After New Labour, the limits of the new socialism and the need for a radical politics

Social democracy is in crisis, and has been proven inadequate everywhere. We cannot just turn back the clock, and reheat the old progressive story. Instead, we are going to have to break with the politics of the past.
Gerry Hassan
21 December 2010

British politics is in a strange place – while some of the landscape remains the same, so much is different. All three main parties have been disorientated by the result of the election and coalition, along with the scale of the crisis.

One response to this from parts of the left is to retreat into the hoary old slogans of opposition and struggle, of shouting ‘Tory cuts’ without strategy or the need for rethinking. Another approach of part of the centre-left is to hope it can, at an elite level, influence the Labour leadership and win it to a progressive agenda – an approach that has paid scant dividends throughout history and nearly always ends in disappointment.

The dominant Westminster commentariat opinion has already established its position on Labour after the election. The narrative is that Labour is heading back to its old comfort zones and that Ed Miliband has already failed as Labour leader: branded by the mainstream media as illegitimate, indecisive and lacking in political strategy.
Then there are the opinion polls. Labour may be cheered by the polls – and in most it is at or above 40 per cent - and ahead of the Conservatives. However, Miliband’s ratings are – so critics allege – the lowest for any new leader apart from Michael Foot, William Hague and Nick Clegg. Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and David Cameron all had higher ratings. The argument is clear: Ed Miliband is a loser.

In the last week, Gavin Esler interviewing Alistair Darling on ‘Newsnight’ talked of Miliband’s ‘faltering’ leadership as if this was a fact, while John Reid has been out on military manoeuvres. Labour’s new leader, said Reid, in his intent on ending the era of New Labour, “does not understand New Labour” or the need for change to embrace “permanent revisionism”.

Ed Miliband is being seriously patronised and underestimated in these accounts. He defeated the media and political establishment’s favourite candidate in the Labour leadership election (his brother David). He has drawn a decisive line under Blairism and New Labour with its corruption, cronyism and corporate love affair, and he has openly declared that the Iraq war was ‘wrong’. And each week, at Prime Ministerial Questions, he has shown he can do well against David Cameron.

Yet the whole Blairite political establishment in Labour is feeling the loss of what it sees it owns by right: how it proscribes what is possible and not possible in politics. The old ruling order feels it has been chucked out of power, and its way of seeing things – no deviation from New Labour – is seen as under attack.

Miliband has in his journey so far drawn significantly from the work of Compass, who have, over the last few years, been endeavouring to develop a post-New Labour politics. Rather helpfully, in the last couple of weeks, Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, and John Harris, a journalist, have written a major essay exploring the prospect of new thinking, ‘Time for a New Socialism’. This lays out the challenge to Labour and Ed Miliband and makes the case for a ‘new socialism’ that is equipped to deal with the challenges we face.

Lawson and Harris concede that New and Old Labour are both dead and good riddance to them. Social democracy with its statism, top downism and experts-know-best approach, has been in retreat for decades. And they believe ‘a new paradigm’ is emerging around the need for greater equality, a more regulated capitalism, pluralism and decentralism.

This is frankly, for all the good intentions, a threadbare analysis and prospectus. There is no understanding or critique offered of the nature of the British state or the undemocratic nature of the political order of Britain, and no reference made to the insular character of our politics and political classes.

The story of Britain that Lawson and Harris tell is a narrow, discredited one, totally focused and obsessed with Westminster bubble politics, with no mention of the crisis, debris and disaster which this approach has brought about. Nowhere do they make the connection between the economic crisis engulfing us and the political crisis and order that brought it about, because they just don’t see that link.

There is a passing nod to ‘an era of pluralism’ and ‘the new politics’ personified by the coalition and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but it is a fleeting mention. Lawson and Harris do not challenge the unitary state account of Britain that gave us Thatcherism, Blairism and Old Labour. Even more damningly, they ignore England, and the fact that while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have developed new political cultures and voices, England has been left as the nation of the democratic deficit.

While we have Scottish and Welsh Labour with all their imperfections, English Labour has yet to be born. This is terrain which Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham, has stated is central to Labour and democracy; it is also ground Compass have systematically ignored, as do Lawson and Harris.

What we do get is the constant Compass refrain of ‘the good society’, which is as nebulous and flawed an idea as ‘the big society’, and in many respects even more vague. There is no real curiosity shown for the Cameroon Conservatives or the substantial rethinking going on in centre-right circles.

John Harris in a follow-up piece writes that “the post-war model of state provision is over” yet at the same time “the solutions the post-Thatcher settlement offered only made matters worse”.  Harris rightly asks, “Does a shadow state run by Serco, Capita and the rest, do anything to empower anybody, apart from those companies?”, and answers no. He then casts around to find ‘a guiding idea’ for the left and ‘public sector reform’ and desperately tries to identify it in co-production: the technical, managerial vision of early New Labour and Demos and the like pre-1997.

This sort of left writing found in the Lawson and Harris essay has a strange timelessness and listlessness about it. For all its talk of urgency and ‘now’, with a few changes of detail it could have been written in 1983. It focuses nearly completely on Labour, internal party conversations, and with the concept of ‘the left’. This is that age-old belief that through focusing on perfecting Labour you can change the world.

For all its claims of pluralism and abandoning the comfort zones of New Labour, this is deeply tribal, old-fashioned thinking: the party at the centre of everything, the zenith of aspirations a kind of ‘Back to the Future’ to social democracy and ‘new socialism’. David Marquand has written in response to Lawson and Harris, that given the state of politics domestically and internationally, focusing on the health of Labour as your central activity is ‘displacement activity’.

What, then, does this hold for Ed Miliband and life post-New Labour? The age of New Labour is over; it has exhausted itself and become part of the problem, not the solution, and its advocates morphed into the new conservatives. Miliband clearly sees the challenge for him as one for the long distance runner and not a sprinter. This demands a politics as ambitious and ideological as Margaret Thatcher aspired to when she dared to remake ‘the common ground’ when she became Tory leader in 1975.

Miliband faces huge obstacles to achieving this. There is Labour tribalism and love of anti-Toryism. Then there is Labour short-termism – which will be aided by the cuts and coalition unpopularity – which still does not understand why people don’t vote Labour and has little grasp why millions of working people vote Conservative.

This approach infects so much of what passes for analysis even from thoughtful voices, with Polly Toynbee subscribing to the complacent view that if Miliband plays it straight, victory will be his, writing that “only mighty blunders of great idiocy can stop Miliband’s party winning the argument with enough voters”. After all, in Labour’s history, this kind of non-thinking and knee-jerkism is one of the greatest obstacles to understanding the scale of the challenge. Have people forgotten how poor Labour was at winning elections until Blair and New Labour came along? The sense of pleasure and schandenfreude which exists across parts of the left about the actions and resulting unpopularity of the Lib Dems, as described by Stuart Weir, is founded on the presumption that all of this will remove the pesky Lib Dems and return things to that nice, tidy two party politics, an attitude similarly found in Scottish Labour’s paranoid hatred of all things Scottish Nationalist.

More seriously, in the medium to long term, is the question of what Labour stands for? The old social democracy is dead, but it cannot be resuscitated by a new social democracy or socialism. The values of the left and social democracy are as tarnished in the current crisis as that of the right and neo-liberalism, both being modernist projects fixated and based on economic growth.

New radical thinking is needed which is not based on internal Labour conversations, or endless questions about ‘what would the left do about … welfare, work or civil liberties?’ Addressing the future of Labour requires addressing the future of society, Britain, and imagining a different future.

What this requires is a politics beyond the party, which has a set of stories, a mission and an agency, and links to philosophy, economics, sociology and psychology. It has to have an understanding of the complex mosaic of class and inequality in Britain, which isn’t just about the working and middle classes, or the vagueness of the ‘squeezed middle’. Somehow, the right and neo-liberalism has seized the language of aspiration, liberation and freedom – territory the left once thought was its own. Globalisation has used the language, values and zeal of a liberation movement to an extent that the left has still to recognise. And it has made its claims on the future with its determinist belief in the inexorable forces it gives voice too; this sense of ‘the official future’ – that tomorrow belongs to globalisation – has again stolen the left’s mindset without the left even recognising the scale of the resulting change.

The party today has to go with the grain of societal change in the way Old Labour did at its peak along with Thatcherism and New Labour. We have to develop a new language and philosophy that balances the claims of equity with efficiency, choice and voice, producer and consumer interests and capture, and which takes back the values of freedom and liberation from neo-liberation.

I don’t see how the challenge of managing and regulating the forces of capitalism, power and privilege can be mustered by social democracy or a ‘new socialism’. Social democracy is in retreat everywhere, in crisis, and has been proven inadequate everywhere. Instead, we are going to have to break with the politics of the past, and take the best from the social democratic tradition, while developing a post-labourist politics which is a mix of red, green, feminist and the best of the radical liberal democratic traditions. And that can’t just be an adding together of a left ‘rainbow coalition’, but instead, through the mixing of traditions, must aid the true emergence of a genuine ‘new paradigm’.

That may sound, at the moment, suitably vague and woolly, but at least it is a more humble, honest and radical starting point than believing, after all the retreats and humiliations of social democracy, that we can just turn back the clock, and reheat the old progressive story. That is truly living in the comfort zones of the past, and much much more is required today.

This piece was originally published on Gerry Hassan's blog.

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