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The cult of newness

Jon Cruddas on how new Labour’s neglect of working class communities feeds the fascist right.

One of the hallmarks of New Labour has been the way in which it has stylised the political world that preceded it. Egged on by assorted futurologists, soothsayers, management consultants, charlatans, ambitious academics et al, New Labour sought to codify and justify a straightforward move to the political centre by referring to an ideological body of ideas.

What went before was defined as ‘old left’ and ‘old right’. This approach established a pick-and-mix politics which sought, in the name of ‘modernity’ and evoking ‘middle England’, to colonise policy agendas irrespective of political context. If you are outside this project you are against modernity itself. Thus emerges the cult of newness alongside the methodology of triangulation.

New Labour’s Leninist organisational strategy sits alongside an anti-intellectual approach to ideas and policy. The Government is an elite whose object is the retention of power. Its cohesion is supplied by ambition and reward, and its method is based on the scientific construction of preferences and prejudices of the swing voter.

Occasionally half-hearted attempts are made to locate New Labour within the revisionist traditions of democratic socialism, albeit considered through the prism of creating a meritocratic society rather than confronting inequality. Democratic socialist traditions have been cynically transferred into an orthodox, neo-classical political economy. The notion of a new meritocratic order has become used to legitimise inequality in the precise form predicted by Michael Young.

Chronic inequalities exist, set against a long-term legacy of poverty and under-investment in public services. At the same time – due to relatively low housing costs – my constituency of Dagenham remains the fastest growing and the fastest changing community within London. The pragmatic, incremental investment strategies of national government cannot even begin to deal with this formation. Indeed, irrespective of long-term legacy issues, it cannot even tread water, as lagged population statistics mean year-on-year population growth exceeds annual budget increases across the public services.

It is not just a question of resource distribution however. The national policy agenda is calibrated for a different type of community. Social housing, the fundamental local issue, is not a middle England priority and therefore does not figure nationally; we resist an academy so are removed from the school capital programme; parent power undermines school leadership and the comprehensive strategy driven by the LEA; the language of choice heightens expectations but remains a fiction. The examples of middle England policy positions compounding local problems in more deprived communities goes on.

The cornerstone of New Labour has been the fundamental assumption that people in these communities have nowhere else to go. Yet the white working class is beginning to develop an allegiance with the far-right.

It is here that the logic of triangulation has led to the real failure of New Labour. The preoccupations of middle England mean we must neutralise and not resolve issues of race, immigration and asylum. As such, the Government has never really attempted to stand up and annunciate a clear set of principles that embrace the core concept of immigration: its associated economic and social dynamic, helping to overcome structural productivity, pensions problems and so on. Nor has it embraced the psychology of the immigrant when looking at school attainment, anti-social behaviour, our general work ethic or patterns of benefit consumption.

Yet in communities like mine people see how the Government has tacitly used immigration to help develop its preferences for a flexible North American labour market. It is here that the economic imperatives of the neo-classical framework dominate. Immigration has become an informal reserve army replenishing the stock of cheap labour – especially in London. People see this and perceive it as a critical component of their own relative impoverishment.

National political debate is carried out by rich, educated elites living outside communities changing dramatically through immigration. These elites compete in the ever more sophisticated battle to triangulate around the lives of people living in the most miserable of conditions. The most wretched element of the whole sorry debate is the way they, and their media cohorts, intensify tensions within communities attempting to deal with the whole process. Yet these front line communities are disenfranchised because of the political expedients of middle England.

In order to begin to forge an alternative it is necessary to study the underpinnings of New Labour. We can then start to again articulate an actual mission – a core emancipatory framework of action. Indeed, we do not have to re-invent the wheel:

“I believe that a left-wing party’s priorities are firstly to relieve misery wherever it exists – to help the deprived, the poor and the underdogs; secondly, to promote a greater social and economic equality for the mass of the people; thirdly, to apply strict social control to the economic system in the interests of the environment, the consumer and the less prosperous regions.”

(Crosland, 1974: 97)

Rather than seek to triangulate away the complexities of the world and pander to the lowest cost denominator of middle England, we might then seek to locate our way of confronting difficult territory with reference to a belief system.The Government would seek to change the agenda and confront the media regarding the economics of migration; the renewal of public services and the consequential economic and social benefits. This drive would work alongside a strategy of support for migrants through education and labour market advice.

The spatial economic strategy of the Government must be directed at those most in need of help, confronting the material source of far-right activity. It is axiomatic that these two issues go together as the front-line dynamic of migration occurs in the poorest urban communities. Regeneration would then become the engine for durable wealth and power redistribution, creating real community sustainability.

The other issue is labour market strategy. We must confront the informal economy, illegal work and chronic exploitation through interventions against the exploiters; the regularisation of status; and affording rights to migrant workers, especially in terms of legal work. This isn’t difficult but it would mean we confront the flexible labour market model deployed by the state.

Eight years of Labour Government should have produced much more for poorer communities. The recent election result and the internal mechanics of New Labour mean – probably – that we will see more of the same. Yet rather than emptying out the Labour Party, by returning to traditions of thought and analysis, we still have an opportunity to build a movement and a Government that will dramatically affect the material conditions within which working people live their lives.

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham