Business, Community, Discipline: the Strange Triumph of New Labour
Written 12th May 1997; not published
I didn’t vote Labour on May 1st. At my first general election in 1979 I voted Liberal, an early tactical voter in Conservative Croydon South. I found out afterwards that the Labour candidate had lost his deposit: every vote did count after all. Ever since then I’d voted Labour at every opportunity.
But not this time, and probably never again. Of course, nobody on the Left has been enthusiastic about the Labour Party for some years. Personally I’d been alarmed by the way the party was going ever since Kinnock’s leadership – one long series of retreats before the supposed power of the Right, as ineffectual as it was inglorious. But New Labour is something else entirely. The party leadership’s refusal to give even token support to strikers; their determination to ingratiate the party with big business; their approval of punitive and divisive social policies; their frankly Stalinist approach to the party’s membership – all these were qualitatively new features of the party under Blair and Mandelson, and all of them would have made it very difficult for me to give the party my vote.
I knew for certain that I wasn’t going to vote Labour a few days into the election campaign. I was listening to the 6.00 news on the radio. The Liberal Democrats had launched their manifesto: a good, worthy, unambitious programme of reform, with spending pledges to be funded by raising the top rate of income tax to 50p and the basic rate to 24p (rates lower than those in force during Thatcher’s first term). Gordon Brown’s response was, perhaps, predictable: using the voice of fiscal rectitude – an undertaker’s drone – he denounced the Liberal Democrats’ ‘irresponsible tax plans’. A couple of minutes later, up popped Tony Blair himself, explaining in gleeful tones that while the Scottish electorate might vote for a parliament with tax-raising powers, if Labour controlled the parliament they wouldn’t use them. Under Labour nobody was going to pay any more income tax, no matter what.
At this point my despair at hearing Gordon Brown take over, verbatim, a classic Tory argument against the Left turned into anger. Swearing at the radio isn’t big or clever, and I’ll spare you the details. At that moment, though, I felt that I’d caught a glimpse of something Tony Blair really believes in, something New Labour really stands for; and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Exhibits B and C followed soon after, while I was trying to make up my mind between the Liberal Democrats and the Socialist Labour Party (no Green candidate, unfortunately). Tony Blair told a newspaper that he believed in redistribution, “but not in the sense of taking a few quid from one group of people and giving it to people on benefit”; he went on to talk vaguely about ‘creating opportunity’. Blair is in favour of redistribution, in other words, but against taking anything away from anybody; a remarkable logical contortion, reminiscent of new Labour MP Chris Pond’s statement that “you can’t solve the problem of poverty by throwing money at it”. A few days later, Blair announced – though ‘pledged’ now seems to be the verb of choice – that the proceeds from the Wednesday Lottery would go into general public spending rather than being earmarked for charities, the arts et al.
At one level the connection between the two is obvious, and it was drawn by the Tories immediately – much good it did them. It’s the deeper connection that concerns me. A flat-rate tax, like the Poll Tax, is inherently regressive. You could make a flat-rate tax still more unjust by contriving for people with higher incomes to avoid paying it altogether, while exhorting the worse-off to make up the shortfall. This miracle of economic inequity is, of course, what the Tories created with the National Lottery – but even they never tried to encourage participation as a national duty, as Blair has now done. And this while setting his face against any rise in income tax – which is, of course, an inherently progressive tax.
“New Labour: making the rich richer and the poor poorer”. Labour don’t talk in precisely these terms, of course. They seem to have three main themes: business, renewal and the community. The first of these almost goes without saying: no one could doubt that Blair’s main priority is a strong economy, a thriving ‘UK plc’ (ugh). This has some important implications. Any commitment to social democracy as Tawney defined it – overriding the requirements of the economy in certain areas for the good of society – had been beaten out of Labour by the time of the 1992 election, fought under the banner of ‘when resources allow’. What is new about Blair is that this loss of what had been a defining principle is now being happily embraced, flaunted as a sign of the very newness of New Labour. Labour will get things done not through government intervention or even public spending – pre-emptively frozen at Tory levels – but through co-operation with the private sector; this translates as sweetheart deals with major companies beginning with B (BT, BP, BA…) BT, as we know, will connect schools to the Internet, in return for a relaxation of the rules regulating its operations. The company gets its business, the schools get their connections and everyone’s happy – except perhaps the employees and customers of a privately-owned and ill-regulated monopoly, free to pursue a higher dividend without fear of government disapproval.
