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Tony Blair and the Marxists

Angela McRobbie
26 March 2003

Many on the political left have been perplexed by the way in which British prime minister Tony Blair has increasingly aligned himself with politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, whose political preferences are well to the right. His political friendships with George W. Bush, Jose Maria Aznar, and Silvio Berlusconi are the outward sign of a global political strategy which emphatically dismisses any trace of leftist affinity.

Moreover, the global strategy is not just political but military. Before as well as after 9/11 in New York and Washington, Blair has pursued an agenda of using force to intervene in foreign crises – from Sierra Leone to Kosovo, from Afghanistan to (the most perilous and controversial of all) the current war in Iraq. Whether described as ‘moral imperialism’ or ‘humanitarian intervention’, the unquestioning alliance with the US that this strategy entails is also a decisive move away from any distinctively left-wing foreign policy.

Yet these highly visible trends also conceal a highly significant fact: that, in several important ways, Tony Blair’s New Labour government owes its success to a number of ‘hard left’ political actors and thinkers, of both past and present.

The politics of forgetting

It may seem naive to resurrect – now, of all times – the vocabulary of leftism in relation to New Labour. In fact it is a way of retrieving a real history, one moreover that is crucial to understanding New Labour’s current travails.

This history has been consigned to near-oblivion, for two reasons. First, the Third Way – the much vaunted attempt to forge a modernised politics ‘beyond left and right’ (as conceptualised by sociologist and New Labour ‘guru’ Anthony Giddens) – was consciously designed to delegitimise New Labour’s historical antecedents as well as chart a path for its future; and its victory here was complete.

Second, the living memories of embittered factionalism within the Labour Party during the Thatcher years – widely used by the political establishment and media as evidence of Labour’s unelectability – are utilised by Labour careerists too (except in odd private moments of nostalgia) as a pretext for abandoning the entirety of the party’s leftist legacy.

Yet this very forgetfulness of the very existence of the left carries a price, one sharply felt in the present political moment, as New Labour is palpably unable to understand or engage with passionate anti-war feeling across the British population – culminating in the huge demonstrations of 15 February.

An anti-war stance in itself of course hardly constitutes a new form of left politics. But in hoping that the opposition to the Iraq war proves to be an easily dissolvable current of popular feeling, New Labour is failing to heed the voices of the new, diversified political constituencies which now comprise the British electorate. On this occasion, the lessons of the Italian (and Sardinian) Marxist, Antonio Gramsci – lessons which New Labour once learnt so well, rather magnificently managing to employ them to produce alliances not of the left but of the centre – have been ignored.

The popular consent to war that New Labour wants is not being achieved even in the midst of battle – and despite its deep, hegemonic (to use a Gramscian term) reach into every corner of the popular media. The media in turn, anxious to fulfil its remit of ‘balance’, finds it virtually impossible to find groups or lobbies or populations in favour. The young? No way. The elderly? Certainly not. Women? As if. Black and Asian Britons? Nothing doing. The Scots? Are you serious?

New ways of being radical

New Labour cannot imagine, let alone address, a crucial reality of the society around them: that an entirely new kind of leftism has come into being – a fluid, amorphous, mutating, dissolving, cellular and networked form of political attachment and affiliation.

Such a network is bringing together a glorious diversity of unimagined identity-inclined constituencies: white DJs, young black women rap stars like Ms Dynamite, elderly middle-class ‘ladies’ from England’s southern ‘home counties’, young and old British Muslims, veteran peace campaigners, unbending Scottish trade unionists alongside their sharp young militant colleagues.

Confronted with this spectrum of protesters the government consoles itself with arguments about the limits of the ‘demonstration’ as an event – short-lived, emotive, misdirected and expressive of other grievances ; whose impact, it hopes, can be safely defused by skilful media management.

This time, it has not happened according to plan. Despite the most intense and sophisticated media manoeuvres, 120 and 139 Labour MPs voted against its own government in the parliamentary votes that followed the epic demonstrations in London, Glasgow, and elsewhere on 15 February. New Labour finds itself isolated, bewildered and friendless as never before.

The albatross of socialism

Tony Blair fiercely resists any idea of asserting even the most vestigial leftist identity on the international stage. In his personification, New Labour remains haunted by the ‘spectral presence’ of the left and its perceived legacy of damage.

The reason for this evasion is itself a key to understanding New Labour’s political character. For the new left, from the late 1960s onwards, is actually an integral part of New Labour’s deep inner psyche, history, passions and memory – as well as of its contemporary practice.

