How to put the politics back into Labour

Ross McKibbin

When Major Henry committed suicide, Proust wrote that the Dreyfus Affair, hitherto pure Balzac, had become Shakespearean. While the Iraq affair obviously differs from Dreyfus, we can see what Proust meant. Yet the Iraq crisis had been unfolding before Dr David Kelly’s death – whatever Lord Justice Hutton’s inquiry concludes – and the sense that Iraq did not cause but nevertheless represents a crisis of the Labour Party has been with us for months now. The extent of the continued underfunding of the public services, the Government’s confirmation that it wishes the House of Lords to be wholly nominated, something scarcely believable in a democratic society, the travails of the almost incoherent NHS legislation, the tacit admission that the mania for targets and league tables might be counterproductive, the Cabinet reshuffle that got badly out of hand, all these suggest a Government which does not need Iraq to be in a crisis. In these circumstances we would expect people to ask the Prime Minister to go. Should he resign? The obvious answer is yes: more than any other individual he is responsible for Labour finding itself in a political and intellectual dead-end. But this is to over-individualise what has happened. If Blair went who could succeed him? Not Gordon Brown, a formidable personality, but all too often obstinate in the defence of bad ideas, and as much responsible for Labour’s failure to see just how financially decrepit our public institutions were (and are) as anyone. Not, obviously, any other member of the present Cabinet: all are disqualified on the same grounds as the Chancellor. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has had no difficulty in finding Parliamentary whips to organise majorities even for the most contentious legislation. And how many MPs really believed that Iraq was an immediate threat to Britain or the possessor of weapons of mass destruction?

The crisis of the contemporary Labour Party is, in fact, a crisis of our political system; not the ‘fault’ – or not only the fault – of this or that minister. That crisis, now of many years’ duration, has its origins in two things: the collapse of the Conservative Party and the seizure of the Labour Party’s leadership by the ‘soft’ Left. The remarkable and apparently sudden decay in the Conservative Party’s support after Black Wednesday, though not unpredictable, caught the country’s political classes unaware. Equally disorienting has been the Conservative Party’s prolonged weakness – almost to the point of irrelevance – during the life of the present Government. There is an instructive comparison here with the 1980s. However hopeless the Labour Party might have appeared then, it was always a political presence, even a danger to the Conservatives. Its control of much of the country’s local government was untouched. It was frequently ahead in the polls. It was something the Conservatives always had to remember. In the end, of course, they did not remember it often enough, with dire consequences. However, in the last two Parliaments, the Conservative Party, the historic party of the British state, has, in effect, disappeared. It has lost two elections catastrophically and in much of the country scarcely exists. When the Labour Party was struggling to make itself electable in the 1980s and early 1990s none of this was anticipated. On the contrary, it was assumed that a Conservative defeat, though not impossible, was exceptional; and that even in defeat the Conservatives were still likely to be predominant – something the Conservatives themselves had always believed. Thus the Labour Party tended to think that its policy would necessarily have to be Conservative policy, different enough only to justify the continued existence of the Labour Party. Given the electoral history of Britain since 1979 these suppositions were reasonable enough. They were, though, unfounded; and Labour has never adjusted to their being unfounded. Whatever else we think of the last few years, most of us would agree that the Conservatives have not been predominant in defeat. Yet Labour policy is still dictated by that view; and by the view that the engine of Conservative hegemony – the tabloid press – remains the prime determinant of party-political allegiance. The result is that Labour policy has been a bastard Thatcherism: league tables, bloated CEOs, privatisation, ‘choice’ in the public sector and, of course, the American Alliance. These policies have now landed the Party in the mire, where it is sinking fast: not just because as policies they are unpopular, but because the absence of the Conservative Party as a serious competitor has relieved Labour of the need to give its policies ideological and political coherence, and because the Labour Party, even New Labour, has a collective memory which cannot be expunged. Bastard Thatcherism, therefore, has been modified in ways which render it more palatable to MPs but even more incoherent. Nevertheless, in this combination of bastard Thatcherism and collective memory, it is bastard Thatcherism which the present leadership of the Party obviously favours.

The domination, since John Smith’s death, of the Party and its machine by people associated with the soft Left has, paradoxically, exposed it even more to bastard Thatcherism. The victory of the soft Left meant the vanquishing not just of the Bennite Left but also the Gaitskellite Right. The end of Bennery is unproblematic: all are agreed that it is a good thing. But the marginalisation of the Gaitskellites is much more serious. In the business of making the Party electable the one group who did not think they had to throw the baby out with the bathwater were the Gaitskellites: they had done their revising in the 1950s and 1960s and were pretty certain that what emerged was as much in the interests of the Labour Party and the country in the 1980s and 1990s as it had been in the 1960s. However revised, furthermore, Gaitskellism was recognisably in the traditions of the Labour Party’s socialism: a version of it, but one the founding fathers would have understood. The result is that Roy Hattersley, very much a figure of the Party’s right-wing, is now way to the left of any member of the present Government.

The soft Left – those, broadly speaking, who cut their political teeth around Neil Kinnock – felt they had much more baggage to ditch. Unlike the Gaitskellites, they came to believe, quite reasonably, that their mix of policies was unacceptable to the electorate. The trouble was they did not know when to stop. It is the first step that counts, and once we take it we cannot turn back. The abandonment of policy was almost competitive and became a saturnalia during the 1997 election, which the Party fought on a programme none of its founding fathers would have understood. It is not that ideas as such were unwelcome – there was actually a good deal of thinking – and many of the issues raised were properly raised. But it was unsystematic; there was no guiding principle; and indeed no real belief. Time that might have been spent on policy was spent on the acquisition and mechanics of power, and here there was real belief. Uppermost in the mind of the leadership was the conviction that the instruments of electoral persuasion were what mattered – which meant the popular press – and the claims of the popular press were accepted on their own terms. The Sun did win the 1992 election. It was in this belief that the whole of New Labour’s ‘communications’ apparatus and machinery of Parliamentary persuasion was built. Over the years this apparatus has been increasingly criticised and is today held in contempt by many. In one respect this is unfair. Political persuasion and fixing, manipulation and pressure, are indispensable to successful political action. Without them, no politics. When people criticise the Government’s apparent obsession with spin and presentation, they are really criticising the disproportion between the energy of the apparatus and the modesty of the outcome. Increasingly, the iron law of bureaucracy has operated: the apparatus looks more and more to protect itself rather than to achieve desirable political goals.

The abandonment of so much of the Labour Party’s past by the new leadership, and the unreadiness to think systematically about ideology or policy left a vacuum which was largely filled by Thatcherism. For men and women who admired the acquisition of power above all, it was easy to slip from an admiration of Thatcherism as a system of electoral persuasion to admiration of Thatcherism as policy. This has had the important effect of making Labour surprisingly uninterested in Parliamentary reform or the wider democratisation of our institutions. Before 1979 the conventions of the British constitution worked rather well to secure political fairness; but that was because politicians agreed to respect them. When they ceased to do so these conventions were shown to be alarmingly fallible. One of the reasons, probably the main reason, that constitutional reform became a serious issue in the 1980s and early 1990s was the belief that many of the things the Conservative Governments had done were genuinely outrageous, and would not have been accepted under a more representative system of government. The victims of these policies, moreover, tended to be those the Labour Party was designed to protect. Yet there is little sign New Labour finds much that was morally reprehensible in Thatcherism. Rather, Thatcherism is defined as modernisation, and the fault of the Conservative Party is that it was too fuddy-duddy to carry it through. In this case constitutional reform or more representative institutions are undesirable, since they are as likely to impede as to accelerate modernisation. Modernisation also implies America. Thatcherism was very drawn to the American model of democracy, but the Conservative Party as a whole was more ambivalent. The social hierarchies to which it was attached were as likely to be weakened as strengthened by such a model. New Labour, however, has fewer reservations. The American model of democracy – dynamic, entrepreneurial etc; all the kinds of thing Gordon Brown is thought to admire – is very attractive, both because of what it stands for and because it fills an awkward ideological gap. The Labour Party, however much New Labour wishes otherwise, can never be without ideological ambitions, and Tony Blair himself does not sound like a man who is interested only in ‘what works’. In the absence of anything else or anything better, the American model – or what is understood by the American model – increasingly serves as New Labour’s ideology. Which is why we are in Iraq.

