After Blair, After Socialism and the Search for a New Story
Introductory Chapter in Gerry Hassan (ed.), After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade, Lawrence and Wishart in association with Compass 2006
The historian’s puzzle is why the Labour Party lasted so long: what could more perfectly illustrate the principle of social inertia? Like democracy itself, the Labour Party was a reaction against the feudal tradition. It arose out of the old working class as it was called, which had such solidarity because its name belied it: it was not so much class as caste.
Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1958: 139
The political weather of Britain is clearly changing – with the hollowing out and exhaustion of New Labour, the arrival of David Cameron’s new look Conservatives, and Tony Blair’s long, lingering, goodbye. Behind these changes are more profound issues: the malaise at the heart of British democracy after the brief hopes of 1997, a loss of trust across the general public about politicians and political processes, and the culture of fear, anxiety and anxiousness aided and abetted by post-9/11 and ‘the war on terror’.
This book attempts to look at the current and future prospects for progressive politics in the UK; the ways in which New Labour has changed the political environment for good and bad; and the issues and dilemmas this leaves for the centre-left. It aims to do this by beginning with the some of the major questions raised by Eric Hobsbawm and Stuart Hall, well over twenty five years ago, writing in Marxism Today in the immediate run-up to Thatcher’s victory in 1979 (Hobsbawm, 1981; Hall, 1979). Their two key texts – ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ and ‘The Great Moving Right Show – have stood the test of time, challenging conventional shibboleths and laying out longer-term prospects. This tradition was also drawn on in The Blair Agenda and The Moderniser’s Dilemma, in their attempts to understand and critique the politics of post-Thatcherite New Labour (Perryman, 1996; Coddington and Perryman, 1998).
The Hall and Hobsbawm essays pose questions which transcend the immediate concerns of their time: how do centre-left parties, forged out of a certain politics of the industrial revolution, respond to a very different economic and social order? How can the left meet the rising individual aspirations of a large part of the electorate and deal with the new inequalities and dynamism of capitalism? Are the forces of the new right innately better disposed to nurture the new culture of individualism? These are questions Labour has been grappling with ever since. And these are the issues that contributors to this book try to address in the following chapters. The remainder of this introduction aims to outline some of the main questions that arise in trying to answer these dilemmas.
The paradoxes of New Labour
New Labour has been the most electorally successful phenomenon in Labour’s history. Yet, paradoxically, the result of three terms of Tony Blair’s premiership cannot be said to have been anything but ultimately politically disastrous for Labour and the centre-left. Two points illustrate this paradox. Tony Blair became the longest serving Labour Prime Minister in August 2003, and if he remains in office until May 2007 will have served a decade in office – something his predecessors, and perhaps, successors, might view with envy.
At the same time New Labour has become, post-9/11, a force shaped by, and embracing, the politics of war and security. Tony Blair’s liberal imperialist adventure with the US in Iraq which began in March 2003 has now run for three and a half years, with no foreseeable end in sight, surpassing the Korean war (1). Thus, New Labour’s unprecedented length of time in office must be offset against its constant sense of fear and insecurity: fear that the electorate were really Conservative-minded and 1997 an aberration, and then the fear of not being tough enough on asylum, immigration and terrorism, and in the process, becoming a prisoner of their own nightmares.
New Labour was born out of a realisation of the need to change to counter Conservative dominance in the twentieth century, and centre-left weakness. It is certainly true that, before Blair, Labour was amnesiac about this weakness, due to its obsession with the myths of 1945. But with New Labour this shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum, as Blair, Mandelson and Gould became fixated about the centre-left only having won three full-terms in one hundred years: 1906, 1945, 1966. They noted the electoral success of the Conservatives across the twentieth century, but not that it included difficulties and serious challenges. As Andrew Gamble has argued, the four long periods of almost uninterrupted Conservative rule were each separated by shorter periods of Liberal and Labour rule, from which the Conservatives always recovered (see Table One). The story of ‘the Conservative century’ is a complex one: of Conservative pragmatism pre-Thatcher and constant renewal, and of progressive failure to seize opportunities.
Table One: Dominant Parties in British Politics 1886-
Source: Gamble, 2003: 169
New Labour has become trapped in its own history: the near-history of the 1980s and Labour’s civil war, and longer-term, in the inability of Labour prior to 1997 to win elections. It has made a fetish of winning and retaining power above all else. New Labour sees itself in Finlayson’s penetrating analysis, as ‘a movement leading Britain out of the “old ways” of hierarchy, tradition and entrenched power, and into a new fluid world of networks and opportunity for all’ (2003: 203). In practice it has been very different.
Assessing the New Labour legacy
There is still even at this late hour confusion about what New Labour is, partly because of the mixed messages it transmits. Polly Toynbee has called this ‘the best Labour government in the last 50 years’, and has declared Blair ‘a political genius – three times victor – creator of a left-of-centre economically solid and socially progressive.’ She admits, however, that many of the ‘good stories [are] not part of the narrative’ – issues such as Sure Start, tackling child poverty and the national minimum wage (2005). What she does not recognise is that these and other progressive advances have not been ignored by the Blairites by accident; it is because they are not part of their central narrative of what New Labour is.
Michael Rustin, a usually critical but nuanced commentator on New Labour, similarly showed significant degrees of confusion. In a post-election piece that shifted back and forward between optimism and pessimism, he commented that watching Blair’s progress across the country during the 2005 election reminded him more of ‘his achievements and virtues than of his failures and vices.’ He went even further, arguing that ‘New Labour’s success has created some space for a more progressive politics’ (Rustin, 2005: 116), a fascinating comment given how far the Blairites have travelled to the right on a host of issues. Both Toynbee and Rustin seem to have been sufficiently mollified by the subordinate, weak social democratic element of the Blair agenda to overlook the broader picture of the government’s trajectory, which will be discussed in more detail later.
At least three distinct interpretations can be identified of New Labour:
• New Labour as Labour: This account does not see New Labour as breaking particularly new ground. It stresses that the Blair government is the most successful Labour government in the party’s history and has advanced many traditional progressive goals: using a sustained period of economic growth to increase public spending and engage in redistribution. A number of party loyalist perspectives have emphasised this, as have several academic accounts of Labour history (Fielding, 2003).
• New Labour as New: This is the Blairite ‘official’ account of what New Labour stands for: a break with the ‘Old’ Labour state socialism of the past and free market conservatism of the new right. Instead, New Labour’s ‘third way’ combines economic efficiency with social justice, and is uniquely suited to deal with the challenges of globalisation. This account has been consistently associated with the writings of Giddens (1998).
• Neo-Labour: This sees the Blair government as the continuation of Thatcherism by other means. Social democracy, which still informs some of the government’s policies, has been diluted and slowly supplanted by the logic of neo-liberalism. The phrase, ‘Neo-Labour’, invented by Neal Lawson, has been persuasively examined by Hall (2003) and Finlayson (2003).
One fact we can be sure of is that New Labour will be remembered differently in history from how it is seen today. The Attlee government is seen by most within Labour as the high point of labourism, establishing full employment, the welfare state, NHS and much more. However, in its immediate aftermath it was viewed by many as a major disappointment, conservative and unimaginative in many of policies, unable to engage in transformative socialist policies, or renew itself in office (see Crossman, 1952). The Wilson administration of 1964-70 has in recent years been the subject of renewed interest and an attempt at revisionism, with people looking at its policies on comprehensive education, expansion of higher education, and avoidance of being drawn into the US-led Vietnam war. At the time, and for many still, the Wilson years were seen as a period of disillusionment and betrayal, where Labour abandoned its policies of economic growth and higher public spending, and could not address the causes of British economic decline (see Ponting, 1989).
Furthermore, the whole period from 1945 to 1976 is often subsumed into the idea of ‘the post-war consensus’. For some commentators there is now a much more defined and unified conception of the 1945-76 period than there was at the time when people were living through it. However, all of the shifting attitudes outlined above, while making the case that the Blair government will be seen differently in history, can also be seen as part of a wider picture, namely of the retreat of left hopes and the diminution of its hopes. Those who make the positive case for New Labour often tend to ignore this long-term shift.
