Monday, May 05, 2008
When Tariq Ali says "New Labour is dead", you don't expect him to be matched in his prognosis by the soft-left Compass group. It is necessary to pause for a second and ask who the gravediggers will be. Arguably in this case the assassins are Labour voters who decided to abandon the party for either the Lib Dems, the nationalists, the Tories, the Nazis, the smaller left parties or - probably by far the biggest beneficiary - abstention. (If the turnout was higher in London, it was higher mainly in the dead zones of the Tory suburbs, which will spend the rest of the summer smelling of bigotry and barbecues until some kind of divine Ballardian punishment crashes the party.) It is certainly true, as Jon Cruddas argues, that working class voters are abandoning Labour in both the heartlands and the marginals, and the Tories are expecting to capitalise on that. This is hardly news, and even New Labour commentators like Jackie Ashley are saying as much.
However, for the electoral slaughter New Labour to be consummated and full burial rites executed in the way that Compass envisions, there would have to be some force within the party that is capable of performing that service. And, as I will not tire of pointing out to those tempted to return to its deathly embrace, there is no such force. Some kid themselves that the stale wreckage of the Labour Left in London, which so assiduously coat-tailed Livingstonite liberalism, has the way forward for New Labour to avoid electoral obliteration in 2010. (Oh, Seumas Milne, you really ought to know better.) It is true that Ken Livingstone didn't poll as poorly as New Labour in general. 36.38% of the mayoral vote went to Livingstone, but only 27.12% backed New Labour on the Assembly London-wide, and only 24% backed the party nationally. So a vague aura of leftism and independence helped Livingstone. But just over a third of the vote is still pretty poor, particularly when you've cut a deal with the Green Party, the Liberals and practically every non-Tory force that will work with you. New Labour is not dead, it is undead. And this is what the zombified party of government will do: it will segment its losses into the middle class, the 'white working class', and Muslims and ethnic minorities, and it will contrive a set of concessions for each group, based on a conservative agenda. To middle class voters it will offer to withdraw 'green' taxes or reduce them severely; to the 'white working class' it will offer a few miserly tax concessions, but try to deflect the main issues with racism by introducing a points system for immigration; to Muslims and other minorities, it will offer a combination of threats, cajolement and 'integration'. That will not work, not least because the Tories can do this stuff much better. And when New Labour loses again, the best organised forces in the party will be the Blairites and they will take the opportunity to move further to the right and replace Brown with Miliband. Don't look to a social movement to make any impact on this: if 2 million people marching in London couldn't find its way onto the conference floor, the party is now almost completely impervious to mass social unrest.
The more aggressive wing of the Tory right is gleefully plotting all sorts of revenge - especially against the unions and against those Muslims who have the run of the place under the communist tyrant 'Red Ken'. Boris Johnson is pleding a 'fightback' against crime (so I'd keep an eye on Jeffrey Archer's house), and hoping with his new confederates to force a no-strike deal on the RMT and Aslef, which is highly unlikely. The Tories may be more aggressive than Ken Livingstone's administratrion, but they'd have to be prepared for an epic combat if they want to break the train unions. No sign of that yet. While Boris Johnson has appeared to accept in public that the PPP on the tube is a failure, his administration is likely to opt for the renegotiation of existing contracts and even sweeten the deal for Metronet rather than accept public ownership. He will keep the congestion charge, but probably protect Tory residents of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea from expansion, and also guard drivers of 'gas-guzzlers' against planned increases in their charges. His plans for increasing the number of police are actually not very extensive - 440 on first blush, and all of these 'community support officers' to move around on London's massive public transport system. The effect will be negligible. He may have to limit his idea of metal detectors and knife archways on the Underground if he doesn't want millions of pissed-off commuters baying for his blood. These things are not that popular in Heathrow Airport, and I can't see people appreciating being stopped at fast-moving, crowded public transport hubs for having ordinary metal objects on their person. Seriously, has anyone actually thought this through? In all, I can see Boris Johnson running an unpleasant, aggressive and divisive administration, a test-bed for future Tory politics at the national level, but he will not be allowed to go too far lest he ruins things for his boss.
