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Gary Younge
Twitches on the left

As a socialist society affiliated to the Labour party, members of the SHA, know this only too well. Some supporters of this eclectic group of party members and fellow-travellers were lobbying for a national health service long before such an institution was believed politically credible or economically possible.

On Thursday the rhythm of the meeting was broken by a question from the invited speaker. "I haven't seen the news today, does anyone know what happened with the London mayor?" "Ken's on the list," says someone, bringing claps and a collective beam of approval from most in the room.

It says something about the state of the Labour left that the fact that their favoured candidate is allowed to stand for an election within their own party is now regarded as a victory. For 18 years they were the opposition to the opposition. Reviled as a band of malcontents and troublemakers, the press and the party leadership insisted it was their posturing and idealism which kept Labour out of power.

Just over a decade of expulsions, policy shifts, and organisational changes within the party have rendered them a small and demoralised bunch. Many have left in protest or disgust, although their fate has hardly been encouraging. Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour party won less than 1% in the European elections earlier this year: less than the far-right British National party.

Those who stay do so in a spirit of almost bewildered defiance. "Where else is there to go?" asks one London member wearing a "Ken for mayor" badge. "You can either give up and go home or join something like the Socialist Workers party. I don't want to do either of those so what's left? You just stay and fight."

"Stay and defend" would be more accurate. Defend clause four; defend unilateralism; defend student grants; defend decent pensions. Defend, fight, lose; defend, fight, lose. It's a vicious cycle of defeat at the hands of their own side that fills you with a mixture of admiration and puzzlement that anyone would tough it out for so long. "We did get into a very defensive mind-set," said one leftwing Labour MP. "We were so busy running around trying to defend everything that we left the thinking to those outside the party. During the 80s the Labour movement went from not thinking out loud for fear of being misinterpreted, to not thinking at all." Some of this pain was self-inflicted. A mixture of sectarianism and grandstanding during the 80s made it seem, at times, as though some would have rather claimed a moral victory than an electoral one. Occasionally, it was not clear whether they understood that their prime enemy was not supposed to be Labour but the Tories. A handful of councils such as Liverpool did not simply make bad headlines; they made bad policies for those who had elected them.

But by the late 80s the party leadership had elevated attacks on the left to a religion. For Labour to win, went the logic, the Labour left first had to lose. And, when the party finally did win, the formula had to shift only slightly for the left's pariah status to become permanent. For Labour to keep hold of power, it is now asserted, the Labour left have to kept away from power.

The trouble with these mantras is that they are ill-informed as they relate to Livingstone and outdated when applied to today's Labour left. For when Blair recites, almost hypnotically, "There will be no return to the Labour party of the early 80s," as his excuse for opposing Livingstone he forgets one vital fact. Livingstone won. Livingstone was winning at one of the most hostile times for Labour this century, when the national party was floundering. What is more, if Labour picked him tomorrow he would romp home again.

This is why his candidacy presents such a problem for New Labour; his very presence challenges the Blairite electoral orthodoxy that only a coalition of middle England and traditional Labour vying for the political centre is capable of winning an election. "Livingstone represents a different route to modernisation of the Labour party," says Hilary Wainwright, the editor of leftwing magazine Red Pepper. "He has shown that it is possible to win elections by bringing together very different electoral forces to those that elected New Labour."

Moreover, when Blair raises the spectre of a return to the early 80s he makes the same mistake the Tories made when trying to discredit him at the last election - he fails to update his rhetoric to combat a reformed opponent. He is attacking the left of the early 80s while the left of the late 90s is starting to make serious headway within the party.

The Labour left of today is far less dominated by Trotskyist sects than it was in the early 80s and hence far less sectarian and dogmatic. Like the broader party, a succession of defeats has forced them to be more strategically sophisticated and has led to the building of some broad-based alliances. Concern over internal party democracy and an apparent abandonment of basic Labour principles has brought together such disparate figures as Roy Hattersley and Dennis Skinner in opposition to the Labour leadership. This has led to some spectacular achievements at party conference in recent years when the rank and file of the party have consistently signalled their discontent at both the party's rightward drift and organisational centralism by voting for the left.

"Most people join the Labour party to change it in some way," said one leftwing MP. "So there are those on the right and the left who feel they have lost the right to influence policy and that their party is being taken away from them."

In 1997 Livingstone beat Mandelson to a place on the national executive committee. Last year the left humiliated the leadership by electing four out of the six members of the Grassroots Alliance to the NEC including Liz Davies, who had been removed as a parliamentary candidate before the last election. This year they elected three. "I voted for them," said one member of the SHA. "I don't know that I'd say I was on the left but I just hate the centralising that is going on within the party. I didn't necessarily agree with them, I just wanted an independent voice."

Herein lies the left's main appeal - a call to defend the party's historical purpose and democratic culture which resonates beyond those who have made clashing with the leadership their life's work. And herein lies Blair's biggest mistake in dealing with them to date.

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