Thursday, June 29, 2006

 

The Myth of 'New Labour's' Coup


"Your New Labour was a closed conspiracy of a few very clever individuals who in the glum shadow cast by Thatcherism seized a traumatised and disorientated party without breaking with the central tenants of that neo-liberal hegemony." This sentence, from the Compass website, was quoted by Mike Ion in his post this morning(I assume it should read 'tenets'). This represents a view of Labour history on the centre left-shared by Roy Hattersley I seem to recall- which is really nonsensical. 'New Labour' was the PR gloss added to a gradual movement back to social democratic revisionism which had been in train since the 1983 election defeat when Kinnock famously said 'never again'.

He it was who set up the policy groups which wrenched the party away from the leftward lurch which had helped forge the catastrophic defeat. During the eighties Labour slowly began to accept: NATO and the EU; the validity of an unfettered free enterprise economy as the motor of prosperity; and the fait accompli of privatization. After the 1992 defeat and Smith's death, Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Campbell(alleged 'guilty men' pictured) worked to move policy into safer electoral territory. I agree Labour was 'taumatised and disorientated' but I don't recall anyone complaining as our poll ratings began to climb. The fact is that with the decline of the working class vote in the latter part of the 20th century, Blair had to attract middle-class votes to have any hope of winning. Remember that after 1992 quite a few highly respected voting experts spoke of Britain having become a 'one party' system.

Steven Fielding, a Salford academic has written a well argued book (The Labour Party, Palgrave, 2003) in which he denies the 'coup' theory and concludes that:

'The party at the start of the twenty first century may be a highly cautious social democratic organization; but recognizably social democratic it remains. If the state has advanced modestly and in novel ways since 1997, Labour's purpose in office is the same as it ever was: to reform capitalism so that it may better serve the interests of the majority(p.217).'

Whilst I'm not sure I'm happy about all of these 'novel ways', I fundamentally agree with Fielding's analysis. Lawson, the force behind Compass, is an interesting thinker(see his piece today) but this 'coup' part of his analysis is flawed.

Comments:
Skipper

God forbid that people might think it is my spelling error I have cut and pasted the actual paragraph from the Compass website:

Your New Labour was a closed conspiracy of a few very clever individuals who in the glum shadow cast by Thatcherism seized a traumatised and disorientated party without breaking with the central tenants of that neo-liberal hegemony.
 
Mike
It's a neat and witty riposte, even to the spelling mistake, but my main point-which I perhaps did not make clearly enough- is that a 'coup' which involves the major part of the party in a series of consensualist agreements cannot really be described as such.
 
Absolutely. Another case of Compass trying to re-write history. Your phrase - "social democratic revisionism" - is the neatest and most accurate way of describing New Labour philosophy that I have heard.
 
I agree. Neal Lawson is no fool and should not be treated as such. I just think that he needs to be careful or he will end up sounding like a senior civil servant and we will have lots of debates about strategic policy direction and too little about how we implement the changes we want to see.

I have to say that I am attracted to the notion of consensual coups - perhaps we can also have evolutionary revolutions and democratic dictatorships (scrub the last one).
 
The acceptance of "the validity of an unfettered free enterprise economy as the motor of prosperity; and the fait accompli of privatisation" sounds more like "neo-liberalism" than "social democratic revisionism" to me(unless the word "revisionism" carries an unusually heavy load and the word "unfettered" an unusually light load). In any case, I'm not sure that for Blair privatisation was a "fait accompli"; that implies something that can't be changed and must be borne. But Blair is a bit of an enthusiast for privatisation, isn't he? Isn't that what his "reform agenda" amounts to: privatise or part-privatise everything in sight? He thinks he words "modernisation" and "marketisation" are synonyms.
 
Politaholic
i)'Unfettered' was too strong a word I agree; should have been prefaced by 'relatively' and I mean compared with previous Labour approaches.
ii)It's true that New Labour did accept parts of the neo-liberal portfolio of ideas; but then again, so did Dennis Healey when Chancellor in the late 70s.
iii) agree Blair seems to prefer private to public, just as Thatcher did and I think you're right here. I have personal reservations about this-as someone who has worked in the public sector for over 30 years- but the question is about the validity of something like a 'coup' which I dispute. I think Blair accepted privatisation as part of his plan to reassure Middle England. But we have to also accept that nationalization was a huge failure while privatization has brought many pluses.
 
For my part, I think it was a coup, but a very British one (to quote Chris Mullin.)

If the Labour Party had had the remotest idea that electing Tony Blair as their leader would mean the part-privatisation of health services, involvement in a US-led invasion of Iraq without UN approval, the introduction of university tuition fees, or the effective abolition of the comprehensive system, it would not have elected him. Not in a million years.
 
Maybe you're right about that last point, Paul, but neither did Blair know all these things were going to come up as policy issues and that the decisions were going to go as they did.
Remember also that Cameron ripped up Thatcherism and was still elected by a landslide last December; activists, not just politicians, will accept a lot in exchange for power.
 
The Labour Party made a kind of Mephistophelian Pact with Blair: he could, so they thought, entrance Middle England and deliver election victories. They had no reason not to know what they were getting when they chose Blair. They were so desperate for election victory they thought anything worth the price. Perhaps they thought they could get away without delivering their part of the bargain. Fat chance. In support of the "coup thesis": Blair has no sympathy whatever for basic "Labour values" or any understanding of them; the party membership has to an unprecedented extent been cut out of any participation in policy formation (and Conference reduced to little more than a leadership rally); the Blairites regard the traditional Labour "core voters" with utter contempt; they are mesmerised by big business and money (who was it who said that the mere sight of a few millionaires was enough to have Peter Mandelson "dancing around in a tutu serving up hors d'oeuvres"?); and the manic pursuit of privatisation and part-privatisation is not a pragmatic adjustment to electoral realities but is driven by free-market ideological zealotry. Incidentally, Skipper, what "pluses" are there in e.g. the Tory privatisation of water?
 
Politaholic
Very trenchant comment with which I mostly agree. Re privatization, water is one, and railways possibly another where it has done little or nothing; but if you look at gas, electricity and BT, huge annual deficits are no longer a burden on the taxpayer and the rampant corruption which characterized service operations are things of the past. But this is a subject for a post on its own I suspect.
 
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