he Blair regime is one which has tried to distance
itself from ideology. Blair has said that "I have always
believed that politics is first and foremost about ideas.
Without a powerful commitment to goals and values, governments
are rudderless and ineffective, however large their majorities."
However, the Blair government has affected a desire to distance
itself from the big ideas.
The "New" Labour government has shown itself to
be rudderless, tossing and turning on the tides of public
opinion, focus groups and tabloid editorials. How has this
come about? One of the explanations is that the leadership
of 'new' Labour has become obsessed with notions that the
old issues and cleavages which dominated politics for most
of the twentieth century that are now simply irrelevant, out
of date or consigned to the dustbin of history by the triumph
of neo-liberal free market beliefs in the 1980s and the collapse
The result has been the rise of a "managerialist"
agenda. All the big issues have been resolved. Ideology and
politics are dead. History has, perhaps, come to an end with
the worldwide reach of a globalized free market capitalism.
All that remains is the challenge to manage a system over
which governments no longer have much, if any, control. Ideology
is irrelevant and the last refuge of people who wilfully refuse
to face up to the realities of the modern world.
A frequent criticism of Labour, in the past, from the far
left, was that it had given up any idea of replacing capitalism
with socialism and had adopted the notion that it was going
to manage capitalism. New Labour seems to have shifted to
the assumption that capitalism cannot be managed in the way
that the classic social democrats, such as Tony Crosland,
assumed, and that all government can do is emulate the ethos
and practice of the private sector.
Over the past four years the influence of business approaches
over government have been very evident. Even before the 1997
election the re-wording of Clause IV, however necessary it
was, owed more to the kind of "mission statement"
worthy of Spillers or a not-very-good university, than that
of a principled political party. Party officials have even
likened local parties to "franchises" or branches
of Marks and Spencers - currently not a good analogy.
When the Webbs drafted the original version of Clause IV
they assumed that organisation was the way of the future and
not unrestrained private enterprise. One of the problems with
capitalism is that people and corporations do not need to
take into account any responsibilities other than the narrowest
ones to shareholders and directors. New Labour has certainly
done nothing to advance a stakeholding agenda where the interests
of shareholders are balanced against those of employees and
the wider community.
The managerialist agenda, which comes down to a belief that
what is good is what works, has its roots in the idea that
nothing much can be done. Of course you cannot let the punters
know that. You have to claim that you can make a difference
even if in your heart of hearts you think that economic processes
in general and globalization, in particular, are beyond the
remit of government action.
John Lloyd has recently argued that, "We must remember
that Labour is a party formed to create socialism and it now
operates in a world from which socialism has fled." The
new Labour agenda seems to be socialism after the death of
socialism. It is just taken for granted that socialism is
not on the agenda and that, therefore, the only dish on the
menu is one or another of varieties of free market capitalism.
Thatcher was right. There is no alternative. We were in denial
in the 1980s and 1990s and all we need to do now is to get
closure and recognise that our commitment to equality and
public services could be something dealt with through therapy.
Come off it. By 1997 most people had come to the conclusion
that they did not want permanent revolution. They did not
want a market economy to turn into a market society where
everything from education to healthcare was at the mercy of
the laws of supply and demand. Labour's victory in 1997 was
as much a moral as a political one. Ordinary people were drawing
lines over what they would accept and not accept and those
lines had nothing to do with the bone dry management of institutions
but their notion of what is right.
As the language of managerialism pervades the Labour Party
and the General Secretary offers "great deals" in
return for party membership, much in the way that catalogues
or book clubs try to sucker us into membership, we must ask
the question, what is the Labour Party for?
Is it there to manage the economy more competently than the
Tories, as Blair and Brown seem to think? Is the choice between
a set of people who can manage the economy to secure growth,
low inflation and falling unemployment, and a team (the Tories)
who cannot be trusted to do that?
This is an argument that goes nowhere. The British people
cannot be enthused by an argument between two groups of managers
any more than an argument between plumbers or electricians.
We have to go beyond the mundane and give people a vision
of a society which could, if we will it, be different.
The likely outcome of the election campaign is a fall in
voter turnout. As the American political parties have sought
to narrow the gap between them voters have simply opted out
of the system so that now almost fifty per cent of those qualified
simply do not bother to turnout. This has happened in Britain,
in recent times, election on election: there is no real expectation
that it will stop now. What people need is not competent management
of a system which is inefficient, unfair, unjust and degrading
to many people. They need a reason to believe.