Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones