The return of the far-left: a turning point for Labour

by Rob Marchant

Politics has its own rhythm. It is governed partly by obvious dates, like general elections, but partly by longer-term movements in the tectonic plates. It is easy to overestimate by-elections – the media almost invariably do – but I suspect that Bradford West might just be one of the few that historians remember.

Until Thursday, it was all going so well: but only because the Tory-led government had been in disarray all week, not because of anything that Labour had done. The fact that Labour could lose an entirely safe seat to George Galloway, who won an extraordinary 56% of the vote, means that Labour will want to, at the very least, review its approach.

Aside from the unpleasant re-emergence of sectarian politics, there are two obvious stories: one is Labour’s collapse, for which we might come up with a lot of distinct reasons and which is already being dissected at length.

But while we might debate those reasons, the impact of Labour’s collapse is clear. Above all, the impact on its political credibility.

Oppositions usually win by-elections: a result which hands such a high proportion to a newcomer does not generally happen to oppositions where everything is in order. Rather to parties where the wheels are starting to fall off, as Roy Jenkins showed when he won 42% of the vote in Warrington in 1981. Someone now really needs to explain, convincingly, why this case is different.

The other major story, as Dan Hodges rightly identifies , is the resurgence of the far left as a political force. This matters to Labour in a way it does not to the Tories or Lib Dems. And many commentators are in shock about this second story. Indeed, until Thursday, many found it laughable the idea that the pro-Islamist, anti-American far left was on its way back into respectable politics.

They’re not laughing now.

So let’s look a little closer: why would this comeback happen now and not, say, in the late 1990s or early 2000s? Three reasons spring to mind.

First, in times of austerity, extremist politics of either the left or right naturally have more appeal.

Second, trade union politics were more moderate then: now they’re a way in for the far left.

And the third reason is perhaps counter-intuitive: the more you stay in the centre, the less people like Respect tend to bother you. From the mid-Nineties on, Labour’s success made the far left feel small, unconfident and useless. They became marginalised. Until 2005, when Galloway won Bethnal Green and Bow, there was arguably only one left-wing show in town: Labour.

On the other hand, the gradual ebbing of party popularity since that date, and the more we show signs of indiscipline or tolerance towards the views of the far left , the more we make them feel they have a toe-hold. The boundaries between our party and theirs blur, and become porous.

So, while Galloway himself is merely an irritation, the success of the far left at grassroots level means more. Bradford West is a point of inflection, and the soul-searching which follows will inevitably lead Labour in one of three directions. We may not have all the analysis to hand yet, but the options are clear.

The first, and least likely, is that it could jolt Labour to its senses. One reading is that Labour lost heavily, not because it had failed to provide a distinctly left alternative to the government, but because it had failed to provide any coherent alternative.

This, magnified by a number of local, organisational and one-off factors, led to the scale of the defeat. The remedial action is some clear policy direction and to shift Labour back towards the centre. But it is an unlikely course: if Miliband were lukewarm towards it before last Thursday, he now may decide to discard it, perhaps forever.

The second possibility is that Labour trots off to the left after Galloway, putting “clear red water” between Labour and the government. It decides, not to edge its way over the sanity threshold, but to sweep across it triumphantly with a full military escort. The cigar-clutching fingers of Galloway beckon us towards our electoral doom and we drift into the next election with the longest suicide note in history, reprise. Hopefully, also unlikely.

But Labour is now essentially trapped in a giant pincer movement, between a resurgent far left and a centre ground occupied by the government, whom we are not minded to attempt to oust.

So, the third, and most likely possibility is this: that the party will justify staying exactly where it is, rabbit-in-the-headlights, in the middle of the soft-left road.

And, indeed, Miliband’s message to party staff on Saturday seemed to indicate a failure of organisation, rather than any reflection on political strategy. Convenient, because tinkering with the organisation it is the one thing which, in opposition, you actually have the power to do. There may indeed have been organisational failure, but fixing it is a necessary and not a sufficient condition for a turnaround. The politics counts, too: people need to know as well what you stand for, and they don’t.

