The answer lies in yesterday

Call me insufferably pretentious, but when I think of the Labour Party I can’t help thinking of the opening of Chtcheglov’s 1953 Formulary for a new urbanism. (Bear with me, there’s some good stuff further down.)

We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the roadside hoardings, the latest state of humour and poetry:

Showerbath of the Patriarchs
Meat Cutting Machines
Notre Dame Zoo
Sports Pharmacy
Martyrs Provisions
Translucent Concrete
Golden Touch Sawmill
Centre for Functional Recuperation
Saint Anne Ambulance
Café Fifth Avenue
Prolonged Volunteers Street
Family Boarding House in the Garden
Hotel of Strangers
Wild Street

And the swimming pool on the Street of Little Girls. And the police station on Rendezvous Street. The medical-surgical clinic and the free placement centre on the Quai des Orfèvres. The artificial flowers on Sun Street. The Castle Cellars Hotel, the Ocean Bar and the Coming and Going Café. The Hotel of the Epoch.

And the strange statue of Dr. Philippe Pinel, benefactor of the insane, in the last evenings of summer. Exploring Paris.

And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.

The hacienda must be built.

I do like ‘Golden Touch Sawmill’; it’s not quite ‘Lucky Smells‘, but this was (a) 1953 and (b) reality. But anyway:

Maintenant c’est joué. L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n’existe pas. Il faut construire l’hacienda.

Call me insufferably pretentious, but where the Labour Party’s concerned that for me just about says it: maintenant c’est joué. The Labour Party under Kinnock and Smith was still, in some significant and useful respects, the same organisation that it was under Wilson and Gaitskell and Attlee. When radicals like me argued against Labour there was always an unanswerable counter-argument: this is the Labour Party; this is the party of the organised working class in Britain. It’s a big argument, and it got a lot of use. Labour leftists used the Argument to justify staying in the party; entryists used it to justify burrowing away within the party rather than building their own organisations; even Socialist Workers used it, to justify supporting Labour ‘critically’ (or ‘without illusions’ or ‘go on, just once more’ or whatever it was).

Maintenant c’est joué. Firstly, the Labour Party – whatever else it is these days – is not the party of the organised working class. Secondly, the New Labour clique (who are serious about power) have taken steps to prevent it ever becoming that party again. Thirdly, the frankly spectacular New Labour approach to mobilisation, combined with a massive and broadly welcome disaffection with Labour as a party, have left the Labour Party in so weak a state that it wouldn’t be much use to the organised working class, even if they turned up tomorrow asking for their party back. If we want a party of the Left, we’ll have to build it. The actually-existing Labour Party is a distraction at best.

I’ve thought like this for a while, but a debate I was in recently brought home to me again the enduring weight of the Labour Party on the Left – and the increasing deadness of that weight. In a comments thread on Dave‘s excellent blog, I recently got involved in an argument with a Labour Party member. It was something of a dialogue of the deaf; I never really got an answer either to the question “why are you in the Labour Party?” or to “why do you think you’re on the Left?”, and I got the impression my interlocutor’s silence wasn’t down to inadvertence or rudeness. Rather, it seemed that the two questions were at once inseparable and unanswerable:

of course I’m in the Labour Party, I’m on the Left!
of course I’m on the Left, I’m in the Labour Party!

It’s an increasingly meaningless and arbitrary association of ideas, I’d argue, and one which badly needs to be challenged.

Anyway, here’s my half of the conversation (with light edits):

I’m slightly depressed, but mostly surprised, to see someone talking about ‘us’ being in power. Mind you, I didn’t really feel that the Labour Party was in power under Callaghan and Healey (for verily, I am an old fart and do remember the last time Labour won elections).

Parties change, and the Labour Party’s changed more than most. I voted Labour all through the Foot, Kinnock and Smith years; right now I’m actively opposed to Labour and doubt I’ll ever vote for them again.

I used to vote Labour, because I believed in what I thought to be Labour policies and I thought that the Labour leadership in government, kept under pressure by the Labour Party in the country, would implement some of those policies. All that’s gone now. The policies of the leadership are far to the right of anything that has ever gone out under the name of Labour before, even under Ramsay MacDonald. The mood of the party in the country is better, but it’s still more right-wing (and more leadership-friendly) than anything I remember even from the Kinnock/Smith period. In any case, the leadership has systematically dismantled all the structures which enabled the party to hold it to account, and now openly claims the right to make Labour policy on the hoof.

New Labour doesn’t mean socialism, or social democracy, or even the kind of timid while-resources-permit reformism the party had been reduced to by John Smith’s time. New Labour means corporate capitalism, disciplined communities and a tight hold on the reins of power. So, for as long as Labour means New Labour, Labour is not us.

The long-term trouble with Labour is that if you back away from ‘extreme’ left-wing policies for long enough, you end up with something that nobody will actually vote for, because there’s nothing really there. Blair understood this: he offered a break from the Labour leadership’s long history of apology and evasion, all those years of left-wing but not far-left, left-wing but responsible, left-wing but patriotic

Blair isn’t left-wing at all: that’s precisely his strength. He came to power promising something radically different from the previous fifty years of Labour policy, and he’s delivered it in spades. I distrusted him from the off, but he’s gone beyond even my expectations. (Privatisation of the Health Service, by a Labour government – I wouldn’t have believed it even five years ago.)

What I don’t understand is where Labour Party members actually stand these days: setting aside group loyalties, what is it they believe in which the Labour Party can deliver, and only the Labour Party?

[in response to a comment that this is a ‘centre-right’ country]

You can’t say there was massive popular support for New Labour in 1997. Nothing, short of a major split in the party, was going to stop the Tories losing to Labour in 1997. John Smith would have won easily if he’d lived. (Perhaps he wouldn’t have had quite so many ex-Tory votes or quite such a huge majority, but neither of those is necessarily a good thing.)

You can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour since 1997. Guess which election had a larger number of Labour votes – 1979 or 2005?

And you certainly can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour policies. Who knew in 1997 that they were voting for ASBOs and Neighbourhood Wardens? Who knew in 2001 that they were voting for an appointed House of Lords and an invasion of Iraq? Who knew in 2005 that they were voting for NHS privatisation and compulsory ID cards?

I don’t think this is a right-wing country. I do think that submission to authority runs very deep in British society, though: there are a lot of people who want to feel they’re being led by a strong leader, someone who knows what’s best and may even punish them for their own good. And what better proof of strength could a leader have than taking on his or her own party?

I think this last, tangential point may have been the most important one. You could argue that the Blairites haven’t done anything qualitatively new; they’ve simply improved and enhanced a self-destruct mechanism which was built into the Labour Party all along. I’m referring to the eternally recurring confrontation between the Moderate Leader and the Extremist Agitators. Labour is a left-wing party, but it’s not really acceptable to bring a party of the Left inside the institutional tent – at least, not until the leader has proved his party’s moderation by facing down the extremists at the grass roots. Blair has only done what Kinnock and Gaitskell did before him, only at a higher level.

The odd thing is that this anti-democratic manoeuvre – a trial of strength, a proof of mastery by leader over party – seems to have a definite emotional appeal. My interlocutor on Dave’s blog repeatedly harked back to the glory days of Kinnock’s leadership; it turned out that the pinnacle of Kinnock’s achievement, in this person’s eyes, was his confrontation with the Mils.

Shortly after the debate on Dave’s blog had petered out, I started reading Robert Skidelsky’s ghastly biography of Oswald Mosley. (Quite interesting in many ways, I have to say, and I’m sure there’ll be more mosleyblogging in the days to come. Still ghastly, though.) Here’s an excerpt from the original Introduction:

From 1961 onwards I was actively involved in the Labour Party, both at the university level and in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism. It was Hugh Gaitskell’s courage, in face of the bitterest denunciations from his own party, in fighting for what he believed to be right, that really attracted me to Labour politics at the time. To be drawn into politics by the personality of a leader may seem immature. Yet there is a sound reason for it. On the quality of the leadership depends the possibility of action. This truth has never, it seems to me, been adequately grasped by social democratic parties. They spend their lives talking about the world to come; yet saddle themselves for the most part with leaders who are all too obviously content with the world as it is: hence the literature of ‘betrayal’ which pours out in unceasing flood from social democratic pens. Early on in my reading about Mosley I was struck by the dedication of John Strachey’s book Revolution by Reason (1925): ‘To O.M. who may some day do the things of which we dream’. This exactly parallelled my own feelings about Gaitskell, though not about his successor.

(Sorry, Harold.)

What Skidelsky says here, among other things, is that he was drawn to the Labour Party because the leader was at odds with the party. In effect, his loyalty wasn’t to the party but to the leader, and the leader’s faction – since, after all, the quality of the leadership determines the possibility of action.

Politics as the cult of the leader – and the cult of action (a favourite Mosley word). It’s a way of thinking that hollows out the party, and ultimately the government; democracy doesn’t really come into it, either ideologically or structurally. In this perspective the tragedy of the Labour Party is that, although the movement from which it grew represented a strong and coherent challenge to this mentality, the structure of the party itself created opportunities and incentives for new leaders to assert and impose themselves – progressively weakening the party’s democratic values as they did so. The rot set in a long time ago, in other words; by 1997 I suspect it had already gone too far to reverse.

L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas.

Update 25th July: Today’s dose of Skidelsky fortuitously brought me to this passage:

Although officially the struggle was between socialism and capitalism, Labour and Tory, Mosley interpreted it in personal terms: himself versus the Chamberlains and the press-lords.

(On the same page Skidelsky writes: “With the local Labour newspaper, the Town Crier, and its editor, W.J. Chamberlain, Mosley established excellent relations (fortified by substantial subsidies).” Not all press-lords, then – or all Chamberlains. But anyway…)

This personalisation of the conflict heightened its drama and bound working-class voters to Mosley (and through him to the Labour Party) in a way which more orthodox methods would never have done (or at least so quickly); at the same time it left something of a bitter taste in the mouths of some of the eclipsed, plodding, local Labour officials. … Mosley’s fault to these Labour activists was that he identified the Labour movement with himself, rather than the other way round.

It looks as if one reason why Oswald Mosley never made it as a Labour politician was simply that he was ahead of his time.



  1. Rob Jubb
    Posted 25 July 2006 at 17:40 | Permalink | Reply

    You need to make up your mind whether you think that New Labour is a departure from previous patterns of leader-membership relations in the Labour party, or a continuation of them. If Blair really has irreversibly doomed the party as a progressive vehicle, which he may have done for all I know, it makes it hard to see how this tendency to rip the party’s policies into areas which its members are increasingly concerned by as a kind of show of strength could have been present throughout the party’s history, since it seems that the party could have hardly ever been a progressive vehicle if such a tendency was always present.

    A more plausible story about how the Labour party ended up as it has, I think, would probably lay rather more focus on changes in the role of unions, which seem to me to have provided a kind of form of checks and balances on the leadership of the party in earlier periods as well as an enormous pool of natural Labour voters. In a way, Blair is the product of the disappearance of the organised manual working class. The path of least resistance beckoned for people who weren’t always entirely sure what it was the party, let alone they, stood for in the absence of a set of concerns related to the obvious interests of trades union members.

  2. Phil
    Posted 25 July 2006 at 22:19 | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t think it’s one or the other: the results of the Blairite takeover and break with ‘Old Labour’ are qualitatively new, but that the process itself is very similar to previous confrontations between leadership and membership.

    Yes, the passing of the unions as a power in the land has a lot to do with these developments, but I don’t think it’s an independent variable. Your ‘path of least resistance’ line seems to suggest that the disappearance of the organised manual working class just happened, whereupon the next generation of Labour leaders looked around and said “right, now they’re gone, what shall we do to get votes?” I don’t agree with either part of that picture. On one hand, what the unions went through under Thatcher wasn’t decline, it was defeat – and it’s a defeat which New Labour, in almost all respects, warmly endorsed. On the other, I think New Labour’s opportunism can be greatly overestimated. Yes, they trim to fit tomorrow’s headlines, but they only trim one way: authoritarian populism isn’t the only variety, after all.