Both New Labour and the Tories are subject to two overarching global pressures that they don't get to control. The first is that the capitalist system is entering its most chaotic phase since the 1930s, and may well experience a global collapse (one in four chance, remember?). Rising food and commodity prices has been coterminous with a real-terms contraction in spending power for many. If capitalism could deliver stable growth and rising living standards without accumulating enormous imbalances that lead to global crises, then New Labour would be alive and kicking. Moderate social democracy would probably be hegemonic. As it is, New Labour's electoral calculus in the face of any crisis is always to move right, throw a sop to middle class voters in the marginals and expect working class acquiescence. That is why they decided to clobber working class taxpayers and give a tax cut to slightly higher income earners. At the same time, their economic rationale is that of neoliberalism: when profits are squeezed, you defend the country's economic competitiveness by attacking the three main costs for any company - taxes, input costs and wages. This commitment to neoliberalism is tempered by the need to keep the unions on-side, but only marginally. This is why corporation taxes and taxes on profits are lower under New Labour, and why inequality has been allowed to soar, despite the minimum wage and some very modest redistributive measures. The Tories will respond in much the same way as New Labour, except that they don't have to answer to unions and working class voters, and so can be much more aggressive. In fact, they positively benefit by throwing red meat to reactionaries of all stripes, provided they don't go too far and alienate centrists.
The second overarching pressure is that the American empire, for which Britain is a big off-shore base, is hurtling toward defeat. It is losing its dollar dominance; it is losing ground economically; it can murder residents of Sadr City and Basra in the hundreds and thousands within days, but it can't defeat Iraq without a draft, and it can't attack Iran except through an Israeli proxy which would be hugely risky; Afghanistan is lost, and the commitment of a few thousand more troops won't change matters. When mainstream American politicians talk about reducing dependence on foreign oil, they tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) appeal to the popular desire to get out of extensive imperial commitments that are costing trillions of dollars and contributing to a great deal of social distress. New Labour's response to this is much like Old Labour's. Cling onto nuclear weapons under the American umbrella, try to act as a bridge between America and Europe, back up US military subventions, and try to neutralise and contain antiwar movements. This logic has taken Gordon Brown toward flirtation with neoconservatism, and David Miliband will probably move even further in that direction. The Tories will not necessarily be more aggressive in that respect. Split between foreign policy 'realists' and neocons, they are also in the position of having to woo antiwar voters in Shropshire, formerly solid Tories who have experienced the civilising influence of mass street protests. Further, it is hard to see how the Tories could be more right-wing in their global orientations than new Labour. Blair backed Berlusconi, Brown backs Sarkozy, both have been comfortable with Bush - the European and American hard right are the natural allies of New Labour. Meanwhile, Cameron is probably not going to have any difficulty dealing with a Democratic presidency.
The countervailing movements against capitalism and empire that opened the 21st Century and made some waves in the UK electoral system are both experiencing set-backs and crises, partly because while they could mobilise people, there was no clear and commonly held vision about how to translate that success into real power. A whole tradition - call it the classical conception of socialism - has been lost here, and needs to be rediscovered. That conception identified both weaknesses in the system that could be systematically attacked and an agency with the power to challenge the system. For all the ingenuity and dynamism of these social movements, without that understanding, a lot of the steam has been lost amid fractures and mutual recrimination. Two temptations have resulted: one has been to relapse into social democracy (or some apparently more radical substitute, such as the Greens), whose crisis helped produce the movements in the first place; the other, less significant but as mistaken, has been to collapse into ultra-left purism and separation from the movement. We had better get this right, because an almost choreographed sequence of global crises is battering us, and if we can't intervene effectively it will not be the centre that holds, it will be the far right that gains.