“We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road,” a mocking Nye Bevan once quipped. “They get run down.”

But there we may, for the foreseeable future, continue to sit. Never quite expecting that big truck.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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28 Responses to “The return of the far-left: a turning point for Labour”

  1. Joe says:

    “…a centre ground occupied by the government…”

    Really?

    YOU may think that they are on the centre gound, doesn’t look that way to me after the Budget!

  2. madasafish says:

    One swallow does not make a summer.

    But according to this article it does.

    PArdon me whilst I wait for some more evidence.

    Panics rarely produce good policies

  3. swatntra says:

    The centre grund is fas becoming quicksands, but there is a way to beat quicksands and that is not fling your arms around in pamic. This bye election was just that a freak bye election returning a freak Galloway; you may remember another libertine John Wikes also mangaged to return at election carried on the shoulders of the London mob.
    The article addresses an extremely worrying pont for Labour that of the Far Left anarchist forces combining together with the flux of Islamic dissidents. Somehow Galloway managed to tap into that underbelly of protest like the Occupy or Uncut and AntiCapitalist seams in society and particularly the dissident Youth Movement. That is what won it for Galloway. Very organised owing loyalty to nobody and completely ruthless. That is what Labour has to fight, yet again. We thougt Militant was dead and buried, but its on its way back, with a vengence.

  4. oliver says:

    I’m another reader who questions the idea of the current government occupying a centre-ground. I think this unintentionally highlights what many see as being Labour’s problem: a Coalition that has sold off the NHS, intent in ramping up the erosion of civil liberties and is taking an economic crisis out on the poorest and the sickest members of society (the list goes on and on) is seen as being ‘only’ centrist rather than right wing.

    Is this because it helps white-wash Blairism by re-framing much of that as ‘only’ centrist? Or is it tied into this thing much of (New) Labour appears to have about needing to ‘out-Tory the Tories’ and it at least *sounds* a bit better if you portray the Tories as only being centrist.

    Reading a lot of what’s posted here as articles, I’m honestly beginning to get as frightened for the future if (New) Labour get in at the 2015 elections as I am if the Tories get in again.

  5. Richard Kelham says:

    I think Marchant’s analysis is not only counter-intuitive, it is frankly absurd. The Labour Party’s membership and support started to ebb long before 2005 – it was Blair’s betrayal of the hopes and desires of the majority of the electorate after 1997 that started the rot. In other words ‘New’ Labour was already too centrist, too Thatcherite. The war in Iraq was simply the final straw.

    It is Labour’s past foreign policy, plus the failure to engage with Muslims, especially young ones, as individual voters that gave Galloway his seat. It will likely cause trouble in other seats with a large Muslim electorate unless Labour has a thorough rethink. Plus, there is the beginnings of a tide of antipathy to the whole Global Capital thing, particularly in Europe, which Labour need to be ready to join. People are fed up with the whole system. If Labour doesn’t come to their aid they’ll likely turn to the far right.

  6. madasafish says:

    Lets face it: who really wants to appeal to a bunch of Islamofascists in Bradford?

    Any noirmal person would refute most of their policies as un-British. See the treatment of women, the treatment of Unbelievers and the treatment of Jews.

    See also Ken Livingstone policies.

  7. I don’t agree that this government occupies the centre ground at this time.

    The electorate understand the economic position we are in and that we must confront the deficit and debt issues that we have.

    They are resigned to the present economic reality and expect there to be pain in the process – but they expect and demand that every one in society is treated fairly and equally.

    Clearly they understand that this is not happening under the tories. They feel extremely let down by them.

    I’d go further and say that the tories lurched to the right during the most recent budget, not so that we would all be in it together but so that a tiny minority of their support base would not have to bear their fair share of the pain.

    Austerity, to the tories, is for those who can’t afford it, free to those that can.

