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The collapse of Labour ‘s vote in these local elections is about something more than New Labour ‘s Daily Mail electoral tactics and the stay-at-home revolt of Labour’s traditional supporters. Though this continues to be a factor – reinforced by the 10 per cent tax ‘mistake’. But there’s something deeper going on and it’s less easy to reverse. New Labour is now reaping what it has sown: a cumulative weakening in values of social solidarity, public service and altruism which provide the invisible bedrock on which the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party ultimately depend. New Labour has lived electorally off the legacy of earlier eras of Labour politics without renewing it and it’s a renewal that has been direly needed.
From Mandelson’s celebration of the ‘filthy rich’ and Blair ‘s contempt for public sector workers to Gordon Brown’s present refusal to properly reward public servants and the contracting out of services to private business means self-seeking individualism has been valorised and public service ethics denigrated. In his first few months as prime minister, Brown appeared to acknowledge the need to explicitly advocate social democratic value but it wasn’t reflected in significant policy shifts. And he now seems to have abandoned even this relatively superficial effort to shift Labour’s presentational tone.
Brown’s strategy (the economic foundations of New Labour) 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 all know by now, this has meant being soft on the super rich and a micro redistribution from the lower end of the top 10 per cent highest earners 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 was 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 this will torpedo the Thatcherite economic model they inherited and developed. They’ve been outflanked by the Governor of the Bank of England who last week made the kind of statement attacking city pay and incompetence that we should have been hearing from Labour’s front benches .
Even Mayor Johnson expostulates about the growing ‘inequality between rich and poor’. (It will be interesting to see whether he sticks by his commitment to London Citizens to maintain Livingstone’s use of the GLA’s power as employer and purchaser to implement a living wage of £7.50 an hour).We are seeing a new Tory rhetoric of fairness combined with a strong anti-statism aimed at a caricature of Gordon Brown’s ‘top-down government’. The combination has an appeal which New Labour is finding difficult to answer because it has neither a strategy for social justice nor a confident vision of the positive role of the state.
The two go together. Seriously redistributive and now green taxation is only politically possible if the state has real legitimacy; if there’s a popular belief grounded in experience, that it responds to people’s needs and the money paid in taxes is returned in responsive services which users feel are theirs.
Back to the future
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 administration and delivery of these social benefits, however, was via an unreformed mandarin state whose administrative hierarchies were imitated throughout the pubic sector and whose most powerful links with civil society were predominantly with business . 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 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 of 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 1 May the significance of what didn’t happen is coming home to roost for New Labour – and tragically for Londoners as a result of Ken’s political downsizing to rejoin the party he once loved.
What didn’t happen was the Labour Party grasping the importance of the GLC experiment – in all its messiness -and showing the possibility of transforming, opening and democratising state institutions, and translating this on to the national level. It could have been the basis of a direct challenge to Thatcher’s privatisation and 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.’ It’s no real comfort but there was in Livingstone’s extra 14 per cent support on 1 May, on top of Labour’s share national vote, a residue of that old potential to present a modern alternative.
Reactivate public service values
We on the radical but pragmatic left cannot now simply say ‘I told you so.’ It’s mightily tempting. But we are in no position to come out of the wings with a perfectly formed alternative strategy and means of implementing it. But the belief in public service values are still there on the ground, as is much thinking and experimentation in renewing them. But they lie dormant, unnurtured, lacking champions and increasingly overgrown in the jungle of competitive, self-seeking values.
It’s not to late to reactivate them. Drawing together the scattered left, across party boundaries, we need to resist the persistent and pervasive intrusion of a narrow, desiccated commercial logic into every public space. And to resist by celebrating the values of cooperation, of human ingenuity meeting urgent sometimes desperate social needs, of the satisfaction of helping to resolve the problems of fellow citizens. These values are still daily enacted all over the place; in hospital intensive care units, in what’s left of youth services working innovatively with voluntary organisations, in councils that have blocked privatisation and developed means of genuine improvements and so on.
Everyone has their own personal stories of public services values being practiced, unsung, not only within the public sector but in voluntary organisations working long hours and in the face of almost impossible funding pressures. These values and the kind of practices keeping them alive against the odds need the mutual reinforcement of some kind of broad based national movement. Addressing this need is surely a condition for reviving the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party or indeed any party on the left.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
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
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
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