The reds in Tony's bed

The left is alive and well and quietly proving its competence in government, says Stephen Castle

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"THE LEFT?" said the Labour MP, pausing at length, as if asked to comment on an unmentionable bodily function, "the left ... are largely irrelevant." A few yards down the Commons corridor a more outspoken colleague did not prevaricate: "If you want to write about the left, then I'm afraid it will be a short article."

This is the conventional wisdom of the Labour back benches, that the left has been chewed up and spat out by Tony Blair's New Labour party. Shorn of the red flag and Clause IV, a once dominant force has been consigned to the dustbin of parliamentary history.

But 10 months of Labour government indicates something rather different. New Labour's spectacular honeymoon was followed by some dramatic public relations disasters: the lone parent benefit fiasco, the furore over Geoffrey Robinson's tax arrangements, not to mention the Lord Chancellor's wallpaper. A common thread through most of the Government's difficulties is that the protagonists are Blairite.

This government's hate figures - and each administration has their Virginia Bottomley or Norman Lamont - have emerged early and they lurk in the shadows of Downing Street: both Harriet Harman and Derry Irvine are closely identified with the Prime Minister. The representatives of the left, meanwhile, have been keeping their heads down, getting on with government and quietly reinventing themselves.

Of course, there have been episodes involving the private lives or the families of leading left-wingers, particularly Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and - to a lesser extent - the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Not every left-winger has adapted to government with ease, as the fate of Gavin Strang, one of the most likely cabinet casualties, demonstrates. But even after these have been taken into account, the performance of the left is in credit on the ledger. Mr Cook's marital situation has caused damage, but his mastery of the foreign affairs brief is not in dispute. Mr Prescott's performance in his new super-ministry has caused his influence as a "big-hitter" to grow. Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, is as popular as ever and, after a hiccup over Montserrat, she has erased her name from the list of likely cabinet reshuffle casualties. Frank Dobson and "Red" Ron Davies have proved surprising successes. Even Margaret Beckett, who is almost invisible at the Department of Trade and Industry, has dropped no clangers and, on that basis, is being tipped to take Ms Harman's job in the reshuffle.

A few backbench leftwingers take this on board. One said last week: "It's not a bad old list in the Cabinet, if you count them up. And we do get the odd nudge and wink from them, the odd encouragement to 'keep it up'. Old Labour is alive and well." At the junior ministerial level, the story is even more convincing. The ranks of the highly regarded include Derek Fatchett, Peter Hain, Dick Caborn, Ian McCartney, Mark Fisher, Angela Eagle, Tony Lloyd, George Howarth and Dawn Primarolo. Under party rules, Michael Meacher should have been offered a cabinet job, but he decided to accept a Minister of State position and has prospered in it. It all emphasises the wisdom of the Labour veteran who last week argued that "the important thing in politics is not whether you're from the left or the right, but whether you can seize the levers of power and make them work for you".

That the left has done this in a systematic way is not entirely an accident. When Mr Blair placed several of its number in government last May there was a collective effort to shore up positions. As one source put it: "We saw our priority as performing well as government ministers - to do the job as well, if not better, than anyone else. Since we're not Blairites in any sense, we are required to show that we are better than competent."

Having made the point, left-wingers are anxious to stress that this is no anti-Blair conspiracy; they argue that this is not a question of caucuses or meetings. However, backbench groupings do still exist despite the fracturing of the left during the 1990s.

The Campaign Group retains a membership of more than 30 MPs, some on the fringe of the party's mainstream. Tribune, which over the years declined as a significant force on the left, is trying to reforge itself. The idea, mooted two months ago, is that it will back the Government, but not slavishly.

Last comes What's Left?, which emerged after a split in the ranks of the Tribune Group in 1993 when Mr Hain was ousted. What's Left? is less formal that the other two groups. It has no regular meeting time, but it does hold discreet weekend conferences and asks ministers to address it periodically. Mr Cook is among those who have done so. The group also formed the nucleus of the rebellion against last year's lone parent benefit cut.

But the serious work is inside government, building alliances and promoting common causes. One ministerial source freely concedes "there is networking" on the left, with Mr Cook and Mr Prescott central to it, even if their personal chemistry remains less than perfect.

The result is that left-wingers, who tend to be concentrated in departments run by a like-minded cabinet colleagues, are building up policy strongholds and exploiting their political links. Perhaps the most powerful citadel is under Mr Prescott who controls the policy areas of the environment, transport and the regions. Having merged two powerful departments, the Deputy Prime Minister has been able to begin to forge a more considered strategy for transport and the environment. In his team he has Mr Meacher, carving out a green agenda, Mr Caborn, one of his most loyal allies who is in charge of regional policy, and Angela Eagle.

Mr Cook's department is another stronghold of the left, with Mr Fatchett, whose responsibilities include the Middle East, having had a good phoney war against Iraq. The Foreign Secretary has benefited from the profile given him by Britain's presidency of the EU; he sticks to the idea of an "ethical" foreign policy and tries to reform the more old-fashioned elements of his department.

While Mrs Beckett has remained in the back seat, her Minister of State Ian McCartney has battled hard to get a settlement acceptable to the left on trade union recognition. This diminutive minister has fans on the right as well as the left of the party; "After you've taken on the monsters of Wigan Labour Party, some Blair acolytes and a few Sir Humphreys are easy meat," says an admirer.

In fact, Mr McCartney (who records in Who's Who that he is of "proud working-class stock") has had to battle hard over his new White Paper, Fairness at Work, confronting Mr Blair's camp, which promotes a business- inspired formulation on trade union recognition. Allies expect Mr McCartney to achieve a creditable compromise.

Mr Hain, one of the firebrands of 1970s politics, has settled into government in Wales, working energetically to help secure last year's narrow referendum victory on the Welsh Assembly. One source tips him as the next Secretary of State for Wales. Both he and Mr McCartney have a status within the party that exceeds their ministerial rank. As one observer puts it: "If either speaks out on an issue, the party will recognise the significance." Despite reports that Mr McCartney has threatened in private to quit over trade union recognition, both ministers have been scrupulously loyal in public.

What does all this amount to? One theory is that the left is thinking of the long term and building for the future. One centre-left MP says: "We are getting on with the job. Blairism is so dominant that this is not the time to question it. Barring another welfare cock-up, there will be no big rebellion, so people are proving their credentials by being supportive but not sycophantic, and positioning themselves for five years' time."

In any event the left is becoming an indispensable part of Mr Blair's government, making it more difficult for the Prime Minister to institute further fundamental change to the party, or implement more proto-Tory policies. Having hands on the levers of power has provided the left with some discreet victories over specific policies, and has allowed it to influence the big decisions. A coterie of radical spirits, which is in tune with the mood on Labour's back benches and is competent in office, is making itself unsackable. After years on the defensive, the left is back in business.

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