The left's last supper

History Man is reluctant to sup with New Labour, but he should look again at the menu, says Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online
Superficially, at least, all is well in our hero's home. The old copy of Das Kapital is now in a box in the attic, along with the works of Engels and Isaac Deutscher's biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. But the works of Gramsci - definitely an OK author who "speaks to" the post-modern predicament - still has pride of place on the distressed-look shelves. The signed photograph from Daniel Ortega still stares out from above the desk in the study. The framed CGT poster commemorating the occupation of Renault in '68 hangs on the fresco-effect wall opposite.

OK, the house in north London's Kentish Town may be a bit more bourgeois than the pad he had in Norwich when he was teaching at the University of East Anglia 25 years ago. The CD and the PC are both state of the art. The ANC victory has had its impact on the modest but well-stocked cellar: the household now consumes only South African wine. The car outside is a Saab Estate instead of the beloved 2CV with La Lotta Continua painted on one door and Venceremos on the other. But otherwise everything is pretty well in place chez History Man, 20 years on.

Except that a strange sense of foreboding hangs over the house. For it isn't just the Tories who face defeat, if Blair wins. Something else will be snuffed out, a flame that has flickered bravely throughout the 18 years since Margaret Thatcher came to power. Had the comrades not, in 1979, struggled to reformulate the party as a truly left-wing socialist organisation?

Our boy had not played much direct part in that struggle; his own (very successful) academic career and his chairmanship of the campus Natfhe branch had taken up too much time. But he was conscious that while the long march back to true leftism had been halted, first by Kinnock and then by Smith and Blair, it had never been proved wrong. As long as the Tories continued to win elections it was still possible to dream that it, rather than the relentless dragging of Labour back to the centre, would in the end be the path to victory. But with a Blair win that dream dies. Suddenly History Man senses his own mortality, and shivers.

In truth this fictional composite, with passing apologies to Malcolm Bradbury's 1975 anti-hero, is no doubt horribly unfair to the living, breathing intellectuals currently wringing their hands in print over Blair's alleged apostasy. But there are vestiges of it in most of them. These are most evident at one end of the hand-wringing spectrum: take, for example, Harold Pinter's unconsciously accurate imitation of Dave Spart in the current issue of Red Pepper: "[Labour's] stated position on tax is a disgrace. Its treatment of dissent within the party is a disgrace. Its arse-licking of big business is a disgrace etc, etc, etc." (Those etcs, by the way, are Mr Pinter's own.)

Or there is the Oxford don Ross McKibbin, comparing Blair and Brown in the London Review of Books with those reviled old class traitors Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden. Or the dinner party of metropolitan, middle- class 1992 Labour voters at Islington's Granita, convened for Sunday's Observer, at which - for example - Elizabeth Wilson, professor of cultural studies at the University of North London, says she is switching to Lib Dem because: "[Blair] is a Macmillan of the Nineties - except that he is more right wing." And Howard Freed, the headteacher who declares he doesn't trust Blair, and that "if the Tories get back it doesn't bother me two hoots".

At the more sophisticated end of the same spectrum, and to be taken much the most seriously, are Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall, writing in the same paper that the past 10 days have been "deeply depressing", and questioning whether New Labour will be "anything more than a crypto-Conservative administration". Jacques and Hall are not History Men; and they aren't old Labour, either. At the weekend they explicitly endorsed Labour's decision to "opt for modernity" after John Smith's death. Which makes it all the more surprising that some of their complaints have a distinctly old Labour ring about them.

Take the "extraordinary display of gymnastics" over privatisation, for example. Labour handled this badly; but it was a tactical mess, not a philosophical one. Brown's bright young men had been thinking about an inventory of saleable public assets long before they were put under pressure by the Tories to explain their spending and borrowing plans.

Hall and Jacques are in anguish over Blair's decision to extend Labour's commitment not to raise income tax to the party's members of the Scottish parliament. But in the real world, does such a commitment make it more or less likely that the Scottish people will vote for the tax-raising assembly which the intellectuals desire so deeply?

Most wavering electors, expecting next to nothing from politicians, would be impressed if the firm pledges made by Labour - dismissed as "extreme modesty" by the disaffected intellectuals - were in fact delivered. A second misconception is to treat leadership in opposition as leadership in government. Jacques and Hall complain that Gordon Brown had refused to say whether the gap between rich and poor would have narrowed after five years of Labour in office. But does wishing it make it happen?

The intellectuals are right to identify the gap between rich and poor as critical. However, the time to complain about this is after five years, if Brown does fail to achieve it.

But who does it betray, to shrink from making this a cast-iron first- term pledge? Or to promise less than he hopes to deliver in government, as Margaret Thatcher did in 1979? Especially when the levers of redistribution - including tax increases other than income tax - are still in place?

At the Wirral I heard a defector to Labour from the Tories say thoughtfully that it would be impossible to judge Tony Blair until he had had five years in office. Asked in that same issue of Red Pepper whether it mattered who won the election, the journalist Paul Foot, no friend of Labour sell- outs, said: "All you have to think about is the tremendous gloom on 9 April 1992, and contrast it with the sheer sadistic pleasure which every one of us will experience on the night of 1 May." One speaks for the electorate at large, the other for the political activist. Both tell us a larger truth, and put the Granita diners to shame.