Friday, September 03, 2010

New Labour myths again.

You'll remember this. Dan at The Third Estate points up a passage from the evil one's tractatus illogico-politicus: "Ed Balls was of the opinion that the public wanted even more spending and were prepared for the extra tax, by reference to polls that the Treasury had – which I said was nonsense. On these issues, the public fib." Two things. First of all, there's the trademark cynicism and contempt for "the public"*. Secondly, I am assured by people who were in the Labour Party circa 1992 that the conclusion many senior Labourites drew from the election results was indeed (perversely) that the public only pretends to favour higher taxes for better public services, and that we had become thoroughly Thatcherised during the 1980s. But I don't believe that anyone was really convinced by this.

As I point out in - oh, what's it called, now? - the psephological and polling evidence doesn't support this idea. The New Labour project, if it is to be judged purely on electoral terms - its preferred standard actually - didn't work. It was supposed to produce a new, broad electoral coalition that would anchor British politics to the centre-left for the long-term, and all it has done is reduce Labour's base. Blair's three election victories would have been impossible if it weren't for the sheer, enervated weakness of the opposition. Meanwhile, most voters have always rejected Thatcherism, or tried to when given the chance.

But the line that it was the public who were secret Tories provided a convenient, superficially plausible rationale for pursuing a project that Blair and Brown had already been attracted to by to during their visits to Australia and the United States - the same 'Third Way' idea that Labor and the Democrats were already putting into action. The attraction behind that project was simple: the old social democratic centre was finished, and the social forces to the left of centre were too weak and divided to sustain a more radical alternative. As Kinnock et al watched the big battalions of the working class get hammered by Thatcher, they had already decided that the era of social democratic corporatism was over. No electoral package that was not already approved by at least a fraction of big capital was possible - even if it could win an election, it couldn't be carried through in practise.

The populist rightist insurgency started by Powell in the Sixties and continued by Thatcher in the Seventies proved that it was possible for a right-wing government to work outside the social democratic settlement by espousing a new politics of 'the nation'. The Conservative Party was now not merely the party of growth, or of the efficient management of social democracy. It was the party of a strong Britannia, repelling immigrants, defending the Union with Ulster, asserting British interests overseas, protecting British families, fighting for a stable British currency and a robust British industry after all the lame duck inefficiencies of the corporatist era. Such was the ideological mix that helped the Tories lead the charge against the social democratic settlement. It had not only shifted a segment of public opinion, and defeated the embedded liberalism that was the dominant strain of opinion in the Tory Party since the Macmillan-Butler era. Most crucially, it had shifted the consensus within the ruling class. The 'rule Britannia' stuff no longer works as well as it did, of course (Blair never really grasped that the energy behind this politics of 'the nation' had utterly exhausted itself by the time he became Labour leader), which is why the Prime Minister is David Cameron and not Michael Howard. But it served its purpose.

There was every reason why that project might have failed at a number of points, notably in its risky contests with the organised labour movement. Had it done so, the idea of a Labour leader that was hostile to unions and the welfare state would have been impossible. The defeat of the miners, more than the electoral defeats of 1987 and 1992 which were partially a product of that tragedy, made it possible for New Labour to emerge. It produced the viper in the breast of Labourism known as Tony Blair. Blaming this monstrosity on "the public" and its propensity to lie about matters of taxation is moronic.

*Other examples of which: "The right-wing phrase, 'underclass', was ugly, but it was accurate ... [those at the bottom] had dysfunctional lives, full stop" (p. 204); "people might say they don't like conservatives, they still vote for them" (p. 556). [hat tip, Chris Brooke] And so interminably on, the reactionary talking points offered with the familiar, demented self-assurance. And don't even look at the stuff on Iraq, Abu Ghraib ("undoubtedly exceptional offences"), Gitmo (which he says was right in principle, if done differently), asylum, etc etc.