Leeds United defender Norman Hunter, renowned for his perhaps overly robust approach to defence, famous advised young footballers to ‘get your retaliation in first’. The wisecrack metamorphosed into something of a New Labour catchphrase in the mid 1990s, with the line slightly altered to ‘get your betrayal in first’.
Recent statements from both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband suggest that the spirit of the player who gloried in the nickname Bite Yer Legs is alive and – forgive the pun – kicking. Hence the recent rows over the Labour Party’s sudden shift of direction, which has seen the leadership drop an anyway mild flirtation with social democracy and explicitly adopt neoliberal prescriptions for Britain’s economic crisis.
It is difficult to fault Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s recent article in the Guardian, which takes Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to task for some of their recent statements, which accept the need for an austerity programme that encompasses a public sector pay freeze.
Many on the left see this as something of a turning point, especially as the leader of Britain’s largest union appears to question the continued affiliation of Unite to the Labour Party. Those that advocate the establishment of some kind of new workers’ party in particular are drawing encouragement.
They have also asked the question – and it is an entirely valid one – of why socialists would want to remain in Labour anyway.
Different people have different reasons, of course. There are still a few people who cling to the ‘classic reformist’ position that a democratically elected Labour government would be able to introduce socialism through parliament. Attractive though that position seems, all historical evidence weighs against the proposition.
More numerous will be the pragmatists, who have been prepared to forgive and forget everything from a virtual cash and carry honours trading business to the invasion of Iraq, in exchange for such undoubted gains as the minimum wage, Sure Start, gay rights, devolution and more spending on schools and hospitals, however funded.
There is also the reality that the far left as currently constituted does not seem an attractive place for socialists unprepared to adopt critical support for reactionaries abroad, and who appreciate the intellectual freedom to be able to speak their minds openly.
That is not luxury accorded to those who argued for greater democracy in the Socialist Workers’ Party at that organisation’s recent conference. Indeed, no reports of their existence have appeared in the SWP press.
Finally, there is the lived experience of the attempts to regroup the hard left since 1996, which have included the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect, Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, Left List, Left Alternative, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Campaign for a Marxist Party, No2EU and probably one or two others I cannot even remember. And yes, I have been involved with some of these initiatives myself.
The latest incarnation of this brand of politics, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, recently stood a candidate in a Brighton council by-election. She secured just 20 votes.
The SSP excepted, most of these outfits have amounted to little more than arenas for recruitment for their constituent parts. They are beset by a woeful amateurism that encompasses everything from the inability to organise systematic canvassing to not even seriously attempting to generate media coverage.
It does strike me that much leftwing support for Labour is essentially conditional, and that existing loyalties would be carefully considered if Unite and/or other unions were remotely serious about starting something new.
Mr McCluskey has been willing to attack Balls and Miliband in a national newspaper, in terms that the left will welcome. But don’t forget to discount for positioning.
There is nothing in his track record to suggest that he will pull off a feat that proved beyond Arthur Scargill. It strikes me that Labour and the unions are still some way away from a break.