Dissent in Wonderland

Liz Davies, 'Through the looking glass', Verso, pp213, ?15

Liz Davies is someone who will need no introduction for the readers of this paper. She first came to prominence after being deselected as Labour candidate for Leeds North East by the party leadership for being too leftwing and was subsequently elected onto the national executive committee. She has recently publicly backed the Socialist Alliance general election campaign and has spoken at several SA rallies.

The book is a account of comrade Davies?s time on the NEC as part of the centre-left Grassroots Alliance slate. Every page is animated by its author?s passionate indignation against the machinations of the so-called ?Millbank tendency?. Even those readers who begin the book with no illusions in either Blair or the Labour Party will, perhaps partially due to the lively writing style, find something which surprises them as to the extent of Labour?s control-freakery. The personal favourite of this writer is the portrayal of Tony Blair, whose constant and distinctly paranoid attacks on all and sundry - including not only the press and the Tories, but individual Labour Party members - leaves him looking distinctly like a  parody of Shakespeare?s Macbeth.

Comrade Davies takes the reader on her political journey onto the NEC, off it and out of the Labour Party. Unwittingly, perhaps, the comrade in passing also shows up many of the weaknesses of the Labour left. The book is intended as an expos? of New Labour, but it is a pity that it does not devote more attention to the left, which of course has always had a symbiotic relationship with the right. One cannot be properly understood without the other.

The strength or weakness of the Labour left is usually related to the level of combativity of the working class on the economic front. Hence the fact that the trade union link has such strategic importance in the eyes of Labour lefts. This book perfectly illustrates that the inherent conservatism of the union bureaucracy, born out of the inherent conservatism of trade unionism, makes it putty in the hands of Millbank. However, the Blairisation of the Labour Party (and indeed to different degrees social democracy Europe-wide is undergoing a similar rightward drift) has deprived the Labour left of its ascribed organisational vehicle for attaining socialism without revolution.

A defence of the Labour left is offered at the end of the book, which, ironically, only serves to illustrate its flaws. The comrade is no doubt right to state that the left ?wanted to help build a socialist society? (p188). However, the core problem was and is the idealised vision that the Labour left holds of what that society is: redistribution of wealth leading to a formal, not actual, equality. Liberation through the self-activity and elevation of the working class to state power has never featured in a Labourite conception of socialism: all the working class had to do was elect the Labour Party to government and sit back and enjoy the ride.

Programmatic failings are a product of this poverty of vision and theory. Despite proclamations to the contrary, the Labour left is and always has been tied hand and foot to capitalism via the labour bureaucracy; in matters of ideology it was totally dependent on the ?official? communist think tank.

Comrade Davies seems to half acknowledge the fact that the Labour Party of the past was not the defender of the working class which the mythology of significant sections of the Marxist left portrays when she argues: ?It does not do to sound too nostalgic about previous Labour governments? (p186).

The Socialist Alliance does get a brief mention and the comrade does compare the ?enthusiasm? of the left outside of the Labour Party compared with the ?misery and pessimism voiced at Labour Party meetings? (p70). According to comrade Davies, Marxism 2000 was a ?much more attractive proposition? (p158) than a meeting of Labour?s national policy forum.

Not surprisingly this book has been widely reviewed in the left press. Equally predictable is the content of these reviews, which are seen as an opportunity to indulge in much Blair-bashing. The lessons of the failure of Labourism are left untheorised - but perhaps this is not unsurprising either, given that the majority of groups in the SA seem to want to revive the corpse of social democracy. The significance of the Blair project is that it represents the historical close of Labourite socialism and its futile attempts to deliver heaven from on high.

This book contains sufficient damning material against Blairism to recommend itself - whatever your depth of knowledge of New Labour?s inner workings. It also poses serious questions for those in the Socialist Alliance who want to repeat the experiment of Labourism using the SA.

Bill Smith