The Search for an Alternative to Trad Labour: The Cul-de-sacs of Marxism Today and Tommy Sheridan
Open Democracy, December 16th 2011
Andrew Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis, Lawrence and Wishart £15.99.
Alan McCombes, Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story, Birlinn £9.99.
Stories which explain British politics and in particular Labour politics capture a phenomenally narrow strip of the political landscape.
The classic accounts and influential books on British Labour have been of this kind. Life in the distant provinces of Scotland, Wales and the North of England exists either in a small walk on part or mostly to provide cannon fodder for the Westminster world.
This can be seen in mainstream accounts such as Andrew Rawnsley’s kiss and tell potboilers ‘Servants of the People’ (2000) and ‘The End of the Party’ (2010), two books about court politics devoid of ideology beyond power worship. It is also the narrative of traditional left critiques such as Ralph Miliband’s ‘Parliamentary Socialism’ (1961) and David Coates ‘The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism’ (1975). And it is also true of more recent new left or post-new left accounts explaining New Labour such as Alan Finlayson’s ‘Making Sense of New Labour’ (2003), one of the most persuasive and convincing critiques of the Blair-Brown years.
All of these take place in a British politics without communities, places, spaces and geographies beyond a square mile or so around the Westminster world. It is as if the British state was a disembodied entity floating in a vacuum without a set of terrains, communicative space and state.
The dominance of this kind of analysis reveals two fatal weaknesses. First, the continued myopia on the left and accounts of the left on the nature of the British state, its character, nature and how it holds power. There is the story of parliamentary sovereignty, absolutism and rather tellingly how the left has seen the UK as a unitary state, a place of one political centre, when it is a union state, one with several centres. Second, large parts of the left bought the Whig version of British history including supposed radical critiques. The story of Britain was of the people’s march, more progress, liberty, democracy and enlightenment, and despite Thatcherism, that is still how establishment Britain sees itself: the Andrew Marr story of post-war Britain. The above narrow accounts all explicitly or implicitly start from this assumption: seeing Labour politics as a variant of Robert McKenzie’s landmark study ‘British Political Parties’ (1955) where Labour and Tory are different aspects of the British political elite.
This brings me to Andrew Pearmain’s book on New Labour and Alan McCombes explanation of the rise and fall of Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party. These books on the surface couldn’t appear more different: they are written in very different styles, Pearmain in the language of the post-68 left world of academia, McCombes in a racy, if reflective first person diary account. They come from very different places: Pearmain replicating without any qualification that abstract, mythical, near non-existent Britain of the political elites, whereas McCombes who was Tommy Sheridan’s right hand man for twenty years is rooted in community politics and struggle, albeit coming originally from the Trotskyite politics of the Militant Tendency.
For all these differences the two books have something in common: the search over the last 25-30 years for a credible left alternative to labourism: the Eurocommunist/’Marxism Today’ perspective which had some influence on the genesis of New Labour; and the Trotskyite politics of Militant which led to the establishment and brief success of the Scottish Socialist Party.
‘The Politics of New Labour’ covers the extremely well-worn territory of the story of the Eurocommunists, the last years of the Communist Party, and the brief Indian summer of ‘Marxism Today’ under Martin Jacques editorship. This must be one of the most over-written and studied areas of the recent history of the British left, and although Pearmain tells this story well, basically he doesn’t add anything new.
Then he adds a second ingredient: the rise and fall of New Labour, which is probably the most examined, analysed and written about political terrain in British political history. It is very difficult to make an original case on this ground. Pearmain tries through the Eurocom/MT agenda and influence on New Labour, and his ‘Gramscian analysis’ but flaws are evident.
For a start, the Eurocom/MT world was based in a declining, elite driven, London centred politics: that long left story of mirroring the limitations of the British state which at its worst descends into in Tom Nairn’s words the ‘Etonian Leninism’ of ‘New Left Review’. More crucially, ‘Marxism Today’ for all its sense of its role and place in history then and now (how typical of Communists!) wasn’t the only show in town and was only one of several influences on Labour. For example, in the post-Bennite era of early 1980s Labour there was to name just a few: the ferment of ‘New Socialist’ magazine which doesn’t warrant one mention from Pearmain, the soft left of the LCC, Clause Four and ‘Chartist’, and more important than any of this, a parliamentary leadership which wanted post-1983 to stop losing.
The Scottish Socialist Party operated in a very different universe. It emerged from the poll tax mass non-payment campaign in Scotland and the struggles of the Militant Tendency when this success set up a separate party. This saw Tommy Sheridan elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, which was followed by the return of six MSPs and the winning of nearly 7% of the popular vote in 2003.
Neither of these stories ends well. New Labour’s humiliation of age-old centre-left values is a familiar one. The Scottish Socialist Party rode the tiger of community protest and the celebrity and charisma of its convenor Tommy Sheridan to self-destruction. Its high point in 2003 turned out to be the beginning of the end, with Sheridan unable to share the limelight; his demise was a sordid, sadly comic tale of seedy sex in Manchester swinger clubs as he presented in public his abstemious, morally upright character. He briefly had a moment of false triumph as he defeated the Murdoch News International in a defamation trial in 2006 over these allegations, but was subsequently charged and found guilty of perjury in 2010 and sentenced to three years in jail. This is a gripping tale, and one McCombes tells with a certain flare, eye for detail, and desire for revenge, having worked with Sheridan over the years, only to see him destroy everything.
‘The Politics of New Labour’ has ambition well beyond its insights and skills. This is representative of the self-belief and self-importance of the Communist and post-Communist journey. With its bold intention to frame a ‘Gramscian analysis’, it inadvertently reveals the limits of using such an interpretation in mainstream politics. Gramsci, like all those endless 1970s debates on Althusser and Poulantzas, is a rather poor guide to the challenges of late 20th century politics, and even less so for the 21st century. He may have aided some, post-68, to leave the straightjacket of orthodox Marxism and facilitated a more creative left politics, but doesn’t really provide much of a steer to the present and future.
‘Downfall’ with its Wagnerian overtones of the last days of a charismatic leader brought down by his own megalomania feels a very different story, one with more drama and tragedy. The Trotskyite inspired politics of Militant and the SSP leadership failed to morph into a wider politics of the left in the terrain left by Labour and SNP. It is given the party’s origins and caricatured, simplistic Marxism more than likely that without the Sheridan implosion, the party would have failed to evolve into something distinctive and daring. That is the story of Trotskyite politics the world over.
‘The Politics of New Labour’ for all its high words and phrases ultimately and unapologetically takes us to a dead end, where all we are offered is 1980s nostalgia, reflecting on our cultural booty of CDs and DVDs, and sneering at the current generation of radical protest. It is a telling and unattractive vision. For all its evoking of a Gramscian ‘national-popular’ (remember how that was so evoked in 1980s left circles?), this is a world where the national, sub-national and understanding of the national dimensions of the UK are completely absent.
Pearmain concludes his analysis coming up to date writing sweepingly of the student protests as ‘media orchestrated demonstrations of naked and ill-informed self-interest’ by ‘the already better-off segments of a generation entirely formed within the hegemonic framework of consumer capitalism’ (p. 266). From Gramsci to the politics of Rod Liddle; the ‘Marxism Today’ tradition and with it the legacy of Stuart Hall and Eric Hobsbawm deserve better than this: a politics as reactionary, populist and nasty as that of New Labour itself.
Does McCombes offer us an alternative hope or politics? Not really, but he is still filled by a politics of possibility, of the personal, emotional and sense of feelings. He writes that Tommy Sheridan ‘spoke the language of love, equality and solidarity’, was ‘corrupted by fame and power’ and that ‘his actions decimated the left and shamed socialism’. McCombes concludes perhaps optimistically that the SSP has survived ‘battered, bruised and bloodied – but it’s still standing’ (p. 318).
Both books are products of their time, the ‘Marxism Today’ voyage out of the debris of the Communist Party, and the Scottish Socialist Party attempt to outgrow the limit politics of Militant. Both failed and both the accounts on offer here do seem to come from another age, one long ago with questionable relevance today. Pearmain does a disservice to a rich, iconoclastic and questioning politics, whereas McCombes puts the best case forward for what was at points a dogmatic, sterile politics with populist overtones.
Instead of looking for the answers in the golden era of ‘Marxism Today’ or Militant, we need to start asking some penetrating questions. Is there still a politics and culture of the left? What are the philosophies and agencies which can be imagined which oppose neo-liberalism? Can we begin to nurture a politics of the future which challenges ‘the official future’ and takes back the language of liberation and freedom from the prophets of globalisation? And crucially, for British centre-left opinion, instead of writing about a narrow slither of political life as a universal story, can it begin to start talking about the British state, its history, limitations and character, put it in context, critique and eventually challenge it?