Amid an attractive short-list – Andrew Mitchell, Kelly Tolhurst, the defeated Tory candidate in the Rochester and Strood by-election – the politician for whom I felt the most sympathy last week was Neil Findlay, newly revealed as an unexpected front-runner in the race to acquire possibly the least enviable job in modern politics, the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party.
Mr Findlay, of whom, blinkered Sassenach that I am, I confess to barely having heard, found himself featured in practically all the broadsheet newspapers for the supposed extremism of his views, criticised by a prominent Miliband-ite for representing "pain" and not being "the solution", and characterised as, potentially, "the most left-wing leader of any political group in the UK".
And what exactly were the policies that this fire-breathing, Daily Mail-affronting former bricklayer was advocating? A 90 per cent wealth tax? Taking all properties with more than four bedrooms into public ownership? A £20 an hour minimum wage? State control of the banking system (something that, despite our best intentions, we seem partially to have accomplished already)? In fact, the list appended to Thursday's press profiles included such panaceas for social and moral improvement as opposing the renewal of Trident, re-nationalising the Scottish railways, ending any privatisation of the NHS, tearing up the private finance contracts, building more council houses and committing to full employment and an end to poverty.
Scary stuff, eh? And yet, while political columnists may be forgiven for describing Mr Findlay's wish-list as "more Michael Foot and Arthur Scargill than Blair and Brown", as one whose teenage years coincided with the late 1970s I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. This, after all, was a time at which the Labour chancellor, Denis Healey, talked about squeezing the rich so hard you could hear the pips squeak, when the top rate of tax on certain kinds of overseas investment income hit 98 per cent, and the virulence of elements of the Labour left – the parliamentary left, that is, not just the Sparts from the constituency parties – prompted a flurry of books about democracy's impending collapse, or scaremongering novels such as Julian Fane's Revolution Island (1979), which envisaged a state of anarchy after "our last Conservative government was deposed by the Trade Unions, over whom it again attempted to assert its democratic authority".
They were great – and, to be honest, rather terrifying – days, the late 1970s, when demagogues stalked the land, the spectacle of trades union magnates haranguing their flock at the TUC congress were broadcast live on BBC One, and there lurked in any kind of left-right stand-off the memory of what the miners' leader Mick McGahey is reliably reported to have said to Edward Heath in 1973, when after the collapse of pay negotiations the then prime minister asked him what exactly he wanted. "The end of your government,"' this extra-parliamentary champion of the working man shot back.
Until the early 1980s, by which time the Parliamentary Labour Party was merely an irrelevance, my father seriously believed that he would awaken one morning to see a file of Soviet tanks cruising down the thoroughfares of suburban Norwich.
All of which makes Mr Findlay's recipe for a better Scotland look decidedly modest, so modest that this particular Labour sceptic almost wishes that the same sort of thing was available south of the border and that Mr Miliband would model himself, well, on Aneurin Bevan, say, rather than a Transport House researcher whose main concern is to avoid giving offence.
It also prompts two questions barely raised in British politics since the rise of the Blairite consensus – here defined as a concordat between all the major parties that lightly taxed, unfettered free-market liberalism is a good thing – which are: can a left-wing party ever hope to prosper in this country? And what would happen if, by some grotesque electoral accident, it should happen to sneak into power?
The anaesthetising process that generally waylays tribunes of the left, the degeneration of the one-time radical who, in Paul Weller's immortal line, composed a "revolutionary symphony" and then "went to bed with a charming young thing" is usually supposed to take three forms. On the one hand there is the sedative weight of protocol, tradition, form, assimilation into the Westminster mainstream. George Orwell noted in the 1940s how Willie Gallacher, the Communist MP, had rapidly become the pet of the House of Commons. George Lansbury, Labour leader in the 1930s, liked nothing better than to discuss his ailments with a similarly afflicted George V. Then there is the fact that so much of a domestic politician's room for manoeuvre is stifled by factors that are beyond his or her control: international pressures; capital movements; obligations to allies and overseas dependents.
Then again there is the Rome wasn't built in a day principle, the realisation, which generally affects even the most messianic statue-toppler, that change has to come gradually, that extravagant gestures often create more problems than they solve and that abolishing such and such an abomination "at a stroke" often leaves an insoluble mess.
One can see all these factors at work in the difficulties that afflicted the last vaguely leftish government of the post-war era – the Wilson/Callaghan administration of 1974-1979 – and none more so than the pull of extraneous factors. By 1976, when government borrowing ran out of control, the country was effectively being run by the International Monetary Fund: a source of huge disquiet to the Labour left, but made tolerable by the thought that the alternative was a siege economy, import controls and a nation getting by on its own on what were by this stage extremely limited resources.
All that, of course, was three and a half decades ago, in a world without sophisticated technology, whose media trickery seems positively naïve by modern standards and whose vested interests were much less adroit at making their presence felt. And so one can just imagine the furore that would erupt were a Labour administration headed by a man or woman of Mr Findlay's views to be calling the shots from Downing Street. The character of its leader would be impugned on a daily basis. Rupert Murdoch would froth at the mouth. Capital would doubtless prepare to flee the country. Major employers would threaten to shut up shop. Meanwhile, the fine minds of half-a-dozen of the country's leading accountancy firms would be busily at work to ensure that most of its fiscal plans were strangled at birth.
All of which would ignore the fact that, though several yards to the left of his Westminster leader, Mr Findlay's platform is, when compared to that espoused by certain left-wing politicians – think of the salvoes unleashed by "red" Ken Livingstone when he ran the Greater London Council in the early 1980s – in terms of its redness approximately the colour of shrimp paste. And so it would be perfectly easy for Mr Miliband, or any other Labour leader, to campaign on the Findlay manifesto if he, or she, could only persuade those millions of lower-middle class electors who routinely vote Conservative that, despite the urgings of the right-wing newspapers, their best interests are actually served by someone else.
And it would be easier still if we didn't have the memory of Tony Blair lying like a breeze-block over the path of political progress – the man who, with a 160-seat majority and a mandate for reform, had the chance to do anything he liked, and blew it.Reuse content