    Galloway appealed to the worst prejudices in people and did it very well. As a resident of Belfast it is easy to spot all the familiar signs and symptoms of an electorate lost to the rhetoric of the tribe and deaf to the politics of reason.

    But Galloway will sooner or later say or do something that will have him up to his neck in it. This is who he is, and the people of Bradford West shall hold their head in their hands when he does. There shall be no bright, new dawn for the people there under his stewardship.

  8. Dan Fox says:

    I know it sounds glib, but the centre-ground is the centre-ground. It’s not what *we* say it is. This does not, however, mean that you have no choice in terms of political strategy.

    For example, you can stand bang-slap in the middle of it and try and convince the electorate that you are more authentic occupiers of that position than the incumbents.

    Or you can begin there but seek to lead the electorate to the left of it, and then – and only then – claim the new position as the centre.

    More bravely, you can plant your flag on the left-hand fringes of the centre-ground and appeal for everyone to join you there (the problem being that it too often shapes into a we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong unappealing message).

    What you shouldn’t do though is pitch your tents too far outside the centre-ground itself. That way, you don’t get anywhere near enough electoral ‘footfall’ passing you and your policies to attract enough votes to win general elections. But you do open the market to extremists who then promote themselves as the authentic purveyors of whatever brand of ideology they claim as the key to whatever problems we’re all seeking to address.

    This is nothing new. Anthony Downs’s Economic Theory of Democracy has been kicking around for half a century http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Economic_Theory_of_Democracy

    And it’s why Rob Marchant is right to say that, counter-intuitive though it may be, Labour occupying the centre means less space for extremists, not more.

  9. John P Reid says:

    I don’t think they’re A threat but Left futures, with their witch hunt slanderous view that Progress are A infultrating organisation who sway votes, Or their attempt to get the Left on the NEC with unknowns like Darrell Williams or Kate osamor, rahter than Joanne Millgian or Peter wheeler. But Ed milibnads silence on the left trying to reinfultrate is deafening,

  10. With respect (appropriately), this is an interpretation of Galloway’s victory which is very hard to spin: for what it’s worth, here is my (alternative) interpretation at http://bit.ly/HwJ3lZ

  11. Nick Palmer says:

    Obviously it’s a crap result for Labour and a reflection of voters’ willingness to give a colourful maverick a spin in by-elections. But it stretches it to suggest it’s evidence of a rise of the far left. The post-Bradford polling shows Respect”s share of the vote moving from 1% to, er, 0% (source: daily YouGov poll – they did find one Respect voter but he got rounded down…).

    I don’t think one can deny that people think all the mainstream parties are a bit rubbish at the moment, and that’s at least partly due to our dilemma that we can’t easily publish detailed policies now since (a) they may look silly by 2015 and (b) most voters aren’t really interested at the moment in a “what we’ll do in 2015” speech. I do think that we need to be setting out our overall priorities by this autumn, though, and saying explicitly that we’ll be giving details for each one nearer 2015, giving time for people to influence them.

  12. paul barker says:

    An excellent article. We will all know in 4 weeks just how soft those labour poll leads are & how far CLPs in the north have been “hollowed out”. My prediction is that labours performance will be very dissapointing & there will be a renewal of calls for a new leader, missing the point, again.
    Ed was chosen precisely to hold the party together & that is probably not compatable with making a new start.
    I hope you move to the centre ground because I believe thats the right thing to do but you are probably finished either way.

  13. Simon Christopher-Chambers says:

    The centre ground still requires bold, radical policies that capture the imagination of the electorate. Simple question. Name one bold policy advocated by Ed?

    Not easy is it.

    When Blair & Brown took the Labour Party to the centre they did so with bold, radical policies coming out of their ears.

    We need the same – on education, health, pensions, employment – anything please Ed, anything

  14. sounds puerile ,but there is acentre ground between centre and right;and a centre ground between centre and left;we should be aiming for the latter

  15. Steve Garner says:

    Maybe Bradford’s voters deserted Labour because they had no idea what they were being asked to vote for.

