Reaping what they’ve sown

Hilary Wainwright says while the radical left are in no position to say 'I told you so', reviving public service values and practices is the only way to renew the Labour Party

May 5, 2008 · 6 min read

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.

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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.


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