The left’s lack of a story
One reason for the sometimes confused views on what the Labour Party currently represents is that the left has lost the sense it once had of a defining project and story, centred around progress towards the idea of socialism. This had a number of sub-stories and themes within it. First, there was a notion of political economy, based for most of the post-1945 era on Keynesian demand management and planning, and the need to redistribute income, wealth and power (Thompson, 1996). This was related to the second strand of the story of socialism: the belief in the power of the state to do good and be a benign, progressive force making peoples’ lives better and fairer. The central state was seen as the best instrument for change and redistribution between classes and regions.
Third, it also had a powerful concept of agency, rooted in the organised working class and trade union movement. This idea of ‘the labour movement’ as an inevitable, incremental, partly invincible force of history and progress informed all of the actions, thoughts and compromise of Labour in office. Small or even significant retreats or defeats were all part of a wider picture and higher cause. Thus, the over-arching story of socialism gave Labour politicians and members a sense of values and mission, and a belief that even small scale incremental change might be worth supporting as a step in the direction of transformative change.
If we examine the state of centre-left politics under New Labour all of these elements have disappeared from the scene. The over-arching narrative of socialism has long disappeared, but so have the sub-stories of political economy, the role of the state and sense of agency. As Bauman has pointed out, the left ‘has yet to learn to live without an historical agent’ (1986/87: 93). The consequences of this have barely begun to be understood. In a world after socialism – after the original ‘project’ – what does a Labour government stand for, what makes all the compromises and diversions worthwhile, and what makes politicians, activists and members believe in the cause?
The state of American politics is a warning of what can happen to a left in retreat. Despite the Clinton Presidency and the efforts of the New Democrats, the Republicans are now the dominant political party of the US – having won seven out of the last ten Presidential elections, controlling both Houses and having a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. As Michael Walzer, editor of Dissent, has pointed out the US right wing have a defining story, historical – some would argue messianic – mission, and sense of agency: the power of free market capitalism and belief in God (Walzer, 2005).
The American left, on the other hand, have no sense of story, mission or agency, which has led them into the dangerous terrain of arguing every policy issue-by-issue, while their right wing ideological opponents can lay claim to a higher moral ground and authority. Walzer argues powerfully that this leads the left into a profound sense of malaise and self-doubt. This is a world where the left explores each policy after an issue-by-issue moral examination and forensic debate, so that people are for military intervention in one situation, against it in another, or simultaneously pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-gun control. As he writes: ‘No one on the left has succeeded in telling a story that brings together the different values to which we are committed and connects that to some general picture of what the modern world is like … The right, by contrast, has a general picture’ (2005: 37). This leads to an exhausting, incoherent, tactical politics where one side – the centre-left – argues elaborate, complicated, evidence-based politics, while the other side – the right – have ‘a world historical project’ in the way that Marxism did.
Walzer is not proposing that the left should have the same kind of moral certainty and fanaticism as the right; nor is he ignoring the contradictions in the American conservative movement between free marketeers and evangelicals. And of course the experiences of the US and the UK are very different. The British left is unlikely ever to have to face the American levels of evangelical and religious opposition. But what is common between the two countries is the politics of what Walzer called ‘the near-left’, which he characterises as filled with doubt, moderation and qualification. Walzer states that: ‘Most of us on the near-left live in a complex world, which we are not sure we understand and we move around in that world pragmatically, practising a politics of trial and error’ (2005: 35). It seems that the politics of the near-left is suited to a number of situations, mostly as a tactical response in a hostile climate, such as the 1980s and 1990s. But as a permanent strategy it is debilitating and demoralising. Clinton and Blair, leading politicians of the near-left, have proven this: illustrating the perils of permanently operating on the terrain of your opponents.
