Vol. 18 No. 4 · 22 February 1996

If/when Labour gets in …

Ross McKibbin argues the case for confrontation as opposed to consensus

2864 words

How should Labour govern? This is a question it is still reasonable to ask, though as the election gets ever closer and Labour’s lead gets ever smaller, it might answer itself. Still, it is a question to which Tony Blair has given much thought; and so should we. All social democratic parties, of which the British Labour Party probably is still one, are torn between two possible forms of political action, which are, in turn, dependent on two possible ‘models’ of society. One model sees group relationships, particularly if groups are called ‘classes’, as essentially conflictual; the other sees them as essentially harmonious. Over time, the second, in all such parties, has become increasingly dominant, though the first has not lost all ideological power. Throughout its history the Labour Party has oscillated nervously between the two; and not simply for tactical reasons. Both models have, from its beginning, been fully represented within the Party’s ideological tradition. The first regards Labour as standing for and responsible to an industrial working class organised by its own institutions, particularly the trade unions. It endows that class, rather as Marxism does, with a unique, possibly predetermined, place in human development but sees it, nonetheless, as surrounded by those who will resist to the end attacks on their privileges or, this being Britain, their incompetence. ‘Socialism’, to the extent that the word is used, therefore implies conflict.

It is also, however, a party with a markedly consensual rhetoric, one which defines socialism as anything but conflictual. This definition sees the Party as the bearer of ‘progress’, economic, technological and social, and is easily elided into the notion that the Labour Party is the party of ‘modernisation’: it thus represents a kind of British Saint-Simonianism. Such progress, it argues, is in the interests of everyone; the Labour Party does what the older parties, through inertia or the force of vested interest, are no longer able to do. As defined by someone like Ramsay MacDonald this is what constitutes ‘socialism’ – a process by which society inevitably evolves into collective forms of life – and in MacDonald’s case it did not even require a working-class party to further it. This kind of socialism allows that there are scroungers and parasites at the very top and bottom of the social heap who, being anti-social, are excluded from society – but there are not many of them. Hence, the function of the Labour Party is to convince society that it is in society’s interest as a whole to support both Labour and progress. If there is social conflict it is because the ‘losers’ misunderstand the outcome: like everyone else, they are really ‘winners’.

In practice, of course, these ‘models’ are not alternative forms of action. Both are, so to speak, true, and in any democracy political parties, like democratic societies as a whole, are under immense pressure not to adopt one model exclusively; they are, particularly, under pressure not to adopt the conflictual model exclusively. It is right that they should be under such pressure. In a democracy it is best to win the support of as many as you can, and conflict for the sake of conflict is uncivilised and dangerous. And highly partisan policies, like those followed by recent Conservative Governments, can do immense social damage. It is thus not surprising that Tony Blair’s ‘socialism’ is strongly consensual. The explicit appeals to British business, the emphasis on modernisation via education and technology, the reluctance to concede any particular privilege to Labour’s traditional constituency, the overarching concept of ‘community’, a self-evidently inclusive idea which is almost incompatible with class or social conflict – all are generated by a rhetoric of social harmony and commonality of interest and endeavour. This is a bold and admirable enterprise plainly worth trying. Were this a better and more rationally organised society it would probably be unnecessary to do anything else. There is much, however, in recent British history which suggests that a ‘progressive’ consensus can be procured only with difficulty and that a party whose one strategy is consensual is in for real trouble. Why?

Misperceptions of self-interest are one reason and they cannot be talked away. The fact is that the timidity and intellectual narrowness and inflexibility of much of British business will always work against Labour, despite Tony Blair’s manful attempts to convince the business community that the Conservative Party rarely governs in its interest. He is right, but the majority of British businessmen will never believe him. There are undoubtedly some in business who are sympathetic – a few very grand – but their support is wholly misleading. To the extent that most businessmen might work with Labour it will be on their terms only. The recent suggestion, for example, that Labour’s ‘stakeholder society’ could require revision of the Companies Act brought a cry of pain from nearly all the major business associations. The appropriate Labour spokesman, in the best consensual manner, hastened to say that the Act needs no tampering with: all that is required is a change of culture. Yet it has been evident for years that the Companies Act needs amendment, and if Labour really does wish to change the culture of British business – as surely it must – then it has to change the legal framework in which business operates. It can be certain, however, that most businessmen will resist these changes – no amount of appealing to their rational self-interest will alter that – and if a Labour government simply gives way in the face of this resistance it will get the worst of both worlds.

