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The forward march of New Labour halted?

As Blairism unravels, incremental steps within organic movements are the way to start building the alternative, suggests Don Flynn.


he general election 2005 has given political anoraks enough interesting things to think and argue about to last a lifetime. A result which on the face of it produced a defeat for both Blairism and the nationalist version of Conservatism served up by Michael Howard is certainly worth mulling over to see what is says about the political currents which might be on the up in the years ahead.

What, most importantly, have we learnt about the position of Blair in the political culture of the UK? Undoubtedly a remarkable figure – possibly even in his own way, brilliant - but we can now best understand his success in terms of the strangely-shaped hole which appeared in British politics during the years immediately after the demise of Thatcher and her own version of ‘the project’.

The mood which prevailed in the early 1990s was the yearning for a kinder, gentler Britain, capable of healing the bitter divisions opened up during the decades of privatisation and the erosion of the welfare state. The premiership of John Major represented one attempt to fill that hole, but it ultimately failed because his Conservative Party remained consumed by the bitterness of the Thatcherite factions which had lost their way somewhere round the time of the poll tax and the squabbles over Europe. Even the younger generation which had grown up with no memory other than that of the Iron Lady dominating their lives felt it was strange to see the parade of weird and rather nasty old men trying to barge each other out the Tory party leadership ring.

Blair’s cracking good wheeze was to cook up plans to insert himself as the sensible chap who would put an end to all that silly nonsense, and in doing so persuade the voters that what they, a young, smart Britain yearning for a new start, really wanted was a caring sort of niceness determined to sort out the mess.

He was so right in this viewpoint that not only was ‘young Britain’ prepared to back him, but to do so in the sort of numbers that constituted the first of his two landslides back in 1997. With the good fortune to inherit an economy set for a period of sustained economic growth, the Blair project developed the sort of momentum which made a second and even a third time more-or-less inevitable.

Progressive century

But the ambition was even larger than that of winning a couple of general elections in a row. Blair and his co-thinkers talked in the most extravagant terms of laying the foundations for a whole century of progressive governance during the course of which a global society would emerge underpinned by the principles of equality and fairness, prosperity for all and social justice. It was a grand vision, and the task in front of us now, of evaluating his leadership in the period when it winds to its close, is to answer the question; just how far has Tony Blair taken us in the direction of an egalitarian world? Have we begun to see during the course of the past eight years the chiselling out of a new political tradition capable of transcending all that went before?

There are very few true believers in the New Labour camp nowadays. The recent conference of party activists convened under the banner of Compass (“new directions of the democratic left”) saw a motley crew of ex-Blairites flying the flag for a fresh epoch of radicalism, marked as Neal Lawson, its leading spokeperson proclaimed, by new collectivisms and new solidarities. Even young Labour ministers, jostling for position in a generation which expects to assume a bigger share of the power in the next few years, are not too timid to declare themselves in favour of ’renewal’ – and in doing so explicitly acknowledging the jaded and burnt-out character of the government in which they currently serve.

Amongst the most intelligent of New Labour’s apologists, The Guardian journalist Polly oynbee stands out. A modernised social democrat (that is, one who has gone beyond the revisionism of Crosland and his followers to cast herself adrift from any desire for an organic connection with the party’s historic base of working class support), Toynbee hopes for a dignified exit for a politician she now believes is the major obstacle to the further development of progressive politics in Britain. At the same Compass conference she opined, rather incredibly, that Britain was getting more social democratic by the day, to the extent that it could now well afford to do without the help of the dashing prince who started to push it down this road.

Social democracy?

The issue of whether New Labour’s version of state interventionism really is a version of social democracy has been debated most thoroughly in a volume edited by Raymond Plant and his colleagues, The Struggle for Labour’s Soul: Understanding Labour’s political thought since 1945 . Contributors to the discussion argue that New Labour represents a variety of different things, including a modernised social democracy, but it takes an old Croslandite like Lord Plant to note that the distance along the path of revisionism now traversed by the Blairites has taken them into realms which would not have been recognised as social democratic by the likes of the thinkers of the 50s and 60s.

But the most compelling statement about what the victory of Blairism has meant for the overturning of social democracy is provided by Eric Shaw in his essay in the same volume. Shaw argues that the “whole notion of class structure and inequality has vanished from New Labour’s discourse”, replaced with “the image of a fluid and individualistic society based on free and voluntary transactions […]” From this perspective social injustice is seen arising not from the core logic of a system in which capital and labour occupy positions of structural antagonism towards one another, but out of ‘distributional conflict’ – emerging at the periphery of an otherwise healthy society from a partial “malfunctioning of the system, or short-sighted, self-interested behaviour by ‘producer interests’.”

The question of the fundamental reform of society does not appear on the Blairites agenda. For them the adverse effects in society arise from technical difficulties with the operation of markets, rather than the distribution of wealth and power across a social system defined by the existence of economic classes. The formulation of policy becomes detached from an identification with the core interests of the classes defined in the British social democratic tradition as ‘labour’ and instead becomes a matter of mobilising technical and expert skills to fix the parts of the system which are malfunctioning.

This appears to be an adequate description of New Labour’s approach to governance. Its emphasis on elite partnerships mobilising the administrative and technical expertise of capital to solve the functional problems of everything, from health and education, through to transport urban planning, and even criminal justice and the eradication of poverty consistently comes at the expense of the radical democratic engagement of wider sections of society acting to transform society.

New Labour is certainly a reformist approach to politics, but the distance down the path it as travelled in the direction of functionalist elitism has meant that it has crossed a line taking it beyond social democracy.

Social conflict

Social democracy certainly presents us with a complex approach to politics, which by virtue of its extent and breadth, is well capable of generating conflicting elements. But it is a spectrum of ideas and approaches which marks itself from its ideological cousin, liberalism, by its consciousness of the fact that the advancement of democracy and the promotion of equality in society inevitably generate clashes of interests between the economic and political power elites and the subaltern classes. Right wing social democrats believe that such friction can be mediated through parliamentary structures, whilst more radical socialist currents look for strategies which generate a democratic response to inequality and exclusion from political power with a stronger organic connection to the daily lives of the labouring classes themselves.

If it is the case that the Blairite project is now unravelling, because the strange conjunction of political moods which existed in Britain in the early to late 1990s is no longer in place, then we can expect opportunities to arise once again for the currents it has succeeded in marginalising for so long.

As we move into a period in which the smart technocratic fixes of New Labour become more transparently inadequate, as private finance initiatives hit the buffers, city technology colleges flounder, poverty-elimination targets fall further away and high-tech strategies for international competitiveness confront stiffer competition from the rise of China, the scope for a resurgence of something which looks a lot more like socialism has to be on the cards.

At this point socialists are wont to start talking about preparations for founding new social movements and parties. This would be a tediously inappropriate response to developments which have to derive their substance and meaning from organic movements in society, rather than the ambitions of politicos. We should look for sensible, incremental steps to move the process along, and in this context the revival of the left in the trade union movement, and the organisational energy being displayed by COMPASS in the Labour Party at the present time all look good and provide reasons to be hopeful.

This is a furrow which Chartist magazine has itself ploughed for well over a decade now, ever since the Labour left was eclipsed by the modernising ambitions of the New Labourites in the late-80s and 90s. A sense of the subtle rhythms of possibilities is essential for a movement which has set itself the vast task of re-building the world from the bottom up, and during those years when the ‘forward march of Labour’ was halted, there simply was no possibility of mass socialist politics emerging as a dominant force in Britain or any other European country.

What to make of the times we live in now, when it is the forward march of specious ‘third road’ approaches which have become caught in the mire? Watch, learn, and organise...