  16. @madasafish: not an isolated incident at all. Rather the culmination of two years of meandering since the election.

    @swatantra: quite. We forget the Militant days at our peril. Trouble is, many of our membership are too young to remember entryism, which is already happening in some major unions.

    @Dan: beautifully put.

    @Joe, @oliver @Peter: I refer my right honourable friends to the comments of Dan Fox.

    @Kelham: Oh, yes, it ebbed its way through three general election wins. Some ebbing.

    @JohnPReid: I think I’d differ about there being a threat through the Left Futures brigade, I think their worst trait is merely tolerance of other, more nasty elements. Some visible threats are the unions who are being infiltrated to a visible extent, plus proxy far-left organisations such as the various Hamas-supporting groups in the UK and finally the Socialist Action brigade who have congregated around our mayoral candidate.

    @Nick, think the % of the national vote is quite irrelevant. Militant never had a high proportion either.

    @Paul, thanks. Yes, May will be interesting.

    @Simon, good to hear from you. And an excellent point. Bold radical policies: nuff said.

    @Tony: yes, we should. Hence my blog, the Centre Left.

  17. Joe Roberts says:

    Rob, how can you define as ‘centrist’ a government which is cutting income tax for the richest 1% of taxpayers while presiding over a huge squeeze on the living standards of the other 99%? What planet are you living on?

    In your own way, you, Dan Hodges and Atul Hatwal are as far removed from the Labour mainstream as Galloway.

    Ironically, the way that the hard right of the party is now behaving is similar to the Bennite hard left in the early 1980’s – dogmatic, out-of-touch, backward-looking and downright disloyal.

    As a mainstream Labour member and councillor, somewhat to the right of centre on the Labour spectrum, the 1970s song by Stealers Wheel comes to mind – “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”. People like you are the jokers and people like Owen Jones are the clowns!

  18. @Joe Roberts: because you don’t get to define what centrist means, Joe, the public does. A bunch of party activists are unlikely to define centrist like the public does, because they have their own centre of gravity.

    I think you’ll find that the writers at Uncut are probably a great deal closer to the views of ordinary people than the party is at the moment.

    And please don’t talk to me about loyalty. Supporting a party is about healthy debate, not shouting “disloyal” as soon as someone disagrees with you or the leadership. If you want cheerleading, I think you know by now you won’t find it here at Uncut. We are critical friends, because we want the party to succeed: it is unlikely to if everyone just says everything’s fine.

  19. william says:

    Kashmiri Pakistanis in Bradford(or Blackburn,if you are the winning candidate) can vote how they like,but this was an utter irrelevance to a future general election,where the current Labour leadership will be saddled with their proximity to the utter disaster of Gordon Brown.If the opposition cannot win a seat in a by election in Bradford,you might rightly conclude that the party is not just financially bankrupt,but destined to become the third party of British politics,because of its inability to paint ANY picture of society.

  20. ROB SHEFFIELD says:

    Rob M

    We’ll see exactly how ‘resurgent’ the far left Monty Python brigade are in the council elections this year and then in the Euros in 2014 (the latter a PR elections).

    Last year the assorted ragtag and bobtail of the far left failed to net gain a single council seat- the great multicoloured dopes of Respect lost 2! In the last European election (under PR) the far left combined (in all its PFJ glory) managed less than 2% ! This is still is a far worse performance than the far right (BNP and UKIP).

    Personally I think by far the greater danger to Labour is not the rise of totalitarian fools such as ‘respect’; moreover it is a new phase of entryism in CLP’s and Labour ward parties. On the comments pages of Labour List for example you cannot move for anti-Semitic, Stalinist, anti-private sector simpletons.

    EdM is probably going to have to show his mettle (Kinnock style circa mid-to-late 80’s) before the next election…..

