e'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
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