Furthermore, there is now a stratum of society whose self-interest will not be served even by the most moderate Labour government. Over the last 17 years (as is well known) there has been created a huge British nomenklatura with whom the Labour Party can scarcely live and who can scarcely live with the Labour Party. Many, no doubt, have portable skills and could soon find different pastures on which to graze, but others are less well equipped and they will give no thanks to those who attempt to circumscribe their privileges – or, even worse, eliminate them. They, too, are closely affiliated to the City – with all that that implies for a non-Conservative government. Labour can expect nothing but hostility from them.

As it can almost certainly expect from the British press. Blair has recently been doing his best to woo the press lords and there is no harm in trying. If the Labour Party can thereby secure reasonably fair treatment it is obviously worth the effort. But Labour should not count on it; and as the election approaches it should count on it even less. What props up the Conservative Party is an immensely powerful system, of which the ‘Conservative’ press has been an essential element, designed to resist any modification to the society the contemporary Conservative Party has created. And the more it is threatened the more it will resist.

It is especially likely to resist if anything the Labour Party does smacks of revenge. A Blair government will be under considerable pressure to do a little by way of restoring the moral equilibrium. Since 1979 Conservative Governments have done some genuinely outrageous things; at any rate, things once thought beyond the political pale. These should not be brushed under the carpet and it is hard to see how a Labour leader could do so. Many well-placed people, however, have been implicated in these actions and they, too, will oppose anything that might damage their status or reputation.

Moreover, the conditions for a consensual politics, though certainly not absent, are now much weaker. Britain’s political and judicial relationships are notoriously adversarial, but until recently they were circumscribed by a set of informal conventions which civilised and ritualised them. Many of these conventions have been deliberately or incidentally destroyed by the Conservative Party, while institutions, like the monarchy, which once apparently gave the conventions political and ceremonial legitimacy have so lost esteem that they scarcely perform this function at all. What has emerged is a winner-takes-all system in which the principal aim of the winner is to perpetuate its monopoly. It is doubtful whether a Blair government could or even should attempt to restore the ancient conventions and institutions; partly because the Conservative Party shows no sign of recognising what it has done – if anything its behaviour has become even more monopolistic; partly because the institutions cannot be rebuilt in their original form. Nor in a democracy should they be. In consequence, the social cohesion which seemed to operate in pre-Seventies Britain has now largely disappeared; in these circumstances there will be little pressure on Labour to play the old game and much pressure to play the new. And whatever that game is, it is not consensual.

Then there is the matter of money. Although the Labour leadership has been careful to avoid any real spending commitments, there is no question that it will have to spend more; and for that money must be found. The question of taxation is therefore unavoidable. Tony Blair has insisted that there will be no return to high or punitive rates of taxation; but Britain as a whole is not overtaxed – though many of its individual citizens are – and its rich are plainly undertaxed. Extra taxation on the rich, in one form or another, is for Labour inescapable. Unfortunately the case for higher taxation, even on the very rich, is now difficult to make because everyone has been told in the last twenty years – by the Labour Party as well as the Conservatives – that taxation is just a necessary evil instead of being (as it mostly is in this country) a positive good. And many of our rich now display an attitude to money that is usually associated with Third World élites. We can expect them to mobilise all their many forces against a level of taxation which once would have been regarded as their fair burden. The opposition will, of course, not be expressed in terms of self-interest but in terms of ‘incentive’ – that wonderful invention of the political economists – and the Labour Party is at present ill-armed to defeat such opposition. A consensual rhetoric simply cannot live on this terrain.

