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Strong on power, weak on prescription

Trevor Fisher finds clear insights but too much of the chattering classes in the new Compass pamphlet* seeking to explain how Labour can renew.

This Compass pamphlet appears when New Labour is looking down the barrel of an electoral gun. On October 25th Labour recorded its worst opinion poll rating for 20 years, while David Cameron has established a clear lead over Gordon Brown as a potential Prime Minister. The Labour vote has been declining since the peak of 1997 and by the 2005 election the Party had lost four million votes.

Astonishingly, New Labour continues to march on oblivious of its peril. While Labour won a clear majority of seats in 2005, it did so on 36 per cent of the vote and over fifty MPs hold marginal constituencies. None of this registers with Labour’s faithful, who continue to operate as though Business Is Normal.

While most of the Party is sleep walking to disaster, two tendencies have emerged who accept that things cannot go on as they are. One, the New Labour hard liners organised in the Project, continue to campaign for tight control by a small professional elite at Westminster. This lucratively paid group of apparatchiks aim to be funded in part by a powerless network of supporters in the country, similar to the US Democrats. To achieve their aims, they have to destroy the party’s federal structure and its remaining fragments of internal democracy.

While the Projectiles are well organised and coherent, the opposition tendency committed to democratic renewal of a membership based party is anything but. This pamphlet is therefore very timely and is an important step in developing a renewal of progressive politics and a winnable agenda to counter that of the Project.

Labour is however not alone in its problems, and one of the starting points for the discussion Cruddas and Harris put forward is the decline of membership based parties in face of disorientating social trends. While the pamphlet is refreshingly honest in its analysis, and the section ‘Where are we and how did we get here?’ is accurate, it doesn’t develop two crucial insights which are touched on but not highlighted. The first is that there are apparently inexorable trends to centralisation and control in all major parties, certainly in Britain, not just the Labour Party. Secondly, while other parties have been affected by similar trends, in Britain the Labour Party has been uniquely cynical in offering a Partnership Agenda, a Party for the Many not For the Few, while practising All Power to the Man In Number 10.

Although the strategic analysis is underdeveloped, the authors provide an excellent history of the failure of New Labour to deliver on any of its promises of internal party debate. However this is not set in the context of the operation of an Iron Law of Oligarchy which would have made Michels green with envy – nor the fact that both Blair and Cameron operate an identical political practice. Both leaders believe that elections are won in the soggy centre, and by wooing the media, and that their own supporters are the Enemy Within.

While Labour Leaders (Brown included) see their members as too left wing for comfort, however moderate they are in practice, they triangulate on the Clinton model to move to the centre, a process which means constant attacks on their own political base to convince a conservative media that they are safe and can be supported. New Labourites believe that “The Sun Won It” in 1992 and they may well have a case. Their political strategy is based on the need to win votes from soft Tories, as the Labour base support is too small to win elections and, they believe, has nowhere to go however disillusioned.

They are wrong. Many Labour supporters are now voting Liberal or not voting at all, while for the white working class the BNP has emerged as an attractive option. Meanwhile the Labour Party’s internal organisation has disintegrated. Harris and Cruddas tellingly quote former Number 10 Policy Unit head Geoff Mulgan as saying “A lot of the tacticians have favoured very visible battles with liberal-left opinion just in terms of winning over the right wing press…. It’s caused all sorts of problems essentially, it weakens – it hollows out – your own side”. Mulgan is right. While the right wing press is a major problem for progressive politics, destroying the Party’s organisational base has left Labour with little on the ground to fight elections with.

The pamphlet is strong on analysis, weak on prescription, and relies too much on the Power Commission headed by Helena Kennedy. The central issue which progressive politics has to engage with is that politics in Britain has become exclusive, and has to become inclusive if it is not to become a cynical game of Woo The Right Wing Media. The Westminster game, for all parties, has become a dance with powerful interests in the global village. The sense that ordinary people are no longer a factor is palpable and a major reason for the growth of cynicism, and extremist politics. In a democratic society, if the mainstream parties ignore ordinary people and treat them as puppets to be manipulated electorally, then the voters will drift towards populist parties, mainly of the right, who are at least listening to public opinion.

In this context, the Power enquiry was part of the problem, not part of the solution. However admirable the intent, the participants were part of the exclusive elite at the top of our society. Establishment figures are simply not in touch with reality. For example, the idea of giving parties £3 for every vote they receive would be disastrous in areas like Dagenham or central Stoke on Trent where the BNP are gaining support. Far from boosting democracy, it would make a bad situation a thousand times worse. The deliberations of the chattering classes cannot be taken seriously.

The immediate strategy for dealing with Labour’s predicament has to be to focus on, and develop an inclusive politics for all those natural Labour supporters who have been marginalized by the Project. A good place to start is with public sector workers, regarded as the enemy within by all governments for a quarter of a century. The strategy for all governments has been to assume that without the stimulus of the market, public sector workers are lazy idle bastards who need to be whipped into working like Trojans. Thus marketisation has been carried through ruthlessly, and where services could not be privatised they have been subject to draconian supervision through inspection and league tables, ‘named and shamed’ in a particularly odious New Labour phase, and de-professionalised.

It is not merely their own members that New Labour regards as the enemy within. Its own traditional supporters are treated with Thatcherite severity. And in a telling response to a conference defeat, a government minister, Charles Clarke, commented that this was merely the producer interest within the party rebelling in its own interest. New Labour was the defender of the consumer. This pathetic illusion has a basis in reality, for too many public services have failed those who need them most, and the case for rigorous inspection and accountability is overwhelming. Teachers should campaign for a better OFSTED, but they should not be campaigning against OFSTED as such.

The key to a revival of progressive politics is for a new partnership of those disadvantaged by the Thatcher philosophy that ‘there is no society’. This was what New Labour appeared initially to promise, notably through the New Clause 4. Partnership in Power was not a bad idea in itself, but ruthlessly compromised when it posed a threat to the leadership. The role of the Party in negotiating and renegotiating partnership over time never became a reality. However as Labour staggers toward defeat at the next election, the attempt to reconnect with Labour’s natural supporters and potential new ones in a new Partnership in Power is the only way forward.

* Fit For Purpose - A Programme for Labour Party Renewal by Jon Cruddas and John Harris (Compass, 2006)