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New Labour is now reaping what it has itself sown: a cumulative weakening of the values of social solidarity, public service and altruism, which provide the invisible bedrock on which the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party ultimately depend.
From Peter Mandelson’s celebration of the ‘filthy rich’ and Tony Blair’s contempt for public sector workers, through to Gordon Brown’s present refusal properly to reward public servants and his insistence that ‘public service reform’ means contracting out these services to private business, self-seeking individualism has been valorised and public service ethics denigrated.
Brown’s overarching strategy has been to make Britain a fast-growing economy competing on the terms set by finance-led global capitalism and to stealthily engineer a trickle down to the deserving poor. As we know this has meant being soft on the super rich, while achieving a micro redistribution from the better off to low-income families.
This formula could more or less appear to work when the economy was buoyant. But as soon as this speculation-led growth began to falter New Labour’s uncritical attachment to the priorities of the City as the chosen instrument of economic expansion has become visibly paralysing.
As growth slows the government has less money to spend on tackling poverty or investing in services; and it dare not borrow more or tax the wealthy because to do so would torpedo its Thatcherite economic model. New Labour is consequently disarmed by the new Tory rhetoric of fairness, combined with a strong anti-statism, because it has neither a strategy for social justice nor a confident vision of the positive role of the state – and still less an overarching vision that brings them together.
And the two do go together. Seriously redistributive and green taxation is only politically possible if the state has real legitimacy – in other words, if there is a popular belief, grounded in experience, that the money paid in taxes is returned in responsive services that users feel are theirs.
The British state won this legitimacy throughout the post-war decades of reconstruction, building the welfare state and enjoying its first benefits. The result was a 20-year or so social democratic consensus legitimating taxation and redistribution. The delivery of these social benefits, however, was via an unreformed mandarin state, whose most powerful links with civil society were predominantly with business. These administrative hierarchies were imitated throughout the pubic sector. The result was a daily experiences of state institutions, from universities and the education system through to local government and even the health service, that was contradictory and frustrating – unresponsive to growing expectations and a new diversity of demand.
The social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s were one response. Arguably one reason for the significance and lasting memory of Ken Livingstone’s GLC was that it was one the few politically successful experiments in translating the diffuse but creative radicalism of the 1970s into a popular political programme. It was cut short in its prime. We all know what happened then.
But perhaps now, after the May Day election debacle, the significance of what didn’t happen is coming home to roost for New Labour. The Labour Party didn’t grasp the importance of the GLC experiment, in all its messiness, in illustrating the possibility of transforming, opening up and democratising state institutions – and translating this onto the national level. This – and many similar experiences internationally – could have been the basis of a direct challenge to Thatcher’s privatisation and her reverse, Hood Robin, approach to redistribution. Indeed, Norman Tebbit saw the threat when he remarked of the GLC on the eve of its abolition: ‘This is modern socialism and we will kill it.’
The belief in values of social solidarity and in the possibility of bringing state institutions, international as well as national and local, under active democratic control – along with addressing the problem of corporate power – is still there and generating new kinds of political initiatives on the ground. How can they be strengthened and built on?
At times like this, when all the mainstream focus is on Westminster politics, the left (especially the English left) has to guard against attacks of ‘phantom limb syndrome’ – the pervasive assumption that the old labour movement levers of power connecting local activists with national politics are still effective or could become so. It’s a syndrome reflected in the endless debates about what to do about Gordon Brown, the calls on the party to do this or that, and so on. The truth is that New Labour (and the global economy) has all but destroyed these traditional levers, weak as they already were.
The left needs to attach new limbs by looking beyond its existing, inbred networks and engage in the variety of new (and often local) struggles and initiatives. These are organised through communities, geographical or otherwise, as well as (and more often than) workplaces. They relate to cultural symbols and identities more than narrowly political ones.
Many socialists are already working in this way to considerable local or issue-specific effect. There is a need to strengthen the exchange between them to give innovative content to the long-term political vision of a new kind of political force – and I consciously do not use the word ‘party’, for now.
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook