Why Labour Needs to Ditch Both Fabianism and New Labour Centralism
The Guardian Comment, June 3rd 2010
The Labour leadership campaign is one of the first indications of the state of the party. If the six contributions from the current candidates are anything to go by in yesterday’s Guardian (June 1st), the party is going to have a long time before it gets it act together.
Platitudes and generalities were aplenty; the party has to ’renew’, rediscover its ‘idealism’ and ‘moral purpose’. Underneath all the warm words one area was revealingly ignored: any understanding of the character and nature of Britain.
None of the candidates acknowledged the make-up of Labour in Britain, even at the last election. This is a party which did relatively well in London, but suffered huge reverses in the South and Wales. In particular, not one mention was made of the one party of the UK Labour increased its vote: Scotland and thus no examination was made of whether this might offer some lessons for the future. Scottish Labour, and the generation of John Smith, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown, did contribute hugely to keeping Labour together in the 1980s and laying the groundwork for the party’s UK fightback. Yet, strangely despite a decade of devolution Labour is more Westminster centred than ever before.
All of the Labour candidates assume a narrow focus on ‘Britain’ that is completely unnamed and unexplored, because it is taken as a given. This is a problem on many levels, because it does not take into account the way Britain has changed over the decades, economically, socially and politically, nor the ways New Labour has changed Britain for better and for worse.
Labour’s understanding of Britain has always embraced the conventional view that the UK is a unitary state: one of parliamentary sovereignty and Westminster unchallenged power. Yet, the UK is not and never has been a unitary state, but a union state, made up of different unions and national arrangements. A unitary state would not have allowed for the maintenance of Scottish autonomy which was guaranteed in the Treaties of Union of 1707. Despite this, Fabianism bought in to a unitary state interpretation of the UK which has become more and more problematic.
The UK has been radically altered by the creation of new centres of power in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, along with the London Mayor. These have further developed a union state UK politics which Labour just does not understand. Devolution is at most to Labour a box to be ticked, more likely an achievement forgotten as all six candidates do.
Devolution did not challenge the British political system’s understanding of itself. Paradoxically, the age of devolution and constitutional reform which New Labour presided over also saw the slow deforming of the political centre. Increasingly, it did not understand or reflect the UK it now governed with all its numerous multi-layered governance arrangements and power sharing. At the same time, the political centre became increasingly arrogant, centralist and absolutist: a new kind of domestic imperialism which also led us to the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then there is the English question which the British left has always been nervous of. The Tories have an English dimension with ‘English votes for English laws’, while Labour post-English regionalism seem to have nothing to say.
The character of the British state and political system has become one which increasingly advances a neo-liberal, pro-corporate view of the world. Most of the left still sees the British state – for all its regrettable acts – as a potential force for good, both domestically and internationally, and don’t acknowledge its fundamental morphing into a neo-liberal polity under Thatcher and Blair.
There is a widespread silence across Labour and the left on the British national questions and the nature of the state. It runs from the Labour six, through thoughtful commentators such as Madeline Bunting and Polly Toynbee, to even progressive, enlightened groups such as Compass and most of the centre-left think tanks. All of them are stuck in an unreflective story of ‘Britain’ which no longer exists, and is increasingly an out of date caricature.
Once there were powerful Labour and Tory stories of Britain. The Tory story was flexible, organic and decentralist, understanding the need to balance ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’. The Labour story, even at the party’s peak was always a problematic negotiation, without flags, bunting and battles to celebrate. It was a people’s story of progress and advance, and yet it was filled with nervousness talking about ‘Britain’ (too Tory, the Union Jack) and even more so ‘England’.
What the Labour leadership candidates have to realise is that the Labour story of Britain is increasingly part of the problem – for Labour and our democracy. The party has for most of its history to the present, allowed itself to be influenced by a set of myths and folklore filled with sentimentality and half-truths which have allowed the party to feel good about itself, its past and its values.
The Labour Party and the wider left needs to wake up and recognise the limited, problematic nature of Labour’s story of Britain. This entails ditching both Fabian centralism and New Labour command and control, both of which used the same means for very different ends, the former, the ‘welfare settlement’ of the post-war era, the latter, the ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ pre-bubble. This will require a vision of a very different economy, society and politics to that of the last decade, and a very different idea of government and power, which draws more inspiration from the new political centres in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, than the ancient, fossilised form of Westminster.