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Labour’s Future and the Story of Labour Britain

The UK Labour party has yet to learn the lessons of its defeat. The six candidates for leadership of the party display a blinkered and partial view of the UK, the nature of its state and its politics.
Gerry Hassan
2 June 2010

The limits of Labour’s understanding of what has happened to it, where it is, and what it should do are becoming clear. This has been given added clarity by the contributions by the current six Labour leadership candidates who have written short manifestos and credos for The Guardian.

All of them display different degrees of ambiguity to the two questions Madeline Bunting poses: was the 2010 election result a good result for Labour or a disaster, and ‘how does one treat New Labour’s record – with pride, apologies or castigating criticism?’. In short, does the party need another ‘Labour’s lost millions’ debate as it had after 1983; and how can it have a nuanced discussion about New Labour’s successes and failures, and ask no matter how supportive or critical, the question: is this as good as it gets for centre-left politics, or is the best yet to come?

Diane Abbott talked of ‘reviving party democracy’ and ‘rediscovering a sense of moral purpose’ including abolishing ID cards. Ed Balls that ‘professional and higher income supporters’ stayed loyal, while the party losses were ‘predominantly lower-income skilled and semi-skilled workers’; the answer is to be found in ‘fair chances – not just equal opportunities’. Andy Burnham after providing an autobiography of his own ‘tough decisions’ addresses such areas in policy, summarising them as ‘anti-social behaviour’ and concerns over ‘immigration’, but not doing so in ‘a knee jerk, reactionary way’.

John McDonnell provides the most comprehensive critique of the New Labour era, arguing that ‘the penetration of neo-liberalism into the government’s psyche, meant we let the market rip, finance dominate’. David Miliband stated that Labour has to reform ‘the way politics is done to counter the deadly accusation that we stood for centralised government’ and that ‘we ceded the mantle of progress and reform’, stuck in ‘Labour’s demons of the 1980s’. Ed Miliband identified that Labour ‘seemed too casual about civil liberties’ and needed to embrace ‘a different kind of state, more open and responsive; and a society where we show we can look after each other’.

All six are filled with platitudes which avoid getting to any central kernel of truth about how rotten and disfigured New Labour came with the exception of McDonnell. All six are completely silent – as is Madeline Bunting – on a series of inter-connecting issues which go to the heart of Labour, namely the nature of Britain, politics post-devolution, the dynamics of the English dimension, and what the character of the British state has evolved into under New Labour.

The nature of Britain

All six Labour leadership candidates assume a narrow focus on a ‘Britain’ that is nearly totally unnamed and unanalysed – because it is taken as a given and ahistoric continuity. This is problematic on numerous levels, because it does not take into account the way New Labour changed the UK for the better and by design, and for worse, sometimes by design, sometimes unintentionally. The story of New Labour Britain has yet to be written, but isn’t aided by six candidates who are not even beginning to address this.

Politics Post-Devolution

The United Kingdom has been dramatically changed by the creation of new centres of power and different models of politics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with the London Mayor. Not one of the six mentions this – which can be claimed as one of New Labour’s successes.

However, the normal Westminster way of addressing this is to put devolution on a checklist of achievements, and then cling to the Westminster, Londoncentric mindset. So name checking or not name checking is not the issue. What is pivotal is that the six – along with the outgoing Labour Government did not shift their notion of the UK post-devolution or the centre. In many respects their idea of the UK and the political centre became more centralist, absolutist and unreformed, as the implementation of devolution did not change the centre, nor challenge the growing absolutist tendencies at the heart of government.

The English Dimension

England has for long been one of the great challenges to the British left, the vacuum at the heart of the entire United Kingdom post-devolution. Large elements of the left have had a long running fear of England and Englishness seeing it as synonymous with reaction, racism and xenophobia, which is only protected from itself by Scotland and Wales. Post-devolution, the Tories have floated ‘English votes for English laws’, whereas since English regional assemblies bit the dust, Labour have been silent.

