There is an unseemly break in Pat Devine and David Purdy\’s argument between their masterful sweeping narrative of Britain’s post-war political economy and their recommendations for the future of the left.
At the heart of their analysis is the contention that the neoliberal right was able to seize control of Britain at the end of the 1970s largely because the left had no alternative hegemonic project, no compelling vision of how society should be ordered to offer a way out of Britain’s crisis. Thirty years later, as neoliberal hegemony collapses, they argue the left must develop a new hegemonic project if it hopes to influence the future. Yet the mechanism they advocate for achieving this, a new party of the left, doesn’t follow.
If the left lacks a hegemonic project, it is not short on parties. Indeed, until recently it made up a large chunk of the Labour Party. Yet according to Devine and Purdy its lack of vision allowed the right to triumph.
So if the absence of a hegemonic project is the root of the problem, why do we need another party? Is a new party, with its meetings and conferences, really the missing element that will crystallise our vision? A hegemonic project, as Gramsci explained and Devine and Purdy know, has a much wider scope than a single party. It is something that must be developed, extended and expanded by a broad range of intellectuals and activists, ultimately seeping into every crevice of society.
The British branch of the neoliberal hegemonic project (for it was a global phenomenon) did not depend on a party. It gathered pace from the works of disparate economists and thinkers who were on the right but not necessarily Conservative (Milton Friedman, who unfortunately died in 2006 just two years before being proved wrong, was American), and was implemented politically by a small group around Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph. Most Tory MPs and many members of Thatcher’s first cabinet were not neoliberals, or “one of us” as Thatcher expressed it. In fact the ideological flavour of neoliberalism was distasteful to genuine Conservatives.
Devine and Purdy might counter that even if a new party isn’t a prerequisite to establishing a new hegemonic project, it is still necessary for responding to events in the short term and positioning for the longer term. But this raises practical issues. Who will put in the enormous time and energy to build a new party? Why will it work now when it hasn’t worked before?
Aside from sectarian wrangling, the common explanations for the British left not getting it together are the first-past-the-post electoral system and (as a consequence) the dominance of Labour. The problem of first past the post raises the question of whether a new party is the best use of resources when it would only have a chance in local and European elections (except in Scotland and Wales).
As for Labour’s dominance, this excuse shouldn’t hold weight anymore. New Labour has long since ceased to have anything to do with the left. While some may still have the residual notion of the Labour Party as a limb of the wider labour movement or as a rainbow coalition, for younger people the party is just not seen like that. As the annual Labour conference shows, there is neither room for the left nor democratic avenues open to it.
Despite this, attempts at electoral coordination in the form of the Socialist Alliance and Respect have not broken through nationally (excepting George Galloway’s individual success). First past the post and the dominance of Labour cannot fully explain this.
Perhaps there is a deeper factor, rather painful to admit. Many European socialist parties were initially formed as loose electoral alliances and their success was phenomenally quick. Even in Britain, with its specific electoral rules, Labour was able to form a government just a quarter-century after its foundation.
This was because socialist parties had a ready-made constituency – the industrial working class. In 2009, the working class has less awareness of itself as an entity. This makes the job of forging a new political base ten times harder than it was for early socialists and demands fresh methods.
Given these bleak conditions, to present a new party of the left as the only option is somewhat demoralising. It may be true that climate change will focus minds and bridge the gaps between greens and socialists and between the generations. But part of Devine and Purdy’s purpose is to break with what they see as the failed tactics of the 1970s. It seems strange, then, to advocate the organisational form of that time – the political party – for the future of the left, especially when faith in political parties is at rock bottom (see David Beetham, Red Pepper June/July issue).
Of course the left must know its history and never forsake the painstaking work of previous generations. But just as the internal combustion engine must give way to hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars, so it must be worth trying to innovate a more appropriate vehicle for political representation.