It's still my party right or wrong

Labour remains our best hope of achieving an equal society

Last Friday evening I met, for the first time in 20 years, a man who - when we knew each other well - was the distinguished headmaster of a north of England comprehensive school. No sooner had we shaken hands than he told me that he had voted Labour in every general election since the second world war.

I have learned from recent hard experience that, these days, protestations of previous loyalty almost all lead to announcements of imminent desertion. So he did not need to say that, thanks to Alastair Campbell's reference to "bog standard comprehensives", he would never vote Labour again. Nevertheless, he did. He then suppressed mild surprise that I continued to support a party that had abandoned so many of the principles that had attracted us both to it 50 years ago.

Nothing he said made me even consider changing my allegiance. But it did cause me to wonder if I clung to the party of my youthful passion for reasons that have become rationally indefensible. After all, I had not even considered any of the alternatives since I had been forced to stand as Conservative candidate in the Sheffield City Grammar School first-form mock election in 1945. And then, I had argued the Tory case so badly that I lost my notional deposit. So I felt a sudden urge to ask the heretical question. Am I still what I would once call "a Labour man" because of sentiment, the comfort that comes from imagined familiarity, or because the Tories are so much worse? Whatever happened to glad confident morning?

Sentiment is certainly part of the explanation. I was brought up in the Labour party and long before I had even heard of TH Green or RH Tawney I knew that I was part of a "movement" that struggled to build a more equal society. The loyalty came first and the ideology came afterwards.

I felt no embarrassment about that. Families, regiments and countries hang together in difficult times because their members are united by common memories. If I had no better reason for hoping for a Labour victory on June 7, I would want Tony Blair back in Downing Street because he leads my tribe. I know the prime minister despises tribal politics even though they secure his vote among the neglected urban poor. I do not.

Those feelings make the other tribes my natural enemies. But I'm sufficiently objective to realise that they are sometimes not as absolutely ghastly as we make out. But at the moment the Tory party is even worse than Labour propaganda suggests. Even with Jack Straw replicating Michael Howard's legal "reforms" and David Blunkett breaking his promise to extend comprehensive education, the ideological gulf between the parties is vast. Labour has been dragged to the right. But it is the Tories who did the dragging. It is worth getting Tony Blair in just to keep William Hague out.

But for people like me, the old contemptibles of egalitarian socialism, there has to be a positive reason for our continued support of Labour. It exists. However, it is only marginally related to the record of the past four years - even allowing for the minimum wage, the social chapter and new nursery schools. And, if rumours of renewed immobilism prove correct, it will be equally unconnected to this year's manifesto.

I remain unequivocally Labour in the hope that one day the party will reclaim its destiny for, despite all its pathetic timidity and its current admiration for the values of the meretricious society, it remains the best prospect of building a new society - one day. Blairism is a temporary phenomenon. Democratic socialism abides. There is still a chance that one day Labour will be the party that it would have been had John Smith lived and the government it might have become had Neil Kinnock won in 1992.

To sacrifice that chance would be no different from the craven capitulation of the Gang of Four 20 years ago. They flinched from the fight to save Labour from the wildest shores of politics. Those of us who stayed and fought won. We now have to open a second front against a different sort of infiltration. I was not driven out by the militants and I do not propose either to leave or sit on my hands because a different sort of cuckoo has invaded our nest.

A political party - however strong the attraction of its name and idea - is never more than an organisation for putting an idea into practice. I leant that long ago when the excitement of red rosettes and noisy public meetings was replaced by the conviction that equality is the hallmark of a good society. Labour remains the best hope of keeping that idea alive. The prospect may be remote. But I am a long way from desperation and despair. As long as we battle on, the egalitarians have not lost. Victory on June 7 ought to be the beginning, not the end, of socialism's campaign.

Roy Hattersley
Monday May 7, 2001