Perhaps the strongest theme in the repertoire of New Labour – certainly the most inspirational – is that one word: New. Curiously, among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable). Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country. Labour can then re-emerge as the party of a cool-headed, unillusioned managerialism: it shares all the Tories’ basic presuppositions, but without their feverish ideological baggage. It is in this context that some of Labour’s proposed reforms can best be understood. Any halfway competent right-wing government would have signed the Social Chapter, and several have. Similarly, the notion that the mere existence of a minimum wage is bad for business could only be taken seriously under Thatcherism. Renewal, in short, means a new lease of life for the status quo.
A few policies in Labour’s programme do hold out some hope for a genuine democratic renewal – an overhaul of Britain’s archaic and undemocratic structures of government. The Scottish Parliament, the promised referendum on electoral reform, House of Lords reform, the Freedom of Information Act: all of these could herald major and beneficial changes in the way Britain is governed. However, extreme scepticism is still in order in all these areas. We can hardly ignore Blair’s expressed intentions for the Scottish Parliament or his personal opposition to PR: openings in these areas may be created by Labour, but they will have to be exploited despite Labour. While restrictions on hereditary peers are welcome, Blair seems more than happy to stock the House of Lords with government appointees – a policy which hardly addresses the second chamber’s democratic deficit. Any Freedom of Information Act, finally, will face enormous pressure for exemptions from three main quarters: the police, the security services (‘national security’) and the business community (‘commercial confidentiality’). These are not groups which the incoming government has any experience of facing down – or opposing.
The community – ‘the decent society’, in Blair’s words – is a strong theme but a vague one. In its positive form it has little content which isn’t shared across the political spectrum, post-Thatcher Tories excluded. Yes, there is such a thing as society; yes, a sense of community is important; yes, it is good for people to be active in their communities. There’s nothing there that wouldn’t be endorsed by Women Against Pit Closures or the anti-roads protesters, or for that matter by the BNP. The hard questions – what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of activity – are never addressed. Only in its negative form do the contours of the decent society start to become clear. Parents should spend twenty minutes a night reading to their children (Blunkett); parents should bring their children up to respect the police (Straw). Single motherhood is not just a difficult lifestyle; it is wrong and should be discouraged (Blair). “YOUNG OFFENDERS WILL BE PUNISHED” (Labour campaign poster). Blunkett proposes to deal with training scheme refuseniks by cutting 40% of their benefit; Straw’s views on ravers and beggars are too well known to go into here. The rhetoric of ‘community’ announces a punitive, moralistic, openly divisive social policy, whose main function is to create and stigmatise outsiders: people who don’t play by the rules, people who don’t pull their weight; people who don’t fit in.
One final distinguishing feature is New Labour’s keen interest in power. Never has a government been led by a group so adept at entrenching its own power within the ruling party. While membership drives are encouraged, members once recruited are treated as plebiscitary cannon-fodder, in the best democratic centralist tradition. Whatever the wording of the questions, in last year’s ‘policy consultation exercise’ there were really only two options: give the leadership a blank cheque, or make the party look divided. It would take a large, widespread and determined opposition to the leadership to raise any sizeable vote for the second option. The ‘Labour into Power’ proposals for reorganising the party seem designed to prevent any such opposition from arising or expressing itself: the proposed reforms to the annual conference and the NEC effectively remove the only points in the existing structure where ordinary members can make themselves heard. Under the proposals, the party’s current policy-making structure is replaced by a pyramid of ‘Policy Forums’ culminating in a Joint Policy Committee – ‘joint’ as between the NEC and the Cabinet – chaired by Blair. Given an adequate supply of motivated party loyalists, a structure like this positively lends itself to the imposition of the leadership’s line, as any veteran of a democratic centralist party will attest. The machinery to ensure a continuing supply of apparatchiks is already in place: from the Blairite ginger group around the magazine Renewal, through the machine for grooming New Labour cadres whose house organ is Progress, to the Blair-friendly network of Scottish local authority fixers known simply as The Network. As for Labour MPs, late last year the Parliamentary Labour Party approved a new code of conduct. Among the new provisions is an undertaking not to do or say anything which would “bring the party into disrepute” – a clause with unbounded disciplinary potential. The Cabinet, we can be sure, will be policed as it was under Thatcher: by the quiet word and the unattributable briefing. The treatment given to Clare Short in the Shadow Cabinet (“Clare’s in a hole and she should stop digging”) is a sign of things to come; the appointment of Peter Mandelson as Minister without Portfolio is a sure sign that those things are, indeed, coming.