The state of Labour after Blair
The search for a new story for the left and progressives has to begin with an honest assessment of Labour as a champion of progressive values. Two extreme positions have largely defined this debate. On the one hand there is the dismissal of any criticism of the Labour Party on the basis that it is the only vehicle we have, and that there is no viable alternative. On the other hand there is the view that Labour has always been fundamentally flawed because, in Miliband’s words, its ‘parliamentary socialism’ led it to put its commitment to parliamentarism ahead of socialism (1972). This has been very persuasive on the left, particularly outside Labour. The truth, not surprisingly, lies somewhere between these two polar opposites and changes over time.
Labour’s effectiveness as a vehicle for advancing progressive values and humanising British capitalism has been a mixed one. Significant points where Labour has shaped the political weather and culture of the nation have been rare: the period 1940-51 is perhaps the only inarguable example. Wilson’s dominance of domestic politics for over a decade left a poisoned chalice and little positive legacy. Despite recent revisionist accounts, the road of Wilson’s failures leads inexorably to Thatcherism’s door. Strangely enough, Blair’s contribution to Labour looks surprisingly similar to Wilson; an undoubted political brilliance and ability to tactically wrong-foot opponents has bequeathed a sad, sordid legacy to his party and successor. A wider case for Labour’s effectiveness than could be adduced for any specific administrations could be argued, however, advancing that the emergence and rise of Labour brought about a response from the British establishment, which incorporated Labour and changed British society in a progressive direction. Labour’s long story and contribution to changing the UK contains much of which the party can be proud, liberating and transforming the lives of millions of people, but it is also a politics which never went far enough.
Social democratic politics and thinking have informed and shaped Labour for most of its history. However, it has recently been subject to retreat and dilution, so that it is relevant to ask whether the renewal of social democracy as the main philosophy of progressives is a worthwhile goal, or the best we can hope for. Social democracy’s whole raison d’etre is slowly eroding in Western Europe. It has been assaulted in the UK, Australia and New Zealand by neo-liberalism, and characterised by institutional stasis elsewhere. ‘“New” social democracy is failing to prove itself as a distinct political model …’ in the face of neo-liberalism (Thomson, 2000: 189). Only in the Nordic group of nations has it become the governing credo, and proven capable of renewal across several generations and in the harsh international order of the last few decades. Social democracy is likely to remain an important part of the left’s repertoire, but it will not survive unless it adapts to the new challenges and circumstances.
Related to this crisis of social democracy are questions of the ‘realm of manoeuvre’ available to any Labour government in the UK. It is fascinating to note that the Labour government of 1974, elected on 39 per cent of the vote, and with a tiny majority of three which soon disappeared, was called an ‘elective dictatorship’ and seen as a threat to British democracy. Whereas thirty years later the third Blair administration was elected on a mere 35 per cent of the vote, while being rewarded with an over-generous majority of 66 seats, without ever having its legitimacy or democratic credentials questioned. The difference between the two was that the first posed a threat to some of the vested interests who hold power in Britain, whereas Blair’s New Labour has consistently chosen to govern with the grain of British society, meaning those who have power and influence in society. New Labour has chosen to answer whether or not Labour can govern, by operating a self-denying ordinance and not threatening the existing economic and social order. However, the dilemma of Labour throughout its history will remain for future progressives. Any progressive government worthy of its name will have to go against the grain of power and thus risk being challenged by powerful vested interests.
Labour has also historically been shaped by a culture of labourism. This defined the Labour Party as a party which gave direct expression, and was organically linked to, organised labour and the trade union movement (Nairn, 1964a; 1964b). This culture of the party played a far-reaching role in differentiating the ‘doctrine’ of the party from its ‘ethos’ (for this distinction see Drucker, 1979). Whereas the party’s doctrines were about its focus on policy, programme and positions, its ethos was its culture, codes and informal attitudes. If the idea of doctrine was about formal politics, ethos was informed by ‘a shared past, a series of folk memories of shared exploitation, common struggle and gradually increased power’ (Drucker, 1979: 31). However confident the voices of transformation and the coming of a new social order may have been in party documents, the party’s ethos has been informed by a sense of unsureness and defensiveness. Labour’s sense of ethos have been assaulted by the Blairite revolution to the point that it barely exists, except as some kind of collective memory. What future beckons for a party once so shaped by its ethos, but where it is now so weak?
One of the central faultlines in the new capitalism is between the winners and losers, with the former better organised, more vocal and better placed in the media, think tanks and political classes, so that they can propound their self-interest into a worldview. This faultline, for David Marquand runs through the heart of New Labour. Labour historically was a party concerned about the plight of losers in society and redressing this (Marquand, 1999: 236-37). However Blairite New Labour has degenerated into a party which believes in winners: celebrating wealth, success and acting as the advance guard of the post-democratic international class (Crouch, 2004). There are undeniably problems in today’s world in associating a political party or project with the idea of society’s ‘losers’. However, the solution cannot be to abandon such people, or the abolition of the idea of a society without significant losers.
New public institutions, spaces and conversations
A significant part of the left’s legacy has been the institutions it has constructed which embody the idea of the public realm and which nurture progressive ideas. In the pre-Thatcher era, there were many grounds for criticising the practice of many of these bodies: their centralism, top-down nature and lack of imagination and sensitivity. New Labour has bought into this critique, but from a Thatcherite, rather than a progressive perspective.
There is a need for a new institutional framework for progressive politics which reimagines the idea of the public at the level of party, wider currents and governance. Looking at the Labour Party, it is easy to pour scorn on the Tony Blair/Hazel Blears concept of a Labour Supporters Network, as a means to dilute and neuter the troublesome party membership who want to have a say. This is the ultimate Blairite fantasy: the party reduced to the role of cheerleaders, similar to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. The longer-term issue, however, is that the old institutional coalition of Labour is now significantly weakened; party membership has more than halved since 1997, and trade union membership is still the preserve of public sector workers.
There is a desperate need to think about the kind of institution building the left should do. The state of US politics offers a salutary warning for the kind of future to avoid. For the last thirty years, the American conservative movement have engaged in a never-ending, creative exercise in creating a movement, from think tanks and pressure groups to lobbying bodies, faith groups and churches. The Democrats over the same period have been outmanoeuvred and outresourced to the point that post-2004 they have realised the need to begin to address this imbalance.
What kind of institutions does a progressive movement need to sustain itself, grow and challenge prevailing ideas? Compass is one response, but it is only one small organisation, and there is a need for many more bodies and groups, including some that address the issue of the new generation of ‘netroot’ activists. When Labour asked this question after its third election defeat in 1987, it looked at the influence of the Thatcherite think tanks in creating a fertile climate of ideas; this led to the creation of IPPR in 1988 and Demos in 1993. Both proved enormously successful in generating new ideas, thinking and creativity. However, there is a now a sense of think tank fatigue setting in, as the limitations of this model become apparent, with its emphasis on corporate funding, access to politicians and media coverage (see Leys, 2006). Some supposedly progressive think tanks, such as the New Local Government Network, have become leading advocates of privatising public services, which is not surprising given that the weight of their funding comes from the corporate sector.
What is needed – but Labour has failed to develop – is a distinct progressive economic and social agenda. Some sympathetic observers of the Blair government see the development of a ‘new “Anglo-social” welfare model, incorporating and reconciling economic performance and flexibility with equality and social justice’ (Dixon and Pearce, 2005: 81). This combines the ‘economic dynamism’ of the US and the ‘social equity’ of the Nordic model (Pearce and Paxton, 2005: xiii) in an approach focused on supply side measures where addressing massive incomes, wealth and power is not even on the agenda.
The Blair government has invested massively in public services and has pushed public expenditure as a percentage of GDP up from 37 to 42 per cent. However, there has been a profound paradox at the heart of the Blair administration in relation to public services. After a colossal and impressive programme of investment the idea of the public realm – of a sector of society which operates on a different logic from the private sector – has never been weaker or under more pressure.