The Character of the British State

The morphing of the British state into a neo-liberal polity is completely missed by nearly all of the left. The British state and political system has become one about enforcing a set of relationships which prioritise and embed a marketising, pro-corporate view of the world which aids the forces of power and privilege and the values of neo-liberalism. The character of the centre of government in No. 10, the Treasury and elsewhere has become shaped by ‘entrepreneurs of the state’, consultancies and think tanks, entrenching a neo-liberal worldview.

Their silence on these issues tells us spades about the character of Labour and the narrowness of the supposedly, thinking, reflective ‘left’ such as Compass, ‘Soundings’ and most of the centre-left think tanks. For example, neither the Compass conference ‘A New Hope’ or the recent ‘Soundings’ post-election event, have any strands or perspectives acknowledging the above. Not one of the six talked about electoral reform, whether the limited Alternative Vote (AV) or more proportional systems, the importance of liberty got scant mention, while Labour’s powerful showing in Scotland went without even a passing acknowledgement.

This touches on the wider question of how Labour and the left have understood Britain, the national dimensions and the question of the state. Many on the centre-left will find this difficult to understand but in at least part of Labour’s understanding of the United Kingdom – namely the multi-national composition of it – the Conservatives (Thatcher exempted) have had a more successful record. Tory unionism has had a more organic, evolving, loose and pragmatic modus operandi for most of its history than Labour, who tended to articulate their unionism as a state unionism based on the power and redistribution of central government. And Labour might be in trouble if David Cameron attempts to revive a ‘new Tory unionism’.

The sole exceptions on the left who have challenged this orthodoxy are Tom Nairn and Michael Keating, the latter of whom has written extensively on Labour and its relationship with Scottish nationalism and the British state.

Labour’s story has been one of being a relatively uncritical party of Westminster and parliamentary sovereignty: from 1924 implicitly when it first became a party of national government, and 1940 explicitly when it became the junior partner in Churchill’s wartime government, leading the way to 1945. It is true to say that Labour changed Westminster in numerous ways, but in many respects Westminster changed Labour even more: incorporating it into the existing political system which absorbed it without much change or challenge to its way of doing things.

Labour historic view of the British constitution wasn’t that different from the establishment’s view of it: stressing its flexibility, gentlemanly codes and checks and balances. Labour’s experience after all was that it had been accepted by the system, and that radical and far-reaching change (1945-51) was possible through a British road to socialism.

British Labour adopted all of this to further the ‘welfare settlement’ of 1945-73, and yet post-1973 in the neo-liberal era which emerged under Thatcherism and Blair, New Labour retained all the uncritical means of the previous era, but used them to entrench and advance the neo-liberal settlement. Therefore, Labour’s centralising, anti-democratic forces have a powerful set of traditions and roots in the party which it will take a significant jolt to begin to challenge and weaken. The party’s decentralist traditions, around guild socialism and ILP ethical socialism were already on the wane in the 1920s as Labour emerged as a national party of power.

There are several contradictory stories of New Labour Britain. One emphasises the democratising initiatives of devolution and constitutional reform. Another sees the accruing of power to the centre as a way of delivering the transformative political change New Labour was about, from privatisation to the assault on liberty and the surveillance state.

The dominant New Labour account does not draw from either of these – and instead has a vague, idealistic picture of party, state and nation(s). Whereas Labour once had a powerful and progressive account of Britain, which whatever its limitations drew from a sense of a people’s history and forward march of labour, now it merely has a hollowed out account of incremental conservative measures and technocratic palliatives which became reduced to ‘social justice’ and ‘fairness for all’.

The story of Labour Britain is part of the problem – both historically and contemporaneously. The party is informed by a set of comforting, cosy myths and folktales about itself which it needs to have challenged. The solutions to this are neither easy nor short term, but we cannot let the six Labour leadership contenders away with such evasions and half-truths. Such a politics has increasingly ill-served Labour, leading to a more and more centralised, authoritarian politics, from which progressive, centre-left politics have had an increasingly barren return.

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