Thursday, January 05, 2006
The Future of New Labour. posted by Richard SeymourNeal Lawson writes today that Labour cannot be taken out of its perpetually expanding rut by Gordon Brown, which would seem on the face of it to be a step in the direction of political realism. Brown, as Dead Men Left notes, is not merely a leading architect in the New Labour project and the chief promulgator of neoliberalism in the Cabinet. He is also pitching forcefully in the direction of neoconservatism. Yet Lawson, quite predictably, makes nothing of those cardinal facts, preferring to indulge some rather fanciful ruminations about Comrade Brown.
Brown, in Lawson's imagining of him, uses the term "comrades", dedicates himself to setting Labour "free of its Thatcherite chains", closing the gap between rich and poor and so forth. It's the old "secret socialist" fantasy, and it ought to have long since lost any purchase it had with even the centre-left commentariat. Yet, Lawson is at least correct to note that the malaise is deeper than in the Labour leadership. He puts the matter down to a dearth of ideas, and hopes that some kind of moderately left zeal can be imported back into the government by Ed Balls, John Denham and some rather feeble think-tanks. It is a much deeper crisis than that.
Consider: the Labour membership has halved since 1997, and is now at its lowest level since Ramsay MacDonald split the party in 1931. It is 65,000 lower than when Blair became leader in 1994. That alone is quite significant for the New Labour project because the drive to increase membership was part of a strategy to minimise the input of unions at conference. The union block vote had always served the Labour right well in the past, but the Whiggish modernisers believed it would be better to take in a large swathe of atomised and largely passive members. The constitutional re-arrangements were presented as democratic reforms, but of course what actually happened of course was that power was centralised in the hands of the leadership. Well, the sharply declining membership may present a problem for any New Labour leader who wishes to cut ties with the unions. However, when you consider the kind of membership that is left behind, it also illustrates the impossibility of resuscitating radicalism in the party. Not only are they disproportionately male, middle-aged, middle class and professional, they are also disproportionately sheep. In the elections last May, Labour lost a number of heartland seats to left-wing candidates, and saw a number of supermajorities seriously eroded. All indications are that the local elections will see it receive a further blow, as it is losing both the fair-weather Tory supporters and core working class votes. The Lib Dems were a temporary beneficiary in this process, but since the Orange Book wierdos have taken over the scene they look less likely to continue to do so in the future. The Tories have elected a media darling who may well sufficiently conceal his hard right policies behind the emollient rhetoric that he is currently offering the press daily that he can pose a serious threat to Labour. (Cameron, incidentally, is mimicking Bush's 2000 strategy by calling for compassionate conservatism while nurturing a perniciously reactionary agenda. The analogy is accentuated further by the fact that this follows years of 'triangulation' by the notionally left-of-centre government).
And yet, for all this, Labour has displayed its unwillingness and inability to attract, retain and promote the kind of membership capable of renewing it. It is spent as a force for reform. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the infatuation with Brown, the desperate fantasy embellishments and the surreptitious ommissions about his record in government. Because he has introduced tax credits and finally funnelled some money into the NHS, the man who has cut benefits for single mothers, threatens to do the same to the disabled, bankrolled the war, imposed neoliberal economic policies and allowed what was left of the manufacturing sector to be destroyed is somehow a progressive viper in the New Labour nest. Brown has supported Blair on every right-wing move he has made, including this cozying up with the Euro-Right. Yet, who else is there for the anti-Blair left to look to if they intend to stick with Labour?
If it cannot be a force for reform in the traditional sense, New Labour could revive itself as an electoral force following defeat. It could do so if the left failed to make a serious incursion into its electoral base, leaving the working class to be serenaded by the Liberals or the Nazis. It could do so if all its betrayals meant was a stay-home electorate and a Tory victory, or a string of Tory victories. It could do so if the unions made no attempt to defend their members, and if the antiwar movement was to peter out, finding no permanent, broad political representation. In short, it could do so over the left's dead bodies. It is madness tantamount to suicide to insist that the Left therefore hitches itself to the Labour Party, much less a collection of New Labour ministers and emasculated think-tanks.