  21. ROB SHEFFIELD says:

    Richard Kelham

    “It is Labour’s past foreign policy, plus the failure to engage with Muslims, especially young ones, as individual voters that gave Galloway his seat. It will likely cause trouble in other seats with a large Muslim electorate unless Labour has a thorough rethink”

    If we premium relations with/ concentrate upon one small (but- admittedly- very very vocal) minority we will pay for it in constituencies that have large Hindu and Sikh populations who themselves have difficult relationships/ experiences with (and of) this particular assertive-aggressive ‘faith’.

    I’d prefer Labour tried to appeal to the voters as citizens of this country: rather than religions and segregated cabals concerned primarily with what is happening in certain places thousands of miles away…..

  22. ROB SHEFFIELD says:

    Sun/YouGov poll April 4th 2012

    Lab 42%, Con 32%, L/D 9%, UKIP 8%

    UKIP at 8%…..

    Rise of the “far left” anyone??!!

  23. Rob/Dan

    Fair point. I’ll attempt to word my point better next time!

  24. Mike Homfray says:

    Well, we certainly have to distinguish ourselves from the Coalition. They occupy the centre-right – no room there for us

    Those who want those sort of policies really ought to think about why they can’t simply go and support them rather than trying to make us something we are not and never should have been.

    As far as foreign policy is concerned I don’t think we should support any more interventions, I think we should be more active in our support of Palestine, and think we should leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.

  25. @William: to be honest, I think it’s only Tories who are obsessed with the Gordon Brown link. The rest of the country would give Labour a chance, if it could only come up with a coherent and attractive message. And a few policies wouldn’t hurt.

    @RobSheffield: I agree with you regarding treating voters as people rather than as members of an identity group. Labour themselves have played that game too long and, as my good colleague Atul identified in an earlier piece, are now reaping the whirlwind.

    Where you seem to have misunderstood is in suggesting that I am predicting widespread electoral success for Respect: I am not. Resurgence is not about electoral success, apart from in a very localised way. Respect and their ilk will only ever have a tiny vote nationally, but that does not mean they are not being successful. Their success is in influencing policy (as they are already doing in the trade unions) and, as you rightly identify, in entryism into mainstream parties, particularly ours.

    @Mike: I refer my right honourable friend to the comments of Dan Fox.

  26. Mike Homfray says:

    No thanks, Rob. Didn’t agree with them the first time.

  27. oliver says:

    Give this Coalition another 12 months of more reduced benefits, reduced working tax credits, rising rent, food, fuel and utility prices, complete with zero growth and tax breaks for the already “I’m doing quite nicely, thank you” and you’ll find that an increasingly large demographic will be clamouring for left wing politics – not centrist politics that will by and large be an only slightly diluted version of Tory policy anyway.

    Or will it be a case of ‘oh, those people don’t vote’ so they won’t matter? It’s only swing voters who matter, those who straddle both the left and the right, only coming off the fence depending on which way the political wind has blown them that particular year?

    To me, the problem isn’t the issue of defining a centre ground, it’s actually the occupation of it and the transition from ‘left wing’ politics to the middle (and maybe even the centre right). Will New Labour come clean about all this though? Drop any pretence of principles and association with the ‘left’ and distance themselves from Labour’s historical legacy? Frame themselves in terms of fluid ‘populist’ politics that are only meant to last for an election as the centrist swing voters may want something else after 4/5 years rather than lasting principles and politics based on needs that were recognised a 100 years ago and are still relevant today?

    What’s also a problem is the reframing of the ‘left’ as ‘far left’ because of that occupation of a centre ground. Reminds me of the Tories painting anyone that disagrees with them or demonstrates against them as ‘Trots’ or ‘anarchists’. Maybe this is yet more ‘out-Torying the Tories’, I don’t know.

  28. John says:

    rob merchant, the hamas supprters congregating around our mayoral candidate, well he’ s not going to in so it doesn’t matter

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