Clearly Blair is not simply right-wing, in the sense that Gaitskell and John Smith were right-wingers: indeed, Blair has dismissed the Gaitskellites as the right wing of ‘old socialism’. To find another Labour leader so eager to meet the Conservative agenda halfway you would have to go back as far as the leader of another neologism, National Labour; and Blair, unlike Macdonald, has taken almost the whole of the Labour Party with him. Moreover, New Labour has to be seen as a coherent ideological project: it is not simply a combination of Thatcherite values with rhetoric harking back to pre-Thatcher civilities (like the SDP), still less a stratagem undertaken in order to win an election. (There is more than one way to skin that particular cat). That said, the question of how to describe New Labour may be best left open. Capitalism in a rational, corporatist form; a prescriptive communitarian moralism; organisational authoritarianism; and an insistent rhetoric of the ‘new’, the ‘modern’. What does this add up to?
Another question is how long it can last. New Labour offers no principled opposition to the Thatcherite virtues of ambition, acquisitiveness and self-centredness; its communitarian policies are promoted precisely as complementary to the ‘enterprise culture’. This extraordinary occupation of Tory territory may explain, paradoxically, the sheer magnitude of Labour’s victory over the Tories: once the Tories had discredited themselves completely, there was nothing to stop a Tory voter going over to Labour. The problem is obvious: by abandoning the hard work of building a majority for genuinely reforming policies (even within the party) Labour have left themselves no defence against an equally massive swing at the next election. Once the Tories’ problems with sleaze and Europe subside, and Black Wednesday fades in the national memory, we can expect a revival of the natural party of Thatcherism – perhaps with rediscovered paternalist tendencies to set against New Labour’s enthusiasm for the free market.
The tragedy of New Labour is that the transformation rested on – and exploited – a huge mass of passive, even grudging support, loaned to the Blairites on the grounds that this was the only way to get rid of the Tories; and that it was almost certainly unnecessary even in those terms. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle is a loyal Blairite, currently afloat in post-election euphoria; when Blair introduced first names to Cabinet meetings Kettle commented, “we seem almost to be living in a cultural revolution”. During the election campaign, Kettle speculated on what would have happened if John Smith had lived. He concluded that Smith’s Labour Party would have lost in 1997, beset by Tory attacks on Smith’s tax plans, his links with the unions and Monklands. The morning after the election, Kettle delivered himself of a new analysis: the polls had been right all along, victory was never in doubt, there was nothing the Tories could have done. The electorate, he said, had decided after Black Wednesday that the Tories must go; nothing could have saved them from that point on. I find this considerably more persuasive than the alternative, and can’t help wondering if a small majority under Smith might have proved preferable to a Blair landslide.
If this seems a perverse or premature judgment, consider what we already know about the Blair agenda. Patriotism; alliances with big business; attacks on unconventional lifestyles. Closure of ‘failing’ schools by central diktat; compulsory childcare classes for irresponsible parents. Restrictions on the right to strike; restrictions on welfare payments; no tax rises for the middle classes; more money from the Lottery. Oh, and the party conference will be made ‘more like a rally’. It doesn’t look like a country I’ve ever wanted to live in – let alone a programme I could ever vote for.
As it turned out I voted Socialist Labour: not out of any enthusiasm for the party or its dirigiste daydream of a programme, but simply because they were prepared to speak the language of social justice. The Liberal Democrats might have got my vote, for similar reasons, but that their candidate had come out in support of the second runway at Manchester Airport – a particularly pressing example of unsustainable development. Meanwhile in Croydon South, the Tory got in again; but this time Labour came second, with the almost universal 10% swing. I wish I could be happier about that.