of principle and a restive centre left in the parliamentary party increasingly insistent on defining its own version of new Labour, Brown will do everything in his power to resist any compromise that could be perceived by his enemies as a shift back towards old Labour values. But it will be intriguing to see how he reacts when he realises he could need some friends on the left merely to survive.