The last decade has seen no real sense of championing the idea of ‘public goods’, of areas like education and health as being seen as so important that they have to be free, shaped by an egalitarian impulse, and run by principles different from those of the market. The exception have been the annual homilies from Gordon Brown, at the Labour Conference or TUC Annual Congress, praising public service in an evangelical way as ‘a calling’, and as being about ‘service’ not ‘self-interest’, which does not fit with the main Blairite or Brownite views of the public sector (see for example, Brown, 2002, quoted in Hassan, 2004: 208).
Brown’s inability to find a convincing way of linking economic liberalism to the idea of the public good can be seen in the consistent failure to recognise that the idea of the public realm needs to be articulated, nurtured and nourished, and given the encouragement and love to be able to self-generate and withstand the encroachments of individualist, acquisitive capitalism. Unfortunately the Blair government has taken the opposite approach, introducing marketisation into the public sector, sometimes even privatisation.
The Blair government’s mantra of choice and contestability, and its consumer agenda in the public sector, may be wrong, but has to be seen not just in the context of New Labour, but the wider historic failure of the left to be creative and imaginative about public services. Blair and company have drawn directly from the rich stream of new right ideas and in-vogue business ideas. There have been few alternative models to draw from or challenge the Blairites with. Labour’s decentralist tradition was quickly marginalised as the party’s strength grew and it became a governing party. The only real exceptions to this have been the decentralist ideas of guild socialism in the 1920s, and the brief Bennite flowering of workers co-operatives of 1974-75.
It is time to go back to the future, and re-examine the rich fertile ideas in Labour’s self-governing, decentralist tradition. The centralist, uniformist model no longer works, while the privatised, finance driven world of the Thatcherites and Blairites leaves people even more powerless. The experience of devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, has shown the emerging nature of a UK politics with different political centres. It has also shown the potential of very different social democratic politics from New Labour: universal free care for the elderly in Scotland, a more traditional approach in Wales, and congestion charges in London. These three examples all have limitations in their politics, but they do show that there are alternatives to Blairism, that play a part in contributing to a very different UK.
A recent response to the decline and hollowing out of political parties has been the emergence of independent citizens initiatives such as The East London Community Organisation (TELCO), an umbrella organisation which has brought together numerous community groups, refused to take corporate funding, and which in the run-up to the Olympic decision to award the site of the 2012 games decided to exercise its significant leverage about local jobs and contracts (Howarth and Jamoul, 2004) (2). Another has been the Glasgow 2020 programme facilitated by Demos, bringing together twenty leading public agencies in the city in a project which has given voice to the non-institutional view of the city, and use the power, imagination and creativity of story and narrative to shape different views of the city (3). Glasgow 2020 was a first in the UK, and possibly anywhere, which attempted to reimagine a city through the stories people tell about it, and to think in very different ways from traditional policy.
The experiences of TELCO and Glasgow 2020 point to a desire to create a very different notion of public space and conversation. This is a public space shaped by local people, not corporates or developers. It is a conversation which touches some of the deep issues of life – such as the search for meaning – has a philosophical side, and is characterised by a very female-friendly, feminised politics.
In a UK state that, despite devolution, is one of the most centralist in Europe, this is about the importance of the local. The centralisation of UK politics has sucked the energy and interest out of it, and a new kind of localism, not necessarily focused on councils or mayors, seems to be where people want to locate more politics and power. It also points to the new forms of organisations and institutions which are needed in the future – neither the ‘old’ public, or the ‘new’ corporate driven public. Instead, new agencies will need to be informed by the shift from the first modernity’s ‘logic of structure’ to the second modernity’s ‘logic of flows’ (Beck and Willms, 2004: 27).
British politics after Blair
British politics after Blair could contain a number of possible futures:
• Continuation of the Conservative century: The Blair government will come to be seen as a unique but transient force, a blip in the continuity of Conservative dominance. Labour’s three election victories would then be viewed as more the product of Blair and the appeal of his personality than the merits of Labour. A Labour Party post-Blair will return to conventional British politics, based on competitive two-party politics and a renewed Conservative challenge.
