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.