Andy did a reasonably good job of making a left case for the findings of the National Equality Panel – it’s true that New Labour have implemented policies aimed at the people at the bottom of the heap, and it’s certainly true that some of the inequalities that remain are more intractable than they were in the 1970s. Andy concludes that this government has taken “a sincere but flawed approach to reducing social exclusion” involving “pushing up the wages of the poorest”, but that this was ultimately vitiated by New Labour individualism: the government “failed to acknowledge that equality has to rest upon shared sense of community, and that community is alien to the spirit of free market capitalism”.
It’s always good to be reminded that there is still a Left case to be made for some of this government’s actions, but I don’t think Andy has joined enough of the dots here. While Andy notes that “for the Blairites, poverty reduction was the target not promoting equality per se, as they did not want to reduce the income of top earners”, I’d go further. A system that generates enormous profits for a few thousand individuals is not just part of the context in which poverty reduction takes place; that system is actually producing and reproducing poverty on a huge scale. I also think it’s worth noting that the vein of compulsion mentioned by Andy runs right through Labour policy on social exclusion, however beneficial it may be in practice; SureStart itself began life as a Home Office project, with medium-term crime reduction as its goal. This is certainly a government which doesn’t want to see anyone starving or illiterate, which is all to its credit. But that genuine commitment goes along with an underlying view of the poorest groups as a problem – a potential source of crime and disorder – and an even stronger commitment to policies likely to keep them poor.
This isn’t a very flattering picture of our Labour government – a Labour government! – but there’s very little evidence that either class politics or egalitarianism has any influence on New Labour policy. Assuming that they must be in there somewhere can lead to some strange misreadings. Andy notes:
The proportion of young people going to university increased from 15% to 28% between 1988 and 1992; but while the proportion of young people from the most affluent 20% going to university rose from 20% to 37%, the proportion from the least affluent 20% increased from just 6% to only 7%. The paradox is that increasing access to higher education has disproportionately benefitted the already better off.
Paradox? What paradox? I see no evidence that New Labour’s drive to increase access to higher education was ever intended to benefit all classes equally; that’s certainly not how it’s been implemented. It hasn’t even been sold that way – Neil Kinnock’s Joe Biden moment was an awful long time ago. These days it’s decent hard-working middle-class people we’re supposed to be concerned about – and when politicians use the words “middle class”, they might just be talking about the middle class and not the working class.
I also thought – like Liam – that these findings demanded to be read alongside the bad news from the British Social Attitudes Survey, published the same week. Indeed, I thought the two shed light on each other. Liam:
”only two in five people (39%) now support increased taxes and spending on health and education,the lowest level since 1984 and down from 62% in 1997.” They add that “support for redistribution from the better off to those who are less well off has dropped markedly. Fewer than two in five (38%) now think the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, down from half (51%) in 1994.”
Here’s the punch line: “The shift to the right has occurred mainly among Labour supporters in the wake of the changed stance taken by their party. For example, since 1994, the belief that government should redistribute income has fallen among Labour supporters from two thirds (68%) to half (49%). Among Conservative supporters, in contrast, attitudes have barely shifted at all (from 26% to 24%).”
This to me is a final, sad rebuttal of all those arguments against breaking from Labour to the Left. Yes, millions of working people identify with Labour and with Labour values – but the meaning of “Labour values” can change. Not completely, not evenly and not overnight, certainly, but it still changes. What’s to stop it? After 13 years of a Labour government which regularly proclaimed itself to be the best, fullest, newest and truest expression of Labour values, it would be amazing if the new version hadn’t started to take root. Millions of working people identified with Labour, and New Labour took them with it – and now that New Labour is on the rocks, they’re more available for right- and centre-right politics than ever before. The New Labour project didn’t just set back the prospects for socialism in Britain – would that that had been the worst it did. It wrecked the only viable vehicle for building social democracy, and dispersed and demoralised its natural constituents. A really dreadful piece of political vandalism. Robert:
After the party’s over, my friend
There will be nothing you can put your finger on,
Just a parasol
That goes for any Party.
And yes, I saw it all coming. I wasn’t quite gloomy enough, if anything – I didn’t foresee the possibility that Blair might succeed and then fail. Certainly a future with no Labour Party worth mentioning seems slightly more likely at the moment than one where Labour thrives as an SDP mk. II.
Here, anyway, is a piece I wrote for the eleventh issue of Casablanca in 1994. It was published in the short-running “A gloom of one’s own” series. Most material in Casablanca was either anonymous or pseudonymous, for reasons I was never quite sure about; this one appeared under the name of Brian Parker, for reasons I’m definitely not sure about.
Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?
When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.
Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.
About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.
That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.
Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?
What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.
What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).
It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.
 This refers to the Socialist Movement (and indeed a number of other initiatives, before and since).
 I’m quite pleased to have called that one right (Ms Phillips was still writing for the Observer at this stage).
 I don’t know what this referred to. Don’t bother looking at Bill Clinton.
 At the first Chesterfield Conference, I was deeply impressed by the person who raised a point of order at the Saturday night social. To his credit, the MC refused to take it.