Within just a year of becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair experienced an embarrassing set-back when four members of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance (GA) were elected to positions on the National Executive Committee (NEC), the official governing body of the Labour Party. The result signified a rejection of Blair’s New Labour ideology and political style and a re-assertion of the membership’s desire for greater internal democracy, the retention of traditional social democratic policies and of a labourist political style more akin to the party’s heritage and traditional identity. Despite Blair’s desire to abandon the ideological ‘baggage’ of what he dubbed ‘Old Labour’, such policies, procedures and aesthetics remained popular among the wider party membership.
The formation and success of the Grassroots Alliance, however, while rooted in a defence of these past policies, procedures and styles, marked a significant change in the strategies of the Labour Left. While in the eighties it had been factionally dogmatic, ideologically iconoclastic and hostile to what they considered the old-fashioned ‘reformism’ of labour’s post-war heritage, the Labour Left now adopted a political strategy of broad alliances, a defence of post-war social democracy, and a rhetorical adoption of traditional labourism. Their focus now was to ‘Keep the Party Labour’.
In this paper I will explore the history of the Labour Left on the party’s NEC, frequently a site of factional conflict, before focusing on the GA’s foundation, success and later struggles against the Blair leadership. Here I will argue that the GA constitutes an illuminating case study of the Labour Left’s changing political strategy as a marginalised force during its so-called ‘Wilderness Years’ in the 1990s and 2000s. Here I will demonstrate how the GA was an expression of receding ideological and political horizons, and how New Labour’s constitutional and political reforms laid the seeds for the success of its opponents.
Alfie Steer is a first-year DPhil student at the University of Oxford specialising in the history of the Labour Left and wider British Left since the 1980s. His proposed thesis is entitled: ‘A Sealed Tomb’: A History of the Labour Left’s ‘Wilderness Years’, 1988-2015.
All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking in advance is required.