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.
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas