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The death of politics

The Blair government has put politics to sleep argues Ben Pimlott in this interview with Mike Davis.

We're three years into the Blair government. You've written extensively about the Wilson and Atlee years. How does Blair compare?

The much maligned Wilson government actually made much more dramatic changes to the education system than this government so far. But it is early days. The government has now embarked on an impressive and bold, essentially Croslandite spending programme. Make money first then distribute it. It also remains miraculously ahead in the opinion polls. It doesn't compare yet with the radical transformations of either the Attlee or Wilson governments, but then it never set out to make such changes. It was elected on quite a conservative programme.

But there was the modernisation programme. Wasn't this supposed to be a radical flagship? Over the last few months we have had a lot of talk from within the media and spinners in government that things are unravelling - an example being the revelation that Philip Gould, architect of 'New' Labour, has said the project is a contaminated product. What's your understanding of what New Labour is or was and how does it contrast with traditional Labour?

You can look at New Labour as a concept, a philosophy (the third way) or as a stage of political development. As a concept it needs dividing into two halves; the bit that was about winning and the bit that was about a new political approach. Fundamentally New Labour is about a new stage of political development in the sense that many of the things it has pursued, like full acceptance of the market economy, not only mark an acceptance of existing privatisations, but an embracing of new ones. This would not have got past first base twenty years ago. The labour movement would not have tolerated it. It wouldn't have got through party conference or through the NEC. The change has been the diminution of influence both within the Labour Party and industrially of the trade union movement. This has been the most dramatic, and in a way least noticed change of the last generation.

When Labour left office in 1979 it left to a large extent because of its failure to cope with very large trade unions, the 'winter of discontent' and all that. Since then, partly because of Thatcherite policies, but mainly through a fragmentation of the industries that sustained major trade unions, and facilitated by high unemployment, the unions have declined in political significance out of all recognition. The strike has become a thing of the past, trade union membership has slumped dramatically, the desire for political participation on the part of ordinary trade union members has dramatically fallen. Trade unions have been relegated in the Labour Party to a subsidiary role. So to a very large extent the Labour Party that Tony Blair inherited was one in which the trade unions were really a pressure group that did not have to have much notice taken of it, although they still contributed to party coffers. Many of the things that New Labour have done Attlee and Wilson would have liked to have done, Callaghan and Kinnock would dearly liked to have done. Much of New Labour has been about making itself voter friendly. Particularly to middle England, middle class voters. This is what I mean by a fundamentally new political stage. Parliamentary leadership has always been frustrated by the trade unions.

On the other side we have the conceptual New Labour which divides into philosophy and seeking to win. New Labour has been able to tailor its policies to opinion polls because of the weakening of trade union constraints. This is what Philip Gould and his focus groups is all about.

The other half, the idealist half, was about a genuine attempt towards evolving a post trade union, post communist, post new world order approach to politics, which accepted we live in a capitalist society and will do for the forseeable future nationally and internationally. It accepted the old idea of massive state planning had failed not only in the Soviet Union but also in the West as well and was at the same time not prepared to accept the more atavistic aspects of Thatcherism and neo liberalism. This is very much linked, indeed derived from the Clinton New Democrats of the early 90s in which a number of circles were being squared. For example, tough love as it was called, tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime: It is also an attempt to get away from old liberalism and introduce a sort of puritanical self-help liberalism.

Puritanical liberalism is about liberal values but of a rather paternalist sort which encourages people to help themselves. This is where the New Deal comes from. There have been real attempts through the Social Exclusion Unit to make progress.It maybe that various kernels of ideas have been planted without dramatic results as yet.What it's not is a big idea comparable to Keynsianism or Fabianism. It has been a cult of Blairism, but it has been struggling to find a new idea rather than having successfully obtained one. So where has New Labour got to? It has demonstrated that it can govern. And govern stably without massive corruption or lack of leadership and prosperously. Most people regard Gordon Brown as having been a good Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the independence of the Bank of England. But it hasn't been a transformation in the way the 1945 government had been a transformation. It still holds out the prospect that if another election is won it could be bolder.

What do you mean by puritanical liberalism? Contrast New Labour with Old Labour and Thatcherism. We might say Old Labour had a comparatively simple way of dealing with poverty. Namely, to subsidise the poor and throw money at the problem though the benefits system and through local government, social housing etc. On the other hand was Thatcherism's sharp reaction to welfarism. The view was that if we get the economy right there would be fewer of the poor. Beyond that the poor were outside society with a commitment to a minimal safety net. There was no attempt to deal with the problem of the existing poor. It is true to say that New Labour from the beginning has seen the poor as its responsibility in the way old One Nation Tories saw them. But they have seen it as a responsibility in the sense of not quite distinguishing between undeserving and deserving poor but seeking to make all the poor deserving poor. This is what the Social Exclusion Unit has been about, what the 'New Deal' programme is about, what the whole range of measures involving single parents has been about. It's the paternalistic idea of fitting people for the world of work and seeking to make them able to earn an independent living. The underlying philosophy is that you have to be cruel to be kind. But nevertheless there is an acceptance of responsibility, not the Thatcherite washing hands of the problem. So puritanical liberalism encourages people to improve themselves to remove themselves from poverty.

David Marquand, recently wrote of the partyless democracy.* He argued a key part of the Blair project is to rise above need for political parties to resurrect a state which does not need a political party to function. So we have the creation of a dual polity. Low politics in devolved parliaments, local government, and high politics in Westminster government. The periphery is allowed to get on with minor things but the central state makes all the key decisions. Marquand talks about it as a return to a Baldwinist polity. The aim being to depoliticise the whole process of government, to dismantle the structures of majoritarian democracy that have been established over the last 100 years. This is coupled with an encrouchment upon traditional party democracy, centralisation of decision making, diminution of the power of conference, creation of new decision making bodies like the National Policy forum, talk of removing powers of GCs and making them into ancilliary bodies. Does this analysis ring true for you?

It's not so much Baldwinisation as Americanisation. Democracy by mass electorate is still relatively new, a 20 century phenomenon. Secondly, it has been in a constant state of evolution and change but with a tendency to expect a return to a previous norm. We have noticed during this parliament the death of politics, or certainly the somnolence of politics. There has never been a parliament that has been as quiescent as this one. This is partly because of the size of Labour's parliamentary majority. But if we compare it to the '45 government a very clear left wing emerged. The opposition has perked up a bit lately. But the tendency of parliament to be treated cynically by MPs has steadily increased to the point where nobody listens to any debates any more. It is very exceptional for MPs to turn out in force. Question Time is now reduced to one session a week rather than two, parliament is almost just a notional body. Beyond that the parties themselves have been fantastically quiescent. The Conservatives have had problems in their grass roots but have held together. The Labour Party has been incredibly quiet. The female element in the PLP has been notoriously tame. It begins to look like a party of notables which is what the American political system is. Activists get together at election time and occasionally to make party selections.

What is major is that the Labour Party, which I confidently expect to win the next election, does need to consider the question of the nature of its grass roots and the liberation the declining power of trade unions provides. It's also a liberation of voters, of working class people from an automatic identification with Labour. The triangular relationship of the past with the Labour Party led by middle class professionals, the trade union leadership and working class voters, with instinctive loyalty because Labour was identified as a working class party, is disappearing. If the link to the organised Labour movement declines to a point where it is just a matter of lip service and if the policies of New Labour are overwhelmingly about either supporting the very poor on the one hand or more notably not offending the interests of middle class voters on the other, and if this industrial urban proletariat element is neglected in policy terms, the worm will eventually turn. There is no ultimate reason why these people should continue to support Labour.

We are beginning to see turn this in low turnouts in by-elections. In the 1980s Labour was saved from the trough by a deep instinctive loyalty of constituencies where working class people were largely unconcerned by the policies of the Labour Party. Whether they disagreed with unilateral nuclear disarmament or thought Labour soft on law and order did not matter so long as they identified with Labour as their party. The situation could develop where there is a broad loss of support for Labour policy across the nation but people no longer identify it as their party. Then Labour is in dangerous trouble.

Ben Pimlott was interviewed by Mike Davis. His publications include biographies of Harold Wilson and Hugh Dalton and a history of the Labour left in the 1930s. He is currently Warden of Goldsmiths College.

*New Left Review, May/June 2000

September/October 2000