GARY KENT reviews Liz Davies’ recent book on the politics inside new Labour.
Liz Davies is an embittered traitor spilling the beans on party business. Or she has done us all a service by blowing the whistle on new Labour’s “twists, turns, machinations and doublespeak” and the “paranoia and pointlessness” of the party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC). It’s your choice.
Davies was a leading figure in Labour Left Briefing – the Labour Left’s “unrepentant voice”. She was selected as Labour candidate for North East Leeds in 1995 but, for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained, was deselected – she says it was done to demonstrate that there was no place in the ‘big tent’ for such a left-wing activist. Labour’s big guns aimed their fire on this Islington barrister. Clare Short denounced her at the 1995 Labour Party conference, although Davies reveals that she had, just a week before, asked Short for support only to be told that “she had no particular knowledge of my case or interest in it”.
Davies was accused of being a Trot, although she honestly says this allegation “as any Trotskyist will tell you, is absurd”. Far from being a hardened cadre Davies appears to be something of an innocent abroad. Labour then banned MPs from election to the constituency section of the NEC in favour of rank and file members. Davies says that the leadership miscalculated in underestimating the Left’s chances of fielding a high-profile slate. Davies was elected as part of the centre-left Grassroots Alliance in 1997 and remained on the NEC and associated committees for two years.
Her book tells – sometimes in too much detail for the general reader – of the ins and outs of policy making. It does not make a pretty picture. The NEC is portrayed as Blair’s feeble poodle. Dissenters are carved up and leaned on at every stage. She quotes Neil Kinnock’s assessment of Briefing as engaging in “politics with a perpetual sneer” and “sour sectarianism”. Her book tends to confirm this.
Put yourself in the position of an NEC member serving alongside Davies.
She promised to report back to those who elected her via articles in the left press. All this seems fair enough but one can sympathise with those who decided to keep stumm in case their comments were misreported, or appeared in a book like this one. To be fair, one of her foes tells me that her reports were accurate.
Davies often puts the worst possible face on the motivations and actions of her opponents, sometimes in a rather silly way. She recalls that at her first meeting the party’s leaders sat with their backs to the setting sun – “shadowy faces surrounded by bright aureoles” – as if “Millbank’s obsession with stage-management extended even into private meetings of the Party’s elected ruling body”.
Maybe it’s a poor joke but she later details how she tried to expose the party’s reliance on donations from businessmen like Bernie Ecclestone. She concludes that Labour had overtaken the Tories in its reputation for sleaze, although Labour had actually introduced laws to enforce disclosure of such party donations.
Her contempt for Blair is clear and rings a bell: “his introductory remarks were always fairly peremptory and he appeared to be on autopilot … moves relentlessly from one non-sequitor to another … seems uninterested in arguing his case”, and “seemed to regard it as a personal insult that some of us actually wanted to ask him questions”.
She sees John Prescott, however, as “unlike his popular image”. He was “clear and concise” and “spoke in properly formed sentences, did not succumb to malapropisms, and made all his points in a logical order”, but is “quick-witted and utterly cynical” and “never uttered a word that deviated in the slightest from the New Labour message”. Others might praise Prescott for consistency and public loyalty.
Labour has long suffered from a sub-Trotskyist culture of betrayal. Trotsky believed that compromised and bureaucratic Labourite leaders held back the “multi-millioned masses” from revolutionary action. His simplistic analysis ignored other reasons why revolutionary change was difficult in advanced capitalist countries.
From a Labour left viewpoint, there was much evidence of betrayal. For instance, Jim Callaghan abandoned the party policy of abolishing of the House of Lords, which had been massively endorsed by the party conference and appeared in the 1979 manifesto. Such actions catapulted arguments about party democracy onto the centre stage of Labour debate for two decades. Many activists made a priority of promoting measures to tie down elected representatives. This approach animated some of the barmier aspects of Bennism in the early 1980s and culminated in the party’s 1983 election manifesto, famously described by Gerald Kaufman as the “longest suicide note in history”.
Since then, Kinnock, Smith and Blair have tried to reduce the electorally damaging spectacle of divisive dissent and bad behaviour. Against the vehement opposition of left groups such as Briefing, they introduced one-member-one-vote provisions and curbed the union block vote. Under Blair, however, it often seems as if he is the one member with the vote. The old ways of making policy didn’t work effectively or fairly but there has been a massive over reaction.
This bitter little book has many tinges of authenticity but will be seen as self-serving, not least as its publication coincided with Davies’ decision to join the hard-left Socialist Alliance. Her erstwhile allies might think that Davies has left them in the lurch. It would also be ironic if Davies’ departure comes just as the Labour left is beginning to rebuild its influence.
Through the Looking Glass: a dissenter inside new Labour, by Liz Davies, is published by Verso.