The result of this – the enfeeblement of the Conservative Party and the victory of the soft Left – has been to depoliticise the Labour Party by further weakening its already weak institutions. The Labour Party has never had instruments which encourage open partisanship and bargaining or which allow the Parliamentary Party to exercise any real control over the executive. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer argued recently that the plotters in the Labour Party today have no plot – true enough – and that the only consequence of plotting would be to take the Labour Party ‘back to its rich history of back-stabbing’ its leaders. But the Labour Party has no tradition of back-stabbing its leaders: on the contrary, it has been very forbearing of them, even when a stab in the back might have been in everyone’s interest. And the plotters have no plot because there is no way active partisanship can be expressed or bargaining arranged. A good example of this is House of Lords reform: a majority of the Party wants some form of elected second chamber but no one had thought to organise the vote on this before it was taken in the House of Commons; or even knew how. The culture of the Parliamentary Labour Party is passive and isolating – in other words, ideally suited to New Labour. And the Prime Minister’s enormous powers of co-optation further entrench it. Most MPs want to be ministers, and in a country where there are far too many ministers, there is a reasonable chance they’ll make it, providing they keep their heads down.

Where does the Labour Party go now? This is an important question. Hitherto the withdrawal of much of the electorate, reflected in very low turnouts, has done little harm to Labour. More dangerous would be a rebellion by tactical voters. Labour’s huge majorities owe much to a decision by electors to vote tactically: a kind of spontaneous electoral reform. Underlying a tactical vote are two assumptions: that anything is better than the Conservative Party and that there is not much difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. If, however, a significant number of voters concludes that there is not much difference between Labour and Conservative then both assumptions collapse. The voter can either abstain or vote as he or she really would like to do, with no regard for which of the two non-Conservative candidates is more likely to win. In either event Labour will suffer. One answer to this question is simply to soldier on; to rely on the Prime Minister’s resilient personal popularity and the continuing reluctance of most of the electorate to vote Conservative. This is probably what will happen and in the short term, given the sociological-demographic problems of the Conservative Party, it could work. In the long term it is much less likely to do so. The more lasting solution is for Labour to repoliticise itself. That requires commitment to an overall organising principle and to the establishment of institutions which formalise partisanship and faction.

The endless attempts by the Prime Minister to discover the Third Way and his obvious failure to do so suggest that he is aware his Government has no clear political or ideological direction. If pushed, he could argue that its purpose is to establish a skilled and competitive workforce within a market economy: hence education, education, education. The trouble is, as an ‘objective’ (in the sense that the old Clause IV was an objective) this hardly sets the blood racing. Furthermore, as an objective it raises all those questions about the distribution of power and wealth which the Government wishes to avoid, and it lies too far outside the traditions of any kind of social democracy – ‘modern’ or otherwise. It is also made almost unachievable by the Government’s insistence on treating education as a consumer-driven industry, when clearly it isn’t. A more useful objective for the Labour Party would be social solidarity. Policy would be judged by the criterion: how far is it conducive to social solidarity and the democratisation of our institutions? A criterion of this kind would certainly fall within the traditions of social democracy and would also include many of the things New Labour claims (or claimed) to stand for, even economic efficiency. It would, however, preclude much that it actually does – not least in education – and might be too much for the Prime Minister. But if the Labour Party is not simply to fade away, it must adopt some such objective.

The question of an objective is less important, however, than the powerlessness of the Party’s institutions – the Parliamentary Party, National Executive, conference – and the political torpor of New Labour. The aimlessness of so much of the Party’s Parliamentary life, the authority of the whips, the inability to accept political difference as legitimate, the reluctance to recognise open factions and bargaining between factions as ways of securing genuine (as opposed to coerced) political agreement, the power of the Prime Minister rather than the Parliamentary Party to determine the political complexion of the Cabinet, all lie at the heart of Labour’s malaise. Plotters with no plot are more dangerous than plotters who plot openly. And those who oppose policy should be prepared to stump the country and say why. The only plausible alternative to Tony Blair is not Gordon Brown but Robin Cook. Cook, however, has not made the most of his opportunities. The Foreign Office is no place for a politician of progressive ideas and as a progressive he never made the most of his comparatively short time as Leader of the House. Nor, it seems, has he ever worked hard at acquiring a following there. Yet he has great rhetorical skill and is one of the few men who could place New Labour within the traditions of social democracy. He should show that skill more widely: the Independent is an excellent paper but an inadequate power base. Campaigning against the leadership of your own party, as Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain did, has a long and honourable history. But it requires effort and a willingness to encourage faction and partisanship; things the Labour Party has lost. Without a repoliticisation of its institutions, however, we will end up with what we now almost have: a degraded system of management and clientage which exists primarily to defend itself, political cynicism and opportunism unanchored to any achievable social goal, and adventurism abroad as junior partner to the United States.