One of the most important political developments of the last ten years has been the abject failure of the Labour Left. Though never remarked upon, the absence of a strong and coherent left-wing voice has been of great moment. Ever since its birth, the Labour movement has been defined as much by a romantic tradition of eloquent rebels as by its leaders; think of Aneurin Bevan and Attlee, or Michael Foot and Harold Wilson. Foot and Bevan were incomparable: masters of oratory, capable of inspiring mass emotion or destroying an enemy with a phrase.
Both political tragedies were on display when the Commons was recalled to debate Iraq on Tuesday. A ragged 53 Labour rebels voted against the government motion, and there was a handful of powerful speeches, by Galloway, Tam Dalyell and others. But most were barely articulate, in some cases bordering on half-witted. There was no sense of will. The organisational drive and ruthlessness which were such urgent features of the Left under previous Labour governments has been appropriated by No. 10. This is a mysterious process which cries out for more research. New Labour has been far more unscrupulous than any previous government about using the powers of the Prime Minister to assert dominance. Its leading figures gained a clear-sighted, Marxist understanding of power in the desperate struggles of the 1970s. Though they have since forgotten much of the associated communist dogma, they have retained the methodology. It was all on display last week: the careful use of selective information (the Evening Standard hoardings screamed all day 'Saddam's Nuclear Secrets Revealed' - closer inspection showed that the only secret was that there were no nuclear secrets); the marginalisation or smearing of political opponents, the masterful use where necessary of House of Commons procedure to suppress debate. The old-fashioned Labour Left, by contrast, has forgotten everything that once made it such a spectacular, if sinister, force.
The same observation applies to the Tories. They no longer know how to oppose, and last week's debate demonstrated the problem. The image of a puce Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, jabbing his hand at the jeering Conservative benches and furiously stating 'We are only asking the questions that the official opposition have failed to ask'