What a progressive government will have to do

Ross McKibbin

British politics at the moment seem curiously provisional. The failures of the present government are so gross and obvious that hardly anyone, even its nominal supporters, attempts to defend it ideologically. Yet at the same time hardly anyone believes that Labour will really win the next election, or that it could cope even if it did. There is also a strong sense that the re-ordering of continental Europe, whose outcome is itself indeterminate, has rendered our political life even more provisional: it has obliterated the old landmarks but made it quite unclear where we now go. This collection of essays, occasional pieces and personal and poetic reflections is thus intended to suggest new paths. The Alternative is a product of Samizdat, a journal founded late in 1988 when any alternative seemed rather unlikely. It hoped to create a ‘popular front of the mind’ – a kind of intellectual tactical voting – which would dispute what was widely perceived to be a right-wing ideological hegemony. The contributors to Samizdat, whose founding editor, Ben Pimlott, is one of the editors of this book, were adherents of the Labour Party, the old Alliance, the Communist Party and of no party at all. Many of the contributors still are these things, though some, like Michael Young, have returned to the Labour Party de jure and others de facto. It was a measure both of the successes of the Conservative Party in the Eighties and the apparent decay of the social-democratic and Marxist alternatives that such a popular front was possible.

Since 1988, history has accelerated (or ended, depending on your view) faster than the editors of Samizdat or anyone else could have imagined. What seemed impregnable then has either been swept away or now trembles on the brink. Within Britain the ideological fusion of Marxism, social democracy and ‘left’ liberalism, on the basis of a kind of progressive pluralism, has been publicly admitted, almost celebrated. This book, for example, is very similar in content and style to New Times (1989), a product of Marxism Today. Indeed, Marxism Today’s editor, Martin Jacques, is a contributor to The Alternative. Both see the Eighties as representing a profound historical caesura: an epoch dominated by the October Revolution, classical social-democratic working-class movements, and a Keynesian-Beveridge political economy, has now irretrievably passed. They also share the tendency to encapsulate the transition from one epoch to another in pithy slogans: John Lloyd speaks of ‘End-of-History politics’, for example; other contributors of ‘old thinking’.

In one important respect, The Alternative does differ from New Times. In 1988 the ideological decay of Thatcherism was only incipient; most of the essays in New Times were written in the shadow of a triumphant Conservatism, and were (on the whole) inclined to accept Thatcherism’s estimation of itself. By 1990 it is almost impossible to do this. Thus the editors of The Alternative can write: ‘The increasing signs that the Government is a busted flush render unnecessary yet another polemical indictment of the Conservatives. The Alternative takes the grubby inadequacy of the present administration for granted. Its primary aim is not to condemn the current regime but to expose TINA – whose indisputable sovereignty has lasted so long – as a naked empress.’ There was, they say, always an alternative: simply no means of effecting it. And the alternative was not what the Labour Party purportedly stood for in the early Eighties. Unlike the contributors to New Times, furthermore, most here do assume (openly or tacitly) that the Labour Party is now the only practicable basis for a non-Conservative government: and that assumption is another result of the last two years.

The contributions in this book are genially eclectic and not easy to reduce to simple propositions. It could hardly be otherwise with 30 contributors and a variety of statements and ruminations. Some are personal gripes like John Mortimer’s; others are ferocious:

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