Some thoughts on New Labour's illiberalism

The UK Labour party must come to terms with its illiberal inheritance and chart a new course.
Guy Aitchison
21 June 2010

Francesca Klug's recent piece asking, Why has the left become so illiberal?, has generated some interesting responses. 

Over at Pickled Politics, Sunny Hundal rightly notes that the left is bigger than the Labour party and not all of it is illiberal. But he agrees with the fundamental thrust of Klug's argument that the Labour government's contempt for civil liberties stems, in part, from the Marxist tradition on the British left which venerates the power of the state to do good and ignores its capacity to do evil. Without missing a beat, the Marxist-derived mindset of Old Labour was passed onto New Labour. As Sunny notes, once "our boy" Tony was in charge, the party came to see state power as benign and unproblematic despite its embrace of much of the liberal constitutional reform agenda urged upon it by Charter 88 and others.

It is instructive to compare the Gordon Brown who in his Charter 88 sovereignty lecture identified in “our unwritten British constitution” the pernicious “Hobbesian view that the role of government is to empower leaders, unbounded by any limitations, to deal with the threat to security posed by those who must be led” with the Gordon Brown in office who brought us 42 days and the database state.

In that lecture, delivered in 1992, Brown rejected the authoritarianism of Hobbes and the individualism of Locke, but ignored entirely the radical liberal tradition in English/British political thought championed by the likes of the Levellers and Thomas Paine. It is this tradition, argues Klug, which Labour needs to re-discover since it provides the left with a conception of the state that pursues both liberty and equality.

Lenin’s Tomb, however, takes a different view. For LT there is no need to depart so heavily from Marx. Klug’s account, he argues, relies on an overly crude understanding of the author of Das Kapital pointing us to the more anti-statist writings on the Paris Commune. According to his view, New Labour’s authoritarian zeal is an aberration of the socialist tradition, rather than a logical culmination of certain strands within it. The real problem stems not from Marx, but from Labour’s fondness for the power of Britain’s antiquated and imperialist state and its bizarre mix of feudal powers and priviliges - what he deems, following Ross McKibbin, a “Tory conception of the state”. This has been combined with an acceptance of the “neo-liberal” dogma that the poor must be controlled and disciplined through a mixture of surveillance and tougher punishments.  

Lenin’s Tomb is surely right to point out that there are both statist and anti-statist strands in Marx’s writings, but what can’t be denied is that a great many of his later interpreters (who thought of themselves as Marxists) went onto do some very illiberal things indeed in the belief that they were contributing towards social progress.  It is this mindset on the left, which prioritises ends over means, which encouraged New Labour in its course, no matter how unfaithful it has been to the philosophy of the historical Karl Marx.

So whilst it is true to say that Labour (both Old and New) has relished the trappings of our royalist constitution, and the power and sense of self-importance it bestows, the key thing to understand, if we wish it change its thinking, is how it justified this to itself and its supporters. And it is here that Klug’s thesis has explanatory power. Labour politicians in power have been so accepting of the lack of democracy at the heart of the state, because it can be justified both privately and publicly as a necessary condition for fulfilling the benign social ends they are pursuing. Although the *real* reason may be that they enjoy power and/or have a Tory attachment to history and tradition, this isn’t how the Labour party presents itself or understands itself. It should be of less importance, therefore, to those concerned with arguing over and shaping Labour's course of action when in office.  

Lenin’s Tomb goes onto make a convincing case for blaming New Labour’s wholesale embrace of  neo-liberalism, and the extreme inequalities and consequent social dislocation it produces, for much of the party’s authoritarian agenda. This explain a lot when it comes to ASBOs, harder sentencing, “interventions” in the family and so on, but less when we’re dealing with anti-terror laws, curbs on free speech and so on (conversely, 9/11 and the "war on terror" explain much of the anti-terror legislation, but less of the party's social authoritarianism).

In any case these shouldn’t be seen as competing source of explanation. What we are dealing with in New Labour’s (vulgar) Marxist inheritance, is an unreflective political attitude which justifies any restriction on liberty and expansion in the power of the state in the name of some greater social good. And if the party now believes that neoliberal globalisation is for the greater good (rather than a socialist utopia) it is nevertheless still the same attitude that infects its thinking.  

Whatever the immediate cause of New Labour's attack on civil liberties, be it terrorism, crime or social unrest, it is the philosophy and set of principles which determines how these problems are approached that needs to change. Fortunately, there is a rich seam of thinking about these issues throughout our history that can help.

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