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Reason to believe

Pete Smith identifies danger in new Labour's "end of politics" managerialism.

The 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the old issues and cleavages which dominated politics for most of the twentieth century that are now simply irrelevant, out of date or consigned to the dustbin of history by the triumph of neo-liberal free market beliefs in the 1980s and the collapse of communism.

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.

May/June 2001