A dreadful year for the British left comes to a close with some grim news: that Britain may be heading for a hung parliament next May. The smart money has always had this as a good bet; there is solid electoral bias towards Labour worth as much as 6% of the national vote whilst there are a number of regions where the Conservatives will struggle to make headway. (See my blog in October for the numbers). Why should this be such bad news? It might, after all, keep the beast called Cameron away from our doors. The key point is that the left has to begin to make a strategic assessment of its role and just where it can begin to exert any kind of political influence and a hung Parliament is just the worst place to start from.
There is, it seems, still a current inside the Labour Party which believes that it can persuade Gordon Brown to adopt a policy of taxing the rich and increasing public expenditure as part of Keynesian expansion and so win a popular victory at the polls. Compass’ deeply quixotic report In Place of Cuts: Tax reform to build a fairer society is a well-publicised example of this. Dream on. Whether such a policy could win enough support to win an election is debatable but one stark political fact is not. Gordon Brown no longer runs domestic policy. Lord Mandelson does whilst Gordon seems to be laying the ground for his inevitable exit to some high-sounding job in an international agency. And the Lord of Darkness is not now going to let a band of old-style soak-the-rich wannabees take that role away from him.
A Tory victory with a majority of 50-100 would not be quite the devastating defeat which, naturally, it suits Labour leaders to portray. It is doubtful whether, in practice, there would be much difference in public economic policies between Labour and Conservative; the current recession was partly created by New Labour and is causing much greater economic pain than anything likely to stem from Cameron. He is in fact more likely than Labour to get us out of the quagmire called Afghanistan and might even, post-Chilcot, manage finally to dump the necessary ton-weight on Blair and all those involved in the cover-up over British involvement in sanctioned torture. Not that he would do this out of respect for human rights, just that he is not be part of the ghastly lock which Blair seems have over the Labour leadership.
The central point is that a Tory victory would finally force the left inside and outside Labour to make some strategic evaluation of their options and, perhaps, finally set up some form of united left grouping that would have a few years to develop its electoral position. Possibly a delusion but at least there would be some political impetus for such. Meanwhile, five years of Tory government would just be more of the same.
Consider what a hung Parliament will bring. Labour will be run by Mandelson, the person seen as saving it from oblivion. Brown would be looking for an early retirement to his new job and Lord Peter might even take the step of running for the leadership. Inside Parliament, the form taken by the intense political manoeuvring resulting from no clear majority would depend critically upon the precise numbers. One thing is certain, however. Brown and Labour would still be the government after such an election and they would endeavour to hang on without any decisive vote of confidence for the few weeks until M.P.s left for their customary three-month break during which time deal-making and alliance-building would carry on apace. The outcome of all this is hard to forecast as just about any possible coalition including some kind of Labour/Tory National Government would be on the table.
Both Brown and Mandelson know all about this kind of back-room politics. Such of the left-MPs as remained would be just about the only factions excluded. Whatever their brand of left thought it would not be welcome inside these smoke-filled rooms. (Speaking metaphorically of course; the image of Lord Peter smoking a fag is just too implausible even to win a vote). But they would of course be required to stick to that tribal loyalty to the Party, even to leaders they loath, which has long characterised the left, if not the right, inside Labour. They would vote as they were told on pain of defeating the government.
And outside Parliament, everything would be put on hold. Realignment, reformation, reorganisation, everything would be put on one side until the deals were done. And if, by clever bargaining, Labour remained inside government, either as a minority administration or in some kind of coalition, the same old, same old would carry on amongst the wider left.
So where does this leave us? Essentially almost powerless except to resist the old siren song of voting Labour to keep the Tories out, the ‘hold your nose and vote Labour’ motto first invented by the International Socialists in 1970 and carried on valiantly ever since. Vote Green, vote Plaid, vote Respect, vote SNP, vote for any left-leaning candidate who stands. If nothing else is on offer then either vote for the Lib Dems, who at least retain an honourable stance on the wars, or just stay away. Resist above all, the idea that keeping the Tories out is the only strategic political policy that matters. It isn’t. In fact it comes a long way down the list. The central priority is for the British left to accept that it has to come together of finally to be put out of its misery.