David Selbourne says that New Labour won elections but eradicated all that was good in the party’s traditions. The Cameroons should learn from this terrible lesson
The Thirties taught us that conditions of slump are a mixed blessing for the Left. But in today’s Weimar-like social and economic conditions, and with Toryism a shadow of its former self, it remains surprising that New Labour is in poor political shape.
Other European left and social democratic parties are in a similar pickle. Why? In Britain, it is not the fault of any single individual, not even Gordon Brown. On the contrary, we are in the midst of a systemic failure which old leftists would say vindicates Marx — a crisis of world capitalism itself.
Well over a century before the word ‘globalisation’ had been invented, the Soho Sage was writing of the ‘entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market’. He not only predicted the ‘universal inter-dependence of nations’, but saw on the horizon the ‘ruin of national industries’ and even the ‘break-up of nationalities’ themselves. To him, capitalism was both creative and destructive. Its destructiveness lay, among other things, in its very power to ‘sweep away all fixed relations’ which stood in its path.
The mess in which the world’s economies now find themselves is deep. In Britain and elsewhere market liberalisation has landed the public exchequer in mountains of debt. But at the same time, public bodies are still being invited to submit to the ‘disciplines of the market’, while company executives have trousered fortunes even as the taxpayer was bailing them out. ‘Give a capitalist enough rope and he will hang himself,’ said Lenin.
Yet at the very time when socialist and quasi-socialist methods have been adopted to deal with the crisis, Labour, gripped by defeatism, flounders. The reason is not hard to find: Labour as a popular movement, as a party, and as the embodiment of an ethic, was destroyed by Blairism.
Labour was not so much modernised as Mandelsonised. With electoral rehabilitation as the prize — today’s Tories beware! — Labour’s old purposes were transformed. This process was driven by the perceived need to shake off its ‘old-fashioned statism’, to ‘go with the flow’ of market forces, and to change Labour’s ‘brand’.
New Labour’s handlers, some of them ex-Marxists, declared that we were living in ‘post-ideological’ times. Producer interests — code for what used to be called the working class — had become a political albatross. Donkey-jackets and proletarian vowel-sounds were out, sleek haircuts and rimless specs were in. The citizen had been replaced by the consumer, and the political realm was to be treated as a marketplace like any other.
More important, ‘rebranding’ sidelined many of Labour’s old beliefs in the virtues of community, the dignities of productive work and the ethics of public service. A seedy construct, Blairism nevertheless brought New Labour and its hangers-on office and personal benefit. But it left much of the public domain ransacked and inefficient.
Under Gordon Brown’s aegis, New Labour’s privatisations went further than those of the Tories. The disenfranchised trade unions, already hit for six by Thatcherism’s ruthless way with manufacturing and local government, gradually faded from the public scene. And although they have continued to be New Labour’s main paymasters, the trade unions’ interests have largely been ignored. Striking refinery-workers must ‘globalise’ their perspectives now.
The New Labour ‘brand’ was also a hybrid, neither fish nor fowl. It thus gave us the politics of the Third Way: a combination of seeming concern for social justice with deference to business interest, political correctness with political corruption and, to fill the void, the rhetoric of innovation, opportunity for all, and aspiration; or ‘clarion calls to whatever’, as an American wit put it. Tories, once more, beware!
New Labour’s frailties derive, at root, from the failure of the ‘socialist project’ itself. Socialism, as well as communism, fell with the Berlin Wall. And into the vacuum stepped an alternative politics disastrous in the Western democracies both for the left and for the social and moral order: the politics of human rights. In origin a politics of the Enlightenment, of emancipation, and of the protection of the citizen from the despot, it has mutated into the politics of the free-for-all and of social dissolution — the very antithesis of the old socialist ethic.
The politics of human rights was to become the politics of many stranded ex-socialists, in Britain and elsewhere, who found themselves stuck without a cause. It is a politics which has furnished the left, or what remains of it, with arguments that seek to protect the persecuted. But it has given licence equally to the delinquent. It has sought to safeguard the unjustly treated, but has also invented the bogey of the ‘police state’ in the freest societies history has known; an imposture Orwellian in its falsehood.
It is a politics which, in justice’s name, has supported claims to rights even where the possession and exercise of such rights harms civil society and its institutions. Furthermore, it is a politics which has sometimes shown greater moral sympathy for malefactors of various stripe than their victims, and as if there was no real difference between good citizens and bad.
In the loony world it seeks to construct, duties are owed to us, not by us. Yet no democracy can rest upon rights alone, as Old Labour, with its sense of duty to community and neighbour, once knew. Socialists of the past were not only economic egalitarians, but moralists quick to distinguish between right and wrong. Now, for many post-socialist ‘progressives’, the individual has the right to choose whatever his or her heart desires. But isn’t this also the politics of the free-marketeer and of Tory libertarians? It is.
Under the combined pressures of corporate interests and professional human rights lobbyists with their rainbow demands, New Labour has thus found itself without a coherent social philosophy. It shares some of its dilemmas with the Conservative party. Individual liberties may have to be curbed if justice, social justice included, is to be done in a time of severe crisis; and the powers of the state may have to be increased in order to defend liberty itself.
What is plain is that the nation’s problems are beyond New Labour. The price of its ‘re-branding’ has been too high — its political failure as a party and a movement. Tories beware!