openDemocracyUK

No Melancholia please: Reflections after New Labour

Nick Couldry
17 May 2010

After John Major, few believed that a Labour government would prove the most effective mechanism for continuing neoliberalism, but it did. After Tony Blair, not all expected that Gordon Brown would prove the most inflexible defender of neoliberal doctrine, but he did. After Gordon Brown, few expect perhaps that a Liberal/Conservative coalition will prove the best mechanism for appropriating – from the right - the few policies still recognisable as signs of 'the left' within Britain's mainstream political spectrum. But there is already evidence this will happen: the coalition's raising of the personal tax allowance is one such sign.

We can read this sequence as the death of Labour in stages, disguised each time as a new life. Apparently a new life for Labour, but in fact a new life for something else, not so much for a parasite on the historic body of Labour as for the ever-stronger neoliberal host body that has finally, this time, eaten up the last scraps of distinct bodily identity that its parasite, New Labour, once had. It will not be comfortable seeing the remains of Labour's social justice tradition [1] disappearing into the maw of the new coalition, but that is what we may face. Even so, there are few reasons to mourn New Labour.

However the pull of melancholia – an unending search for the lost object of a labour movement, lost within New Labour – is more likely to be strong. Strong, but deeply unhelpful. For unlike in the process of melancholia that Freud famously described, our object is only lost, not dead. It is New Labour that is dead.[2]

If the task is to reconstruct our object of political attachment, these are indeed confusing times. Anthony Barnett in his recent 'End of Thatcherism' piece boldly argues that we recognize the positives in the Coalition Agreement.[3] If Polly Toynbee is right that Labour's coalition terms to the Liberals were rather similar to those successfully offered by the Conservatives,[4] then there are risks in drawing too many conclusions from the accepted deal. But Barnett's analysis usefully brings out some reasons why the route back to New Labour is now blocked. Nor do I minimise the importance of reversing what Barnett rightly calls 'New Labour's assault on liberty'.

One explanation for that assault lay in New Labour's particular need, as a social democratic party in conflict with its acquired neoliberal orthodoxy, to affirm its capacity to be tough and in control. If so, then the proposed reversal of the ID card scheme may tell us more about the distorted logic of the last government than the wider policy framework of the new one.

True, the Coalition Agreement's proposals for banking reform look considerably bolder than New Labour's. But the Conservative party does not need to prove to anyone that it is pro-market.  Once again, it may be unhelpful to see this as sign of a fundamental policy shift: indeed major banking reform is emerging as a consensus issue across much of the international financial establishment. We wait to see whether other parts of the Coalition's policies – how it implements the cuts which, against the advice of many economists, it is accelerating; its policy on benefits; its attitude to employment and trade union rights – continue the move away from Thatcherism to a different kind of Toryism that Barnett detects.

The priority for the left is to return to the fundamental dislocation that neo-liberal doctrines brought about. Neo-liberalism treated people's need for greater justice - whether in the workplace, in the economy as a whole, or in the material conditions of their lives - as less important than the functioning of the market. This need for greater justice has not disappeared and is likely to be intensified in the next five years.

That need for justice is also a need for politics. It is a constant force, as deep-seated as the economic, social and demographic forces that make effective political action for positive change difficult in Britain, and in many other rich countries. I mean political action that is more than the 'counter-democracy' of protest, mistrust and complaint which Pierre Rosanvallon rightly insists we should not treat as the sum total of democracy.[i]

There are many reasons for hoping that the need for politics can be translated once again into effective political forms: the new means of horizontal communication online, movements in the global south, political struggle within the trade union movement here in Britain, often fought below the radar of official party or union leadership. Some of these positive possibilities were discussed at a post-election debate between Hilary Wainwright, Colin Leys, Heather Wakefield, and Firoze Manji held recently at Goldsmiths.[6]

A new process of giving voice to the enduring need for politics is required. John Denham seems to be arguing for just this,[7] and I made a similar call in an Open Democracy piece a few months back.[8]

But to renew voice is not just a matter of calling for more voices – even the Daily Mail claims to give its readers' voice. Nor is it confined to the liberal moves that Anthony Barnett praises in the new coalition, even if one reason people felt voiceless under New Labour was the seemingly unstoppable growth of the authoritarian state.

A broader renewal of voice requires two basic, and simple, adjustments to address the depth of the challenge now facing the left, the long-term challenge of matching available forms of political action to underlying needs.

First, an acknowledgement – a direct and open insistence – that in Britain, for reasons rooted in the increasing power of global markets,[9] we do not right now have effective institutional structures for democracy. The Labour Party has long since ceased to be such a structure. Britain is not a working democracy. Unless we stop the pretence that it is, no progress is possible.

Second, a recognition that what must be built afresh is not first and foremost a party or an organisation, but a commitment to renewing the connection between people's needs in the economic and social domain, and the forms of political speech and action available to them.

Perhaps the purple power movement is one start of this, and certainly this upsurge of political energy is welcome.[10] But it is important not to limit our focus to shifts within the governing elites or demands for reform of the electoral mechanism itself.

It is a matter more broadly of renewing the connection between material needs and political forms, and so building the conditions for a lasting renewal of voice. Political organisations – including the Labour party – that don't make such a commitment don't deserve our attention. They will leave people with no choice but to take their commitment elsewhere. Melancholia requires huge energy. Better those energies are directed towards building new forms for people's commitment to democracy. Whether this is possible within the Labour party or only outside, time will tell.


[1] On which, see Ruth Levitas,  (2005) The Inclusive Society? 2nd edition. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

[2] Compare Jonathan Friedland, 'As a fraught Tory-Lib Dem era begins, Labour must renew itself once more', Guardian, 12 May 2010.

[3] http://www.opendemocracy.net/anthony-barnett/end-of-thatcherism

[4] Polly Toynbee, 'Don't rush for a new leader. Labour has to rethink it all', Guardian 15 May 2010.

[5] Pierre Rosanvallon, Counter-democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2009). 

[6] See http://www.gold.ac.uk/global-media-democracy/events/#d.en.19976

[7] John Denham, MP, www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree   14 May 2010.

[8] http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/nick-couldry/missing-value-in-british-politics-0 See also my new book Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism (Sage, June 2010).

[9] Colin Leys (2001) Market-Driven Politics. London: Verso.

[10] See Andy May's article at http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/andy-may/birth-of-grassroots-democracy-movement

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