    My own feeling is that the idea of giving up on politics and leaving everything to a strong leader has a very deep appeal – and that leaders who play to this appeal can get a lot out of it, but at the cost of corroding the democratic structures they work in. It’s a pessimistic vision – I’ve never really got over Cloud Atlas

  3. Rob Jubb
    Posted 26 July 2006 at 13:02 | Permalink | Reply

    “I don’t think it’s one or the other: the results of the Blairite takeover and break with ‘Old Labour’ are qualitatively new, but that the process itself is very similar to previous confrontations between leadership and membership.”

    Maybe it is the same process, but then the process itself can’t be the only relevant factor, since the same process repeated under the same conditions will surely tend to produce the same set of results. Yet the results clearly are different, so something else must have changed. I’d argue that that something else is the virtual disappearance of the organised manual working class.

    Neither would I argue that that disappearance is purely a product of Thatcherism. I think that union membership was already declining in the 1970s, and also shifting, from being primarily made up of men working in industry, towards the situation as it is now, with union members primarily being various sorts of clerical and administrative public sector employees. The reason Thatcher could confront and beat the unions was that they were weaker than they had been. New Labour has endorsed the Thatcherite position on unions, which of course it shouldn’t have, but to think that by not doing so it would have turned back the clock to a time of mass union membership outside the public sector is dubious.

    I’m sure that you’re aware that I share your repugnance of Blair and his coterie’s authoritarian populism, and ‘the path of least resistance’ doesn’t really capture the offence that ought to be attached to it, but it is a reaction to a changed set of circumstances, many of which were not really plausibly within any government’s control. That, of course, doesn’t mean it was an appropriate reaction.

  4. Phil
    Posted 28 July 2006 at 15:06 | Permalink | Reply

    the process itself can’t be the only relevant factor, since the same process repeated under the same conditions will surely tend to produce the same set of results.

    Doesn’t this suggest that it’s impossible to chop down a tree? Even if (impossibly) nothing had materially changed in society between Wilson and Blair, the Labour Party would still have been weakened from within by the effects of the Callaghan/Foot/Kinnock years.

    Yes, there have been big changes since the seventies, but I don’t think there was anything remotely inevitable about the way the Thatcher government dealt with them. I remember the seventies – vaguely – and I’d single out three major changes which can be traced back to the Thatcher years. Firstly, a basic context of tripartite economic interventionism was taken for granted by Right as well as Left; the details were disputed, but nobody seriously denied that the government had a role in economic planning, or that the unions had a right to be heard. Secondly, there was a lot more state-owned industry than there is now; thirdly, there was a lot more industry full stop. I believe that both the privatisation of state firms and the rundown of British manufacturing industry were informed by a partisan political agenda; I don’t say that Thatcher and Keith Joseph were sitting around rubbing their hands and drinking to the demise of the Labour vote, but I do think that the fact that certain policies tended to favour bankers and disadvantage factory workers was taken into account. And it is pretty clear that Thatcher personally hated the unions, and believed that Management should as far as possible have the Right to Manage.

    I don’t think the whole of the last thirty years is a story of bad Prime Ministers – that would be an inverted version of the mentality I’m criticising. But I do think that a lot of Blair’s political choices have at least been informed by a sense that it’s a good idea to give the labour movement what it doesn’t want – and that a lot of his success has derived from a widespread hankering after strong leadership.

  5. Rob Jubb
    Posted 30 July 2006 at 10:32 | Permalink | Reply

    The holes in the tree are an objective change in the conditions of society! They have nothing to do with the processes associated with hitting said tree with an axe!Nothing I tell you! To think so is to be blinded to the reality of our world-historical situation, trapped with the totality of the false consciousness of axes and bourgeois traditions of metaphysics! (sorry).

    Actually, I think I mostly agree with you about this. I suppose the point of disagreement probably centres on this:

    “Even if (impossibly) nothing had materially changed in society between Wilson and Blair, the Labour Party would still have been weakened from within by the effects of the Callaghan/Foot/Kinnock years.”

    I think I want to place more stress on the various social changes, many of which were wholly outside of the Labour party’s control, which created some of the problems which faced it during the seventies and eighties. Patterns of voting were already changing by the seventies, the mass membership party was declining, memories of the twenties and thirties were fading and so on.

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