The Stepney, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch areas of East London have something of a history of intervention by charismatic demagogues linked indissolubly to a totalitarian and antisemitic fringe that prefers inflammatory street-corner agitation to democratic politics. One such figure would be recalled from time to time by my great-aunt, who was there on 4 October 1936, at what came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street, to oppose him. His name was Oswald Mosley, and he was reputedly repelled by 100,000 counter-demonstrators as he attempted to lead his British Union of Fascists through the area. In fact, left-wing mythology has it wrong: the first results of the encounter were a boost to Fascist membership and campaigning, and an increase in thuggery (the so-called 'Mile End Pogrom', in which Jews and their properties were attacked, took place just a week later). The destruction of Mosleyism as even a latent force in British politics came over the next three years, as the party system proved resilient both to his appeal and, by good fortune rather than foresight, to the economic crises of the 1930s. The notion that a totalitarian movement could be transplanted in this way and under such a figure became increasingly incredible, while fissures in the movement continually highlighted the BUF's bigoted and intimidatory character.
It's worth bearing history in mind when considering the victory of the Respect 'Coalition' in Bethnal Green last night. This organisation is not adequately described, as the BBC has it, as an anti-war party, any more than the British National Party - which also received a disturbingly high vote in areas of racial tension - is properly (or at least adequately) characterised as, say, an anti-European party. Both organisations are contemptuous of parliamentary democracy. They share almost identical views of the Iraq War with Jean-Marie Le Pen and Joerg Haider. Galloway's victory is not an idiosyncratic, let alone heroic, individual campaign (as the BBC's metaphorical, and therefore absurdly affectionate, headline 'Street-fighting man' implies): it is a force in British politics against which civilised people in all parties need to take the ideological offensive from an early stage. In the meantime, while I can see no levity in the issue, I can at least congratulate Jeremy Paxman for an apt interview with the victorious candidate just after 6.00 this morning. Do see it - rather than just read it - if you haven't already. It says implicitly and more eloquently than I can what the Galloway phenomenon is about.
The election overall has been a bad one for liberalism in its broadest sense. In individual constituencies, there is much more to regret than to welcome. I am particularly sorry that the former minister Barbara Roche lost Hornsey and Wood Green to a huge swing to the Liberal Democrats. (Mrs Roche was, I am reliably told, a constituency MP of extreme dedication, who lost the votes of Labour supporters over Iraq.) With a political instinct for serial misjudgement, I overestimated the extent to which the Liberal Democrats would make inroads in this election, having previously written that their minimum realistic expectation was 70-80 seats. I am of course not sorry at all about this (and incredulous at the Lib Dems' political ineptitude in announcing in advance their 'decapitation strategy' of targeting senior Conservatives - whose constituents generally do not like being told that they are actors in a drama planned by party strategists in London). But I am sorry that the Lib Dems made advances in urban seats that Labour will have difficulty defending next time. I am glad, however, that Labour regained, as it ought to have done, Leicester South from the Lib Dems (I grew up there, and canvassed for Labour in the 1979 election). I am pleased that Jack Straw fended off an unscrupulous campaign against him by Islamist pressure groups. I am pleased that Tony Blair increased his personal majority despite the Independent candidature of a man who has suffered tragedy but not injustice, and whose supporters appear to have overestimated his prospects on the basis of no tangible evidence. Among former comrades of mine, I am glad to see the return of Phil Woolas, David Miliband and John Mann.
Overall, I am afraid there is no escaping the conclusion that Tony Blair irrevocably damaged his political standing by committing troops to the Iraq war; had the war not taken place, we can reasonably assume that he would have enjoyed a substantial - and given its unprecedented character in Labour politics - triumphant third election victory. Many, probably almost all, Labour supporters would regard this as an indictment of the PM. I regard it as a measure of the man's political stature. Knowing that the character of the threats we face has changed since 9/11 - indeed since long before that - Blair chose to ally with a nominally conservative US administration in a war that needed to be fought, when the policy of containment of Saddam Hussein had manifestly failed, and the toleration of autocratic states in the region was an affront to our values and a gathering storm over our security.
Labour's majority is now insufficient to assure the passage of necessary reform in public services and the pursuit of liberal-democratic internationalism in foreign policy. The polarising effect of Iraq has encouraged the emergence of a culture of dissent among new Labour MPs, who make a virtue of having opposed in their campaigns the finest act in foreign policy - one that epitomises humanitarian and progressive concerns - of any British Government since Attlee and Bevin. My apprehension on this point caused me to switch my vote from a new Labour candidate who declared in advance her intention of opposing the foreign policies of the Government to a Conservative candidate who I was confident would support them (and who also holds far more liberal views on social issues than were expressed in the lamentable and unpleasant national Conservative campaign). To the extent, if any, that anyone locally will have noticed my argument, it certainly won't have helped the candidate I endorsed, who lost by a few hundred votes.
A few weeks ago I wrote of my intention to rejoin the Labour Party 17 years after I had allowed my membership to lapse. In fact I held back my application at the last minute, fearing that what has actually happened would happen, namely that the sitting MP in my constituency (who decided not to run again) would be replaced by an anti-Blair candidate congenial to the mood of Labour activists, who I perceive are no longer prepared to give the PM the benefit of their doubts. I am sorry that the Labour majority nationally has been cut so far, but not sorry that I opposed the election of an obstructionist Labour candidate. It is precisely because I wish the parliamentary influence of such people to be minimised that I chose to support a candidate far more in tune with the principles of New Labour.
As things stand, my reading of the political outlook is that the prospects for liberalism at home and in foreign policy have been damaged, and that the Labour Party (which I support as the only plausible vehicle for left-wing politics in this country, but will remain outside) will retrace its uneven progress in that direction. As PM within two years, Gordon Brown will in my expectation show his differences from Blair in a lack of leadership instinct and an unwillingness to revise his views in the light of experience. He will be the British equivalent of the Canadian PM, and former Finance Minister, Paul Martin. Because liberalism, which stresses costs and trade-offs, always loses in intuitive appeal to populism, it is a position that constantly needs advancing in public debate and the cultivation of support. My own political activity, for what it's worth, will be devoted to expounding that case, and the need continually to form alliances across movement, party and civil society to advance liberal values domestically and democratic change abroad.
In the early days of the Federal Republic of Germany, built upon the wreckage of a regime of unmitigated barbarism, an informal understanding emerged between a conservative cause that had definitively broken with its traditions of authoritarianism and nationalism, and a social democratic party that understood the nature of Soviet totalitarianism and was determined to oppose it. The understanding was known as 'Militant Democracy'; it is a concept worth resurrecting in our age, to apply to those who broadly support the ideological alliance of Tony Blair and President Bush. I shall do what I can in my writings to advance it, from a left-wing standpoint. In order to meet a deadline for a short book expounding these themes, I shall be suspending the blog for the next month, but will return.