During the long Thatcher and Major years (1979-1997) the left came to be seen – partly due to relentless vilification by the tabloid press – as an obstacle to power. New Labour too learnt to ritualistically disavow the left at every turn. But so integral was the left to the formation of New Labour that it retains a troublesome, aching and anxious presence. Any suggestion of its reappearance on the political horizon is met instantly with over-reaction, and forceful repudiation.

Hence the perverse Blair-Berlusconi friendship, and Blair’s distancing from France with its intact public sector and trade unions, and from Germany with its impassioned and popular green leftist Joschka Fischer. Hence, too, his government’s wilful embrace of a rightist agenda for fear of being seen as tainted by leftism.

The Scottish routes of New Labour

The core question this raises is: why New Labour’s break with radicalism and its own nominally working class roots? Perhaps the best way of answering this is by drawing on my own personal-political geography; for, as it happens, my own account of this severance also mirrors some of New Labour’s own journeys.

I will start, then, in Scotland. If Scottish political culture remains an essentially radical, dissenting one, this is more than anything else the legacy of its organised and militantly working class tradition. The Catholic middle class in which I grew up shared this radicalism even across the class divide. Conservatism, by contrast, has had comparatively a far more meagre constituency across Scotland as a whole.

A significant number of key figures in New Labour also grew up in Scotland and went to university from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. The youthful militancy of the current chancellor, Gordon Brown, and the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook (who resigned from the government in opposition to war on Iraq), are only two examples. They were part of a group which produced – just before my own time at university – the notorious Red Paper on Scotland, which set out a new socialist agenda for the country which challenged the by then complacent and sclerotic Labour Party.

Similarly, the former defence secretary and secretary-general of Nato, George Robertson, graduated from Dundee University in 1968 to become a full-time trade union official for the General, Municipal and Boilermakers’ Union (GMB); the energy minister Brian Wilson became an excoriating radical journalist and one of the founders of the West Highland Free Press; and John Reid (once a stalwart of the Communist Party in Scotland) has moved to the chairmanship of the Labour Party and is currently the fiercest, most fluent and unshakeable advocate of the party line on Iraq.

There are several other New Labour cabinet members whose political character was honed in the pubs, debating societies, and meeting halls of Scottish left-wing argument. When they return north on frequent constituency or conference visits, they also routinely plug into that same vociferous argumentative culture.

There is a sense here that Scotland is, of all European lands, possibly the closest in the textures of its public culture to ‘really existing socialism’. One small example: within days of the murder of an asylum seeker (Firsat Dag) in a Glasgow housing estate towards the end of 2001, tenants associations and asylum seekers marched together under banners saying ‘Scotland Welcomes Asylum Seekers’. Even Tony Blair, a pupil at Fettes – one of the country’s top private schools – could not be completely immune to the dissenting culture of the land of his education.

This Scottish connection travels 400 miles south to Westminster to influence New Labour’s political identity in two key ways. First, a redistributionist ethic and desire to eradicate poverty (the Gordon Brown position); second, a hard-nosed concern with party discipline (as exemplified by John Reid).

The curious result is passionate conviction expressed and defended via dogmatic, inward, top-down control mechanisms. In the new climate of diverse, open public argument which New Labour by default has helped to give birth, this Scottish-inflected combination is a political operation rather than a genuine project – one incapable of delivering the true modernisation people long for.

The Birmingham connection

New Labour’s internal reformation was the result of two different paths converging, a phenomenon visible in the city I lived in from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s: Birmingham, in England’s West Midlands.

Here, the official Labour Party was lacking in ideas and barely effective. The new right was growing, while the left was mobilised around two groupings: a Gramscian, modernising Communist Party keen to connect with multicultural youth (punk and reggae), trends in fashion and style and popular events, festivals and activities; and the (Trotskyist) International Marxist Group (IMG), who sold papers at factory gates while also initiating anti-racist programmes in ethnically mixed areas like Balsall Heath and Handsworth.

Each of these groupings was also embracing feminist and gay politics. That period is marked in my own mind as one in which leftist politics entered into and transformed every waking moment – from childcare facilities (men in the crèche!) to the seminar room where Stuart Hall (one of the founding fathers of cultural studies) used continental Marxism as a means of understanding the media orchestration of consent in relation to the tough new Tory agenda on race and crime.

Initially, the official Labour Party was far removed from these activities; but this changed when (and I actually remember the day) the IMG announced it was dissolving and ‘entering’ the Labour Party. From this decision, the career of various other current cabinet ministers – like Alan Milburn, the health minister – also now depends.

Antonio and Margaret

Why Gramsci? What is the apparently unlikely connection between a long-dead Italian political philosopher and the positioning of Tony Blair on the world stage?

The answer lies in the crucial Thatcher years. It was by drawing on Stuart Hall’s Gramscian account of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to, and grip on, power that New Labour learnt how to govern. Stuart Hall has never been a Labour Party member (though I myself have been for twenty years) but his analysis of the Thatcher years had an extraordinary impact on those who at the time were in or near the Communist Party, and who were themselves gravitating towards Labour.

The most prominent outlet for Stuart Hall’s ideas was Marxism Today, the journal edited by Martin Jacques. This was the Eurocommunist-leaning, Communist Party magazine which prided itself on taking risks with left orthodoxies, guided by a belief that a failure to engage with the lives and desires of ordinary people was making the left more marginalised than ever.

New Labour might today prefer to forget the role of Marxism Today, though it was in fact central to its modernisation project. Blair himself wrote for the magazine, and his key policy advisor Geoff Mulgan was a regular contributor.

More important than either, Stuart Hall wrote many articles for the magazine – on how the success of the Tories was orchestrated, how they were able to forge a new ‘common sense’ based around popular desires and aspirations, how they reached over the heads of the left middle classes to create a climate of ‘authoritarian populism’ on issues like crime, which was appealing to those who felt abandoned by ‘old labour’.

All this offered those who were waiting in the wings (Blair, Peter Mandelson, Mulgan) a clear strategy. In a way this makes Stuart Hall the bad conscience of New Labour. Every time a minister talks about being tough on crime, or indeed reintroduces into the political vocabulary a word like ‘mugging’ (which had been dropped precisely because of the way it had been used in the Thatcher years as an emotive, racialising term), it is possible to detect a kind of guilty discomfort at the way that modernisation (or what Hall then called ‘the great moving right show’) is being enacted by New Labour.

Listening to Gramsci, again

Antonio Gramsci’s ideas, then, had a deep influence on the development of the New Labour political machine and language. But there are other important lessons from Gramsci which are going unheeded. For example, he paved the way for redescribing the left as a political force comprising ceaseless democratisation.

In a sense he detached radicalism from the idea of revolution, replacing it with endless negotiative processes which never quite reach the longed-for state of absolute resolution or definitive peace. Thus democracy is necessarily ‘incomplete’, imperfect, and never quite achieved. But it is on this very basis that it is kept alive; indeed, it is democracy precisely because of this irresolution.

It may be more difficult to hold the ground for protracted debate on what global democracy might mean, than on the decision to go to war. It may be that the slower process of building new networks of global partners, and stitching together unlikely alliances to produce blocks of popular support, is less vividly effective than a spectacular war with a defined objective and limited time scale.

But are these ‘delaying tactics’ precisely what we might expect of a social democratic government? Should not Tony Blair be able to respond to party members and citizens who do not want war? Yet the problem for New Labour is that it has endorsed a multi-mediated way of governing which is indeed informed by Gramsci’s understanding of ‘hegemony’, but which is also channelled through a relentless, pro-corporate managerialism and presidentialism at the top. For a time, Blair’s own winsome, complaisant persona could finesse these contradictions; under pressure of war’s divisions and social policy failure, the shallowness of his charm is ruthlessly exposed.

This side of the rainbow

The beaching of Blair and New Labour is in its way a heartening moment for the left in Britain. For, I would suggest, the promise of a reinvented multicultural social democratic imaginary within the currents and contours of the politics of everyday life (especially urban life) in the UK, now truly exists.

It remains often subliminal, embodied in cultural forms, associated with diverse groupings, but is unequivocally there – and ultimately expressive of a kind of common sense about how people want to live in difference, alongside each other, and thus manifest most often in fleeting moments of what Homi K. Bhabha describes as ‘solidaristic affiliations’.

New Labour is as sublimely indifferent to this exciting possibility as it is guiltily evasive of its own quasi-Marxist history. Yet by so ignoring the cultural dynamics of political sensibility (again, as in the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s, associated with left-feminists and anti-racists) New Labour is set once again to cut itself off from its own channels for political replenishment and renewal.

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