The Darkness at the Heart of Labour
Open Democracy, June 17th 2010
British politics may have been changed utterly by New Labour and entered uncharted waters with the new coalition, but part of Britain has shifted back to what it sees as normal service. Labour post-election has returned to some of its favourite comfort zones, with the party viewing itself in opposition to what it calls a ‘Tory Government’ and opposing public spending cuts which it is seeing as the return of Thatcherism.
What does all this say about Labour and the New Labour era? To many it is assumed to be an era – which whatever its rights and wrongs – that is now over. The curtain can be drawn on some of its worst excesses: Iraq, 90 days detention, ID cards and the DNA database. To some it is ‘Back to the Future’ of the warm certainties of Old Labour and the party as the sole vehicle of progressive politics.
This is dangerous, delusional and wrong and was put into context when I undertook a recorded podcast for ‘The Scotsman’ with John McTernan, who until recently worked as an adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy, and before that in No 10 Downing Street for Tony Blair.
McTernan thinks New Labour were ‘totally successful’ as a political project; his assessment of this is that David Cameron has ended up imitating New Labour and accepting much of the legacy of the Blair era. Any major failings during the last thirteen years were about Brown ‘the man and not the project’, and Brown’s limitations as a leader in his period as Prime Minister.
Labour’s defeat one month ago could have been avoided – if Brown had been replaced after he saved the banks – by David Miliband. McTernan actually said that if this had occurred Labour would have won the election and David Miliband would be sitting in No 10 as we speak. His proof for this was the contention that ‘the moment Brown resigned Labour’s poll ratings went up from 28% to 34%’.
In this world according to McTernan there is no need for Labour to engage in any healing or addressing the wounds and bruises inflicted on it by the New Labour era. Three election victories; the decade of Blair; ten years of growth: it is a triumphalist era the equivalent of Thatcher cut short by an ungrateful party which mowed down the most successful leader in its history.
When we explored this further and attempted to investigate the successes and limitations of New Labour, McTernan produced a lengthy shopping list of Labour’s historic achievements which would have embarrassed Brown ranging from ‘council housing to the NHS, equal pay, action on sexual discrimination, gay rights, the national minimum wage’, and in his words ‘the most comprehensive race equality legislation in the world’.
This was a bit partial and tribal I reflected, missing the downside of Labour’s record – such as the failure of every Labour Government bar 1945 to reduce inequality, but also Conservative and Liberal achievements.
When I put it to him that New Labour had engaged in two of the most defining privatisations any society can undertake: nuclear weapons and prisons, ‘the means of mass destruction and those of mass incarceration’ he retorted by claiming that what lay behind my point ‘was that I was against nuclear weapons’. As I said to him ‘I didn’t say that … and you cannot dismiss the point about nuclear weapons and prisons as being the preserve of old lefties. People all around the world share these concerns such as Michael Walzer, US academic and editor of ‘Dissent’’.
Any attempt at a balanced discussion which reflected on the successes of Labour in terms of child and pensioner poverty progress, and then asking from this how sustainable such advances were given the bursting of the Blair bubble, got nowhere. Trying to address what the cost has been of New Labour in terms of diluting and humiliating progressive values, was met with a never-ending litany of success, achievement and things done.
When I commented that thirteen years of New Labour had produced the fourth most unequal country in the advanced world and that the shining symbol of London ‘world city’ was also the most unequal city in the rich world, McTernan answered by saying ‘and that’s why people from all round the world flock to it’. His whole mantra was reduced to the vacuous concept of ‘widening opportunity’, a concept no one is against, but which has to be measured against the unequal, socially stultified nature of New Labour Britain.
New Labour became a party of privilege and a set of advocates and apologists for global elites and winners. The inner circle celebrate in McTernan’s words what he openly calls their ‘neo-conservatism’ and mission to liberate ‘people from tyranny’; ‘New Labour supported the little peoples of the world, helping liberate Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq’ he commented.
There was a fascinating subtext to this discussion on the nature of the UK. After his Ladybird book of Labour achievements through history, broadcaster Lesley Riddoch who was chairing all of this, added ‘and of course devolution’, to which McTernan stated ‘that’s just an administrative change’.
Before this McTernan declared that ‘Scotland is a fiction’ because it does not exist as a nation and that the ‘UK is a nation’ – the only nation in question. This was a peculiar set of statements – both wrong-headed, inaccurate and in their attempt at provocation both revealing and pointless. What is the motivation of declaring Scotland not to be a nation? Or the UK to be a nation when it is not one but a state?
McTernan said that things such as the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 and Bannockburn all had to be challenged and shown as the quasi-French feudal feuding they were, and was miffed and put out to concede that all nations and states have their myths and stories.
This experience was similar in its feel and tone to meeting a vulgar Maoism or Stalinism of the hard right: a revolutionary politics of fervour which captures the inner psyche and mindset of New Labour.
In an analogy that I am sure would find favour with McTernan, New Labour were a force of counter-revolutionaries who have found their utopia ill-conceived and unworkable; it is time to completely defeat their discredited ideas and begin developing the post-New Labour era.