Bookbuster Book Review
The Fall and Rise of the British Left
By Andrew Murray
Verso Books, RRP 14.99, Bookbuster price £12.99
Review by Tim Barton
Andrew Murray is Comms Officer for ASLEF, and it’s fair to assume he is used to addressing rousing speeches to a large audience. In this paean to the British Left he delivers his analysis of the failures and resurrection of the left in general, and of Labour in particular, with exactly that kind of impassioned and moving delivery. This makes for an exciting and engaging read. But, the book delivers a lot more than that, as his analysis is deep as well as empowering, showing off to great effect his grasp of the political, social, and economic landscape – and its alteration – through the post-war decades.
As one may surmise, to begin with a ‘fall’ implies a height from which to tumble, and it is the post-war Labour government’s success in making a compact that raised the ordinary working people of the country out of poverty that is the peak from which ‘the left’, arguably, fell. From the off, it’s clear that ‘the British Left’ is intended to encompass a lot more than the Labour Party (and his chapters on the fall of Foot and Benn, and the rise of Blair and Brown, illustrate how greatly the party came to no longer represent the left).
His most devastating critiques of ‘New Labour’, perhaps predictably, are those on the imperialist ventures of the time, especially the Afghan and Iraq wars. He quotes Tony Benn (“who was no Marxist”) – “Modern imperialism, by which I mean capitalist imperialism, was motivated by the drive for raw materials, for markets and for profit”. He might have also noted Blair’s Catholic hegemony and chauvinist attitude to Muslim countries. The Stop the War coalition is a turning point – at the nadir of New Labour’s ‘left’, new shoots arose from old soil. Amongst the most stimulating of the longer quotes Murray marshals in making his argument is Jeremy Corbyn’s address in Hyde Park, in February 2003. “Stop now, or pay a political price!” Corbyn said of Blair’s government, and so it was – membership plummeted and support for Labour evaporated country-wide.
At the mid-point of his narrative, Murray drops in a quote from Antonio Gramsci – this quote can be applied to many moments in recent UK political history: the 1978-79 winter of discontent, the rise of monetarism, the selling out of the working class under Kinnock, the Iraq war, PFI, ‘Brexit’ too… but the focus here is the financialisation of the City, the consequent casino economy, and the 2008 banking crisis. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
The new shoots rising from the ashes of the Blair years were, of course, new alliances between pressure groups to the left of New Labour, whose fruits were to include the contingent and surprising emergence of Corbyn as party leader. To the Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party, no doubt a massive faux pas, but it is estimated that 76% of the Constituency party – the ordinary members – supported Corbyn even before the incredible membership explosion his leadership triggered. So, flash-forward to 2015: Finally, a party of the left was seen as a possibility.
A significant factor in this rise was Momentum, ‘accused’ by the media of ‘just’ being ‘the radical militant tendency’ – Murray deconstructs this view fairly comprehensively, showing both negative and positive changes in the terrain.
And it is here where the few blind spots are most glaring – throughout the 80s and 90s there was a shift away from a relatively monolithic unionised left toward one of more obviously disparate fellow-travellers. Whilst occasionally, grudgingly, acknowledging the positive aspects of this shift, Murray seems out of touch with it. He seems blind to the activities of, say, Road Alert, Earth First!, the anti-WTO protests, a growing LGBT+ coalition… There are a number of issues with individualist life-style factionalism on the left, and it’s true they need to be addressed (for example, the LGBT+ community is particularly negatively riven over a few things, and particularly misunderstood by those outside it), but they are also important – diversity needs to be embraced, not choked by an old fashioned ‘worker as clone of his fellows’ ant-hill mentality. Frankly, that was a major factor in my embracing a ‘social ecologist’ viewpoint, trying to square ‘left’, ‘anarchist’ and ‘green’, and avoiding the ‘old left’ like the plague for thirty years – and I’m far from alone.
Like many of us, we joined Corbyn’s Labour because it offered a return to some core left values in a younger more diverse party. Now we’ve an election, bring it on, we need real positive change and it’s only this newly risen, broader left that can offer it.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough in this freakishly unique moment – a crucial crossroads between civilised socialistic and greened mixed-economy (with a view to more radical reform in time) under a revitalised Labour Party, or outright thuggish right-wing planet-trashing barbarism.
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