By Dave Osler
Despite the failure of Russia’s latest space probe, scientists are rightly determined to continue their search for life on Mars. The way things are going right now, it looks like that quest will reach fruition long before anyone ever discovers signs of life in the Labour Party.
It’s not that I saw the defeat of New Labour at the ballot box last year as a prelude to a rerun of the Bennite years. Apart from anything else, the weight of the left both inside and outside Labour is insufficient to permit stuff like that. To revamp a period slogan, it’s never again for “never again”.
But as a Labour Party member myself, my expectation was that some sort of internal discussion over the way Labour governed for 13 years would open up. Perhaps some leading figures would finally give voice some of the criticisms they had been bottling up while the Thought Police held sway throughout Oceania.
Even the re-emergence of a distinctly social democratic current would mark a step forward of sorts, especially if it were open to dialogue with Marxism. But more than 18 months after the return of the ConDems, nobody on the left has even properly attempted a balance sheet of the 1997-2010 experience and asked what lessons should have been learned.
Interestingly, soon after Cameron got the keys to 10 Downing Street, there were reports of an upsurge in new recruits to Labour. Some of these people briefly made an appearance at my ward meetings. I hate to generalise from the particular, but no attempt seems to have been made systematically to integrate this layer.
Then there was the election of Ed Miliband to the leadership, by the narrowest of margins. Red Ed — as he was misleadingly dubbed by the tabloids — sometimes seems to speak in a strange kind of political code.
This or that comment is designed to be read between the lines as an encouragement to the soft left, although even then, they are usually counterbalanced with some ostensibly even-handed sop to rightist opinion. Is he or is he not to the left of, say, Hugh Gaitskell? Discuss.
Nor does what remains of Labour’s small remaining hard left seem to be striding ahead, if the recent Labour Representation Committee conference is anything to go by. The LRC claims to have grown by 10% in the last year, although that is from a low base.
But attendance at the event appeared to be down on last year. Many executive places were uncontested and even the LRC’s undoubted leading MP John McDonnell found constituency commitments more pressing than staying to the end of the proceedings.
In so far as what is going on in the Labour Party tells us things about the state of consciousness in the British working class, all this stuff actually does matter.
I am not an AWL member, but as the organisation makes at least some of its internal debates public, I recall that orientation towards Labour was controversial within the group a couple of years back.
Majority opinion believed that it was worth maintaining some sort of presence, and at least one other far left grouping seem to have reached a similar conclusion, with familiar faces cropping up in new guises at Labour Party events.
But it is worth asking what revolutionary socialists can usefully achieve in stumping up for a Labour Party card. The old entrism tactic of past decades seems scarcely applicable. The contentions that Labour can be transformed into a revolutionary party, or even that a mass revolutionary current can be built inside it, seems more farfetched even then before.
Nor is it obvious to me that the membership are especially receptive to socialist ideas; a substantial proportion of it is actively hostile. And if it is radical youth and students you are after, the Labour Party is just about the last place you will find them.
The most persuasive argument is that there are so few other outlets for activity, to the point where even limited possibilities can start to look appealing. Permit me to briefly revert to the life on Mars analogy; life on Labour, even if it only amounts to the presence of microbes, would at least establish that we are not alone in the universe. At least for now, we should keep looking.