Feels like 1974

I haven’t said a lot about Labour or the Left here lately, mainly because I’ve been saying it all at Dave’s place (another example of the essential superiority of Usenet over blogging). Here’s a slightly edited version of my comments on recent threads.

Dave argues that this government’s left-wing achievements have been localised and timid (Blair worships the god of small things) and that these are vitiated by its failure to break with the neo-liberal agenda set by its Tory predecessors (Tory anti-union laws and Tory privatisation policies stayed in place).

I’d argue that this is praising with faint damns – it’s much worse than that.

It’s true that there are positives, from the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament to the minimum wage, but loyalists tend either to ignore all the negatives or to tacitly assume that they would have been the same under any other government. I study the criminal justice system in my day job, and it’s extraordinary the way things have changed since 1997:

Parenting Orders.
Penalty Notices for Disorder.
Community Support Officers.
Drug testing on arrest.
DNA swabs on arrest.
All offences made arrestable.
Terrorism Act 2000…

That’s just one area where New Labour has gone beyond the Tories. They’ve also taken neo-liberal economic policies further than the Tories ever did – and probably further than the Tories, with a Labour opposition, ever could. Privatisation and competition have reached far further into the public sector under Blair than they did under Thatcher. As for Blair’s foreign policy, it’s hardly any less anti-European than Thatcher’s was – and it’s much more subserviently pro-American than her delusions of imperial grandeur would allow her.

In short, Blair’s presided over a government that stands to the right of the Tories – even Thatcher-era Tories – in almost all areas, and he’s done so with the backing of the Labour movement. It’s quite an achievement. It also puts left-wing Labour loyalists in an impossibly difficult position. If Labour were campaigning for unambiguously right-wing policies, could a Labour leftist still advocate a vote for Labour? Even if they were consistently attacked from the Left by the Lib Dems (or, God help us, the Tories)?

It’s not hard to imagine this happening, sadly. Suppose that your MP retires suddenly, precipitating a by-election. Labour policy at a national level is pro-PFI, pro-ID cards and pro-Iraq war. The Labour candidate is an identikit Blairite – enthusiastically pro-PFI, pro-ID cards and pro-Iraq war. The Green candidate, the Lib Dem and even the Tory are all opposed to Labour policy in these areas, or at least unenthusiastic about it. Someone tells you that, as a socialist, they can’t possibly vote for the Labour candidate – look at their policies on PFI, ID cards and Iraq! What could you tell that person, to persuade them to vote Labour one more time? And, perhaps even more importantly, what would you tell them after the election, when their vote had helped elect another identikit Blairite?

One answer would be that the Labour Party is a potential vehicle for progressive change in a way that the other parties aren’t. (The unions are the obvious example here – I’d still advise a colleague to join the union even if the leadership had repeatedly sold us out.) This being the case, however reactionary our actually existing government might be, a Labour government could still become an instrument for reform if it was dragged back to the Left by pressure from rank-and-file members. The trouble is, in the current state of the party’s democratic machinery, I can’t see any way in which rank-and-file members can actually bring that pressure to bear. One Labour leftist reminded me that “the policies of the Labour party as decided by Conference include renationalisation of the railways, an end to Foundation Hospitals and privatisation of the NHS, an end to PFI, the immediate restoration of the pensions-earnings link, the restoration of trade union rights, direct investment in council housing, etc”. Nevertheless, the Labour government has pursued the opposite of all of these policies with impunity for the last ten years – and done so with the votes of a lot of good Labour MPs, many of whom almost certainly have serious misgivings but don’t want to get in trouble with the Whips. Another answer would be that Labour’s union links mean that the party is the party of the organised working class – but again, I don’t see much evidence of leftward union pressure on the party having any effect.

It seems to me that New Labour is a coherent project which is reactionary, pro-capital and anti-working class in almost every way; that New Labour reforms to party structures make it titanically difficult to impose a change of course from below; and that individual Labour councillors and MPs – however left-wing they may be as individuals – have very little freedom of manoeuvre. All that being the case, voting Labour will almost invariably mean voting for someone who will (for example) stand up to the leadership on Iraq and the NHS but toe the line on Best Value and ASBOs. In other words, in the short term they will both do good and do harm – and in the process they will do long-term harm, by helping to turn the New Labour agenda into the ‘common sense’ of Labour.

Labour governments have always had left-wing opposition, but I believe this is a different kind of situation: we’re not in the seventies any more, with a Labour government offering a few crumbs and the Left demanding the loaf. If the New Labour project is anything like what I’ve described, then New Labour is actually working against the interests of the working class, and those of the Labour Party. Opposing the project some of the time isn’t really good enough if it means you’re assisting it the rest of the time.

My pre-election advice remains what it was two years ago:

Don’t abstain. Don’t be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don’t vote Labour.



  1. Posted 9 April 2007 at 11:20 | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Phil, hardly cheery stuff your assessment. Granted a lot of the membership agree with much of what you say to the point that overly enthusiastic naysayers among them come over looking like they want to lose. Anyway dotchya think a new leader could have a new broom effect: golden opportunity for recasting principle, reinvigorating debate, redefining the vision thing and moving away from the climate of inertia since “never can say goodbye” Blair made his statement of last year? Or am I being naive here? You still in Manchester by the way? I followed the Withington selection via other blogs. Your thoughts?

  2. Posted 9 April 2007 at 12:59 | Permalink | Reply

    What really depresses me about New Labour isn’t the vision thing so much as the structure thing – at the moment the membership is way to the Left of the leadership, and I don’t see that it has any political weight at all. If the next leader re-democratised Conference, got rid of the Policy Forum, etc, there might be some point joining the party – but I don’t see much chance of that happening.

  3. Posted 17 April 2007 at 13:15 | Permalink | Reply

    Interestingly, I have a friend who joined the LibDems in the run-up to the last general election, whose politics are pretty similar to mine. Although obviously I don’t know all the details, the impression I get is that the rank-and-file membership of the LibDems is to the left of the party leadership, and that his declining participation in the local party is precisely because of the kind of disillusionment which you express with the Labour Party. Given the notoriously hideous right-wing views of the Tory membership, I wonder whether a) it is true of (British) political parties that their leadership is more centrist than their membership, and b) if it is true, what the causal mechanism is. I’d guess that a) is true, and that FPTP plays a pretty central part in b). I’m leaving after the leadership election, BTW.

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