• A new progressive consensus – the Europeanisation of British politics: The Blair government becomes part of the foundation of a new consensus, which would include a return to a progressive Europeanism. This was indeed the original inspiration of ‘the project’, opening up the progressive coalition to Labour and Lib Dem co-operation. Such a perspective could take the Labour-Lib Dem coalition in Scotland and briefer experience in Wales as models of the way forward. However, to gain added impetus at Westminster this will require proportional representation, and for Labour to lose its majority at the next UK election.
• Post-democracy: New Labour’s embrace of post-democratic elites and the international corporate class continues after Blair. Political parties continue the process of hollowing out, while memberships are reduced to the role of cheerleaders. Political power continues flowing out of traditional party politics and into other arenas: from the corporate world to NGOs and community activism. All the main parties collude in this process and do not challenge the orthodoxies of post-democracy.
• Labour implosion: Australianisation of British politics: Labour, after being in power for over a decade, is exhausted and tainted by various scandals. The serious point arrives when the party loses its reputation for economic competence, and a weakened, demoralised party is replaced by a new Conservative ascendancy. With few resources left, the party faces a long period in opposition. This is the story of Australian Labor after Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and could be the future of New Labour post-Blair and Brown (adapted from Gamble, 2006: 308-12).
The above four possible futures are all possible. What happens will be dependent on a number of factors ranging from the nature of Blair’s end period of leadership, whether party discipline remains or disunity re-emerges, and the manner of the succession of the post-Blair leadership, their style of governing and agenda. A host of external factors will be crucial – from what David Cameron’s Conservatives does to the attitude of that influential Blairite, Rupert Murdoch.
From the near left to the next left: story, song and heroes
Defining the politics of the next left involves looking beyond the dying embers of the Blair government and abandoning the politics of ‘the near-left’. This requires a number of activities. First, it necessitates the need for a new progressive story. What are the over-arching narratives of the centre-left in Britain today? What kind of society do we want Britain to be, and what road maps have we for getting there? Clearly the UK cannot become Sweden overnight, but what sort of progressive values do we want to embed and entrench in institutions with the aim of nurturing a different political culture? Is the social democratic impulse strong, radical and robust enough for the challenges of government and global capitalism? Is British social democracy capable of renewing itself, or has it become hopelessly compromised by neo-liberalism?
Second, any progressive story needs a musical soundtrack to capture the mood of the times: namely a sense of song. All forms of popular culture matter to progressive politics, art, film, theatre, but the power of song touches a deep resonance. It is revealing of the political era across the Western world that despite the massive international protests against the Iraq war, for ‘Making Poverty History’, against the G8 and for environmental and trade justice, that the musical reference points of political change are still largely rooted in the myths and folklore of the 1960s. Indeed, the tyranny of the ‘swinging sixties’ and the self-congratulatory nature of the baby boomer generation has become profoundly conservative and nauseating. Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones have been canonised and revered in a manner which misrepresents the past and limits future creativity. A radical social movement needs songs, music, concerts and collective moments of celebration, passion and connection. It does not need pop stars becoming part of the post-democratic establishment in the way that Bono and Bob Geldof have done.
Third, the left desperately needs to have a few heroes and even a few villains. Who are the heroes of the left today? Bono and Geldof are too individualistic, self-promoting and not connected to a wider constituency. Some people might laud Bill Clinton, but he remains a character too flawed with an ambiguous record. The only obvious eligible candidate is Nelson Mandela. He is the last universal hero the left has across the world: someone with international appeal with a record of real change, and a moral dimension and compass. Perhaps we need to rethink what constitutes a modern day hero or heroine.
Given human nature, the left needs a few villains as well, as political movements are defined by its advocates and enemies. Surveying the state of Britain and the planet some of the enemies of the progressive cause should be obvious. These include the corporate elites who press at every opportunity for flexibility and deregulation for the majority, while advocating rewards and remuneration for themselves, the fundamentalist marketeers who inhabit large parts of our public life and institutions, and the advocates and apologists for post-democracy in the media and elsewhere who constantly tell us ‘There is no alternative’.
If any of the above is to be realised then progressives need to rethink and reimagine a sense of agency. The unproblematic romanticising of ‘the labour movement’ is no longer tenable, and the idea of the British state as a force for good has also been irrevocably weakened. Instead, we face the challenge of a more pluralist, unpredictable, messy, post-labourist politics, which has been brought into being by long-term economic and social changes, and aided by Blair’s marginalisation of the labour and trade union movements. And the left has to recognise it cannot appease the forces of neo-liberalism as Blair and Clinton have done. The rise of anti-politics and political disillusion has been fed by the idea of an individualised, solipsistic world which reduces politics to a personalised world without collective agency: the ultimate neo-liberal fantasy (Stoker, 2006: 203).
Finally, the next left needs to have a sense of time, to think about politics and ideas in the short, medium and long-term. Short-term policies, over the life of one Parliament, respond to immediate problems and build support for wider, deeper change. But, as Bernard Crick argues, they need to be consistent with middle-term theories about how to achieve long-term goals – such as an egalitarian society. Middle-term strategies need to be oriented to trying to change attitudes and values, either by persuasion or by changing institutions that are obstacles to change; their time span is thus likely to be over the period of a generation. Lastly, long-term values have to be articulated about the kind of society progressives want (see Crick, 1984: 36-37).
Many commentators have long argued that Blair’s legacy will be to make Labour safe for those with power, and to remove the potential threat of socialism. This is undoubtedly true from where we currently stand, but it is equally possible that the post-Blairite inheritance will stretch out and evolve in ways as yet unpredictable, as New Labour’s decade of dominance becomes political history.
A post-Blairite progressive politics will find itself in a landscape shaped by a post-labourist politics, where the forces of Labour tribalism and chauvinism, once the anchor sheets of Labour, are no longer the defining forces. Such an environment has all sorts of possibilities for a more creative, pluralist politics, but it could also open the way for those who want to make New Labour a permanent party of the post-democratic establishment. Such an outcome could see Labour abolished in the way Michael Young foretold in his account of a future, individualised society quoted at the beginning of this introduction (1958).
The Blair government’s record has had many major successes, from record investment in public services, to addressing child and pensioner poverty, the national minimum wage, and Scottish and Welsh devolution; but it has, overall, weakened and diminished the prospects for progressive politics. A post-Blair centre-left politics faces many challenges including:
• Is continued economic growth viable and sustainable and is it the best way to advance progress and the idea of the good life and society?
• The fairness agenda – what degree of poverty and inequality is tolerable in an affluent society?
• A public sector reform agenda – democratic and decentralist – not shaped by either marketisation or ‘producer capture’
• The challenge to bring about a new era of corporate responsibility and accountability, and to end the ‘corporate capture’ and commercialisation of large swathes of public life
• The decentralisation agenda – to begin to overcome the excessive centralism of British political life and the state
• The challenge posed by European integration
• The foreign policy agenda – rethinking the obsession of the British political classes with Atlanticism.
More profound than all of these is the question of what the centre-left is about. Will people have the courage and conviction to abandon the politics of ‘the near left’ that they have inhabited for the last twenty plus years, and to strike out onto new terrain? In an age which has been shaped by social democratic retreat, are our hopes now confined to a defence of what has already been achieved, with a little tinkering and a few measures of reform? If this is the case, the British left will forever remain a prisoner of the conservative political culture, its best option reduced to that of governing in a hostile, unfriendly climate. Can we aspire to a politics of transformation, with a new story and project, which seeks to remake the political weather on our terms?
There can be no going back to the cosy, comfortable assumptions of British politics pre-Blair. Blair’s brutalism, and humiliation of so much of what ‘the labour movement’ has held dear, means that there can be no return to ‘normal service’. That might seem a little scary, but it could also, ultimately prove a liberation for progressives.
1. The Iraq war began in March 2003 and has now run for three and a half years. The Korean war was fought from June 1950 to July 1953. Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan began in October 2001, and it qualifies as Blair’s longest military intervention.
2. For further information on TELCO: www.telcocitizens.org.uk.
3. For further information on Glasgow 2020: www.glasgow2020.co.uk.
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