Modernity, community, and the contested future: Thoughts on the Labour leadership election

Amidst all the discussion of Tony Blair's legacy in the Labour leadership election, one important question has been over-looked: how did Blair, the advocate of a communitarian politics become Blair the fanatical advocate of merciless market liberalisation?
Jeremy Gilbert
12 September 2010

So the Labour leadership ballots are here, ready to be returned. Like a lot of people in the Labour Party, I've asked myself many times why I remained a member. The real answer to this question is complex and multi-faceted, but a part of it has always been that I wanted the chance, one day, to vote against the Blairite candidate in a leadership election. Now that the moment has arrived, however, I find that  all  of the candidates - even the one with the great man’s backing - are trying to convince me that whatever they may be, they are not slavish followers of Tony Blair. 


At the same time, all of the debate and discussion around the leadership election (which has at times been more substantial than much of the glib commentary on the subject would have us believe) has left unanswered one singular question about the history, legacy, and future of New Labour.

It is, to my mind, the single most important historical question about Blair’s entire premiership. And yet, it is the one which none of the candidates and no mainstream commentator on the election has asked. At the same time, it is precisely the issue which Blair’s memoirs - published just last week - seems most studiously to avoid.

The question is this: how did Blair, the advocate of a communitarian politics, weakly informed by the traditions of Christian socialism and Catholic social teaching, become Blair the fanatical advocate of merciless market liberalisation?

What was ‘New Labour’?

This is a crucial question right now. Most commentary on the Labour leadership election assumes that David Miliband  represents a possible continuation of New Labour while his brother Ed represents a potential break with it. But this understanding of the situation ignores the deep fissures within ‘New Labour’ over what it was supposed to stand for and what its legacy should have been. 

Blair’s valedictory defence of his record has laid bare one of the key assumptions on which his version of the  New Labour programme was based. By 2001, and subsequently, it was clear that he had been entirely persuaded by the core arguments of neoliberalism: private good, public bad; the only form of empowerment is individual empowerment; freedom equals choice. Few can doubt the sincerity of Blair’s belief that he did what he did in order to try to improve ordinary people’s lives and to give them more control over them. The problem is that he came to accept the individualist assumption that personal freedom and the maximisation of individual choice is the same things as ‘empowerment’. 

This runs counter to the core beliefs of the labour movement, the socialist and communist traditions, but also to those of most  religious traditions and even of some strands of liberalism and Toryism: all of those bodies of opinion, in fact, which Blair once derided as ‘forces of conservatism’. Whatever their disagreements, all of those traditions would agree with Clause IV of the Labour party constitution when it asserts that ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.’ The Blairite programme of public sector ‘reform’ came to be based on the quite different belief that it is indeed much better if each of us acts alone, managing our own care budgets, choosing our own children’s schools, treating our doctors as competing ‘suppliers’ and ‘producers’ of services rather than as partners and collaborators.  

What’s striking, however, is that Blair’s full conversion to market individualism seemed to come about half-way through his tenure as Labour leader. The Blair who in 1995 had persuaded the Labour Party to replace its traditional commitment to the socialisation of the means of production with a vaguely collectivist belief  in ‘common endeavour’ was an apparently rather different animal, partial to the ideas of the socialist philosopher John MacMurray and the American communitarian Amitai Etzioni; and it was thinking like this which informed progressive initiatives such as Sure Start and the New Deal for Communities during New Labour’s first term of office. The aggressive embrace of liberal consumerism as the model for public service administration came a little later.

It has become clear in recent weeks is that such prominent figures as Jon Cruddas believe David Miliband to be the heir to this original, ‘New Labour mark I’. It’s a belief which has some grounds for credibility. Miliband and Cruddas were both advisors to Blair in those early years, before Andrew Adonis was brought in to oversee the full marketisation of public services. On the other hand,  this is an argument which, as Sam Tarry has rightly commented, is undermined by an unwillingness on David Miliband’s part to repudiate any significant element of the later New Labour legacy.

But there is a more fundamental question which neither Miliband camp seems quite ready to address, and which Blair’s self-justifying memoir offers few clues to: why did it go this way? Why did the grassroots communitarianism of the new clause IV give way to the neoliberal dogmatism of the Blair we see today, effectively endorsing the coalition’s entire economic programme? Especially given the psephological evidence that this move was never a popular one, why did it happen?

The inevitable appeal to ‘community’

There is a simple answer to this question available, which is to say that in any society dominated by liberal capitalism, political opposition from either right or left will inevitably find itself having to make communitarian noises, because the lack of community is the most obvious failing of a competitive market society and one which most of its inhabitants will keenly feel. Isn’t this what ‘The Big Society’ is all about , along with Cameron’s bizarre enthusiasm for co-operatives and for the ideas of ‘Red Tory’ Philip Blond? Just as with New Labour, but in a shorter time frame, we’ve witnessed an opposition come to power speaking a language of community and fairness, only to see it bow to the demands of the financial markets and the Whitehall monetarists by promising a historic assault on the remaining institutions of social democracy.

We must then assume that the story was similar, if slower, for Blair: pressure from elites in the City, the Civil Service and the media, gradually winning him over to the cause of full-blown neoliberalism. David Miliband and Jon Cruddas would probably argue - with some justification - that Blair’s personal commitment to communitarianism had never been run very deep, and that their own is far more serious. But this is really beside the point. Whatever his personal convictions or lack of them, Blair was elected leader of the party on a prospectus almost identical to that which they now propose, but within 5 years was trying to drive a programme informed by an almost diametrically opposite set of principles; and the party was apparently powerless to stop him.

The question which this leaves open for all of the Labour leadership contenders, or their supporters is: why should we believe that their leadership will be any different? How will they react when Gus O’Donnell, and their friends with the yachts and the hedge funds and the influential newspapers, tell them that, no matter what they might once have believed, what they have to do now is to cut taxes and privatise public services?  Will they have put in place institutions and a movement which enables them to resist such pressure better than New Labour - bereft of any real political or social base after its deliberate evisceration of the party’s democratic structures - was able to? Should we trust any of them to resist the seductive pressure to defend the interest of the elite of which they have themselves become a member? Most importantly of all: will they at least acknowledge (as New Labour never could), that such pressure will inevitably be brought to bear, and will reveal genuine conflicts of interest within our society between the rich and the poor, the employers and the employees, the upper-band tax-payers and the low-paid hospital cleaners?

 ‘Community’ vs. ‘Modernity’?

There is another, rather deeper answer to the question available as well. Arguably, throughout its history the Labour party has had to try to balance a communitarian politics which is essentially reactive in nature - responding to the dislocatory and disaggregating tendencies of capitalism in general - with a modernising vocation. At each of its three key moments of electoral victory - in 1945, 1964, and 1997 - it was the latter which was either explicitly or implicitly the leading element. Attlee’s cabinet belonged to a generation of Labour politicians which had rejected the ethical socialism of Ramsay MacDonald and George Lansbury for the  technocratic rigours of the planned economy and rational government. Wilson, famously, predicated his entire campaign in 1964 on a promise to displace a decaying aristocratic establishment, purging the country in the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’. By 1999 Blair was already  lumping together all of his opponents, left and right, into that famously abject category, ‘the forces of conservatism’, having come to power with his promise to make Britain feel like a ‘young country’.

It’s interesting to reflect, then, that historically, Labour has only ever been able to make a success of its electoral and governing programme when it has been popularised in explicitly modernist terms, but that there has never been any necessary political content to that modernism. The social democracy of the 1940s and the neoliberalism of the 1990s were each able to  find themselves articulated in a modernising language. By the same token, we might have to conclude that the language of community, of the defence of ways of life, of resistance to the modernising imperatives of capital - a language which coloured much of the disastrous 1983 and 1987 election campaigns - has simply never worked for Labour, whatever its intrinsic merits may be (and I think they are considerable). 

Looked at in the bigger context, it is not hard to see why this should be the case. Who needs Labour to offer a conservative vision, even when the things it wants to conserve are admirable, when the British Conservative party - whose own lack of consistent ideology is made explicit in its very name - is arguably the most successful organisation of its kind in the history of electoral politics? The Conservative Party simply has no other ongoing purpose than to give expression to conservative sentiments and to direct them - as far as possible - in such a way that they pose no threat to established relations of power. Even Thatcher, let us not forget, would never have been elected without her appeals to racism, to ‘law and order’ and to a reactionary sexual politics.

Of course, in Scotland and Wales - where the Tory party’s historic commitment to an Anglocentric culture and state has fatally undermined its legitimacy as a possible defender of the national community - the story is different.  But this only underlines how powerfully and permanently the Conservative Party has cornered the market in conservatism in England.

The genius of New Labour in its early moment was to fuse Labour’s two traditions - conservative communitarianism and technocratic modernism - at their most explicit, but perhaps that history should also have served as a warning that Labour in government would inevitably lean to the latter rather than the former. During the 1990s, a certain kind of modernist / postmodernist technocratic liberalism clearly hegemonised the very idea of ‘modernity’ within the British political class: just think of Geoff Mulgan - like Adonis and David Miliband, a one-time head of the prime-minister’s policy unit -  telling us gleefully how wonderful the ‘post-political’ age would be.

The challenge now for those who claim that they will not repeat New Labour’s ‘mistakes’ is to formulate an alternative modernising vision. Without it, the danger is that the  evocations of ‘community’ and ‘democracy’, the embrace of ‘community organising’ and the celebration of localism which have all typified the speeches of Cruddas, Miliband senior and their main advisors can serve as nothing but defensive slogans, expressive of a kind of leftists conservatism which may be useful for combatting the most hideous kinds of right-wing reaction in Barking and Dagenham, but not for mobilising an effective new vision of what a modern (or postmodern, or post-postmodern) Britain might look like.

Ed Miliband, for his part, has advocated an attractive set of progressive and intelligent policies; but not, again, a vision of how they might fit together into a modernising project. Even Andy Burnham, who of all the candidates is actually the one to have come closest to articulating a coherent vision of how a critique of New Labour might generate an alternative vision for the country,  which both speaks to present problems and inherits Labour’s best traditions (it pains me to say this of a candidate who frequently gives the impression that he is being played by popular character comedian Steve Coogan, but it’s true: don’t be surprised if Labour members disconnected from the London media-politics machine back him in unexpected numbers), has ultimately failed to explain how his ‘aspirational socialism’ and ‘progressive universalism’ would overcome the obvious obstacles to their popularisation within a culture saturated by individualism, short-term hedonism and petty hierarchy.

As excellent as these notions are, it is not clear that they could simply be willed into existence by a Burnham-led Labour Party. What none of these candidates has done is what each of their successful predecessors has done, for better or for worse: to find some living and dynamic element of emerging social trends which has not yet been given political expression, and to forge a language which defines it in terms of a political project.

Possible Futures

There is never just one version of the future available to us. The new technologies - not just the new machines, but the new techniques of government - which made possible the social democratic triumph of the 1940s could have merely become the agents of bureaucratic centralisation and efficient exploitation. Instead, at least in Northern Europe, parties of the left managed to redefine them as tools of social progress. New Labour didn’t have to accept that the Clinton model of low-wages, low-taxes, and financial deregulation was the only future implicit in the emergent world of the information superhighway: that it did so was symptomatic of the chronic failure of imagination typical of such a narrow and insular ‘elite’ (and it is therefore no wonder that the two intellectuals to have had a serious impact on the current contest - Maurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford - are both based at non-prestigious metropolitan universities, as far as it is possible to be from the Oxbridge / Ivy League nexus that produced New Labour and the Milibands).

Right now, there are at least two possible futures implicit in the forms and symbols of modernisation which we can see all around us: an X Factor world of vicious competition, new  forms of authoritarianism and a dreadful narrowing of personal and collective aspirations; a YouTube world in which the authority of centralised media and corporate capital is severely weakened by the power of decentralised democracy and collective creativity. The latter is a real possibility, immanent to the most transformatory tendencies of our age, but it will prove unrealisable without a programme of institutional and democratic transformation far more radical than anything envisaged even in the days of Labour’s halting half-conversion to the cause of constitutional reform, in 1992.

Of course, we know which world all of the Labour contenders would say they want to lead us to. But then the question comes back round again, almost unchanged: will they recognise that there are powerful forces which will try to stop them, to push them in the other direction, to ensure that it is only Murdoch’s version of modernity that can possibly triumph, and that ‘community’ becomes just an alibi for the decimation of public services? Will they tell us what they plan to do about it when such pressure is brought to bear? Until they do, I’m reluctant to vote for any of them.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData