Wednesday, June 03, 2009

When the centre cannot hold.

Left-wing commentators are fond of quoting from verse 1 of Yeats' poem, The Second Coming: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...". (Liberals are somewhat more fond of quoting the last two lines from the same verse: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.") We are not yet on the precipice of 'mere anarchy', but there are some pleasurable vistas to be had on the way. So let us just take a moment to enjoy the belated departure of Hazel Blears. Isn't that nice? You had better take some pleasure in it now, because all signs are that she will be back. She has a senior minister lobbying for her already. The claim is that the Brown camp leaked some more details of her expenses claims, and that this constitutes a 'smear' (the poor, fragile thing). This does mean, as people keep saying, that Brown's authority in the cabinet and in the PLP is shot to pieces (he'll be gone by Friday dinner time at this rate). But it also undoubtedly means that Blears is being groomed, either for an independent leadership bid or for a Blairite 'dream team' scenario in which she makes up for Alan Johnson's lack of charisma as deputy leadership candidate. Blears has spent a lot of time shoring up her anti-PC credentials, which could be seen as a broadside against the current deputy leader Harriet Harman and her flagship 'equalities bill'. But whoever is chosen, the range of options available to members for a leadership election will be extremely narrow, with a couple of decent lefties getting no union support, a handful of PLP members and about 5% from the grassroots. Which will once more prove that Labour has neither the desire nor the ability to move in a more radical direction. Any hopes of a revived Labour left during the economic downturn are, in the strictly Freudian sense, an illusion.

So, how do we respond to this? New Labour is collapsing, party identity continues to shatter and fragment, the two big parties can no longer expect to dominate the field. What should the left do? Alex Callinicos argues that the left should support the calls for electoral reform, and proportional representation. It turns out, according to Paul Mason, that the rapidly collapsing cabinet is urging Brown to introduce some form of PR to save his Rubinesque hide. Naturally, they will tend to settle on whatever form will most conserve the power of the big parties, but it is clear that 'first past the post' is of no use to Labour in the coming period, since it will amplify the electoral wipeout. The second point that Callinicos makes is that this can only be of use to the left if we can get our act together, since we now have a terrifying impasse from which the left is unable to benefit due to its disunity and lack of organisation. There have been various calls for left unity in response to the credit crunch and ensuing recession, in recognition of the grave threat to working class livelihoods. But little of this has really materialised outside of the stop the war movement. Given that we can't depend on initiatives such as the Prisme or Visteon occupations generalising, there needs to be a mediating factor to agitate, galvanise and channel radicalisation, and this must take an electoral form. We need to learn from the best experience from the continent - from Germany, France and Greece for example - to understand how to do this. But it has to happen.