In any case being friendly to all is not an option available to the Labour Party, even to New Labour. The dynamic of British politics, the different attitudes which people have to the Labour and Conservative Parties, just do not permit it. To some extent, indeed, the success of the Labour Party is measured by the number of enemies it makes. The real danger for New Labour in a consensual rhetoric is that it will raise expectations for change which a Labour government will fail to meet because it cannot carry everybody with it. Tony Blair should constantly bear in mind the fate of the second Labour Government in 1931: a government which tried to work with the good will of all and when it found that it had the ill will of many had nothing to say and gave up. Politics is, at least in part, about the exercise of power and too often in the past the Labour Party has gone for ‘consensus’ because it has been frightened of power and the opposition that political power provokes – regardless of who has it. And it is always, or nearly always, surprised by the fact that Labour’s political opponents behave worse than Labour expects them to.

All this suggests that even if it were to win the next election Labour will find it difficult to govern in a wholly consensual manner. Nor will it have only its opponents to contend with: it must contend with the disappointment of its supporters. In this sense, the Labour vote is shaky: it expects great things from a Labour government and is easily discouraged. No Labour government has been returned to office after a full term with a clear working majority; and there has only been one occasion when a Labour government has been returned after a full term with any kind of majority. The Conservative vote, on the other hand, has a large element which is almost impervious to the reality of Conservative government.

There is little public evidence that the present Labour Party is aware of the extent to which it must expect both determined opposition and inevitable disappointment, or that it has devised a strategy to cope with them. Without such a strategy, however, the next Labour government – presuming there is one – will be a disappointment, and probably worse. This is not to deny the Labour Party’s dilemma: it is working within a political culture which was never particularly favourable to social democracy and is even less so now. Nonetheless, in government it has to devise a rhetoric that will sustain itself and its electorate; one based on fast-tracking in state schools is not going to do that.

This is, no doubt, easier said than done. But what an opposition must do is not the same as what a government can do. We can see why in opposition Labour should emphasise consensus; and we can see why Labour might try it in government. Yet in government Labour by and large holds the initiative; a rhetoric partly based on the idea of conflict (particularly a rhetoric which is otherwise consensual) will then be much more effective because it will not be divorced from action. It has the potential of government to support it. Mr Blair once admired (still does?) President Clinton; he might, though, recall how President Truman fought and won the 1948 Presidential election; or, even more, how Roosevelt fought and won the 1936 election. In both cases it was pretty vulgar stuff, but it was effective partly because Truman and Roosevelt were the ‘government’ – just as Prime Minister Blair would be the ‘government’. In addition, a Labour government stands in a stronger relation to the media than a Labour opposition. The great media empires of the late 20th century – virtually all of them deeply hostile to Labour Parties everywhere – were created not simply by the free market but also by governments who determine (or are able to determine) the legislative framework in which the media operate. And what a government has made it can unmake: something Mr Blair could usefully intimate to assorted media moguls.

He should also recall that those who might not find themselves in consensus with Labour have given many hostages to fortune. The privatised utilities have – rightly or wrongly – hardly endeared themselves to the public, and Labour is unlikely to lose ground by reminding the electorate of that. Nor of the behaviour of boardrooms more generally. The gross inequalities of reward which have characterised the last decade are also worth publicising and there is, again, no reason Labour should not do so. Furthermore, though people do not like taxes, it seems, and though they are, it seems, suspicious of Labour as a high-tax party, there is no evidence that they are attached to the present structure of taxation, a fact Labour already recognises. A rhetoric based on fairness or capacity to pay is a powerful weapon in the hands of a government, as Asquith and Lloyd George demonstrated before the First World War.

There are two other ways Labour can sustain both itself and its electorate. The first is to identify its constituencies – or those it would like to be its constituencies – and favour them. One can only go so far, no doubt: there is a point of principle in a democracy at which even the most partisan government should stop, and over-attention to one’s constituency can be politically and socially destabilising – as the Conservatives have found. Nonetheless, patronage and the establishment of clientèles are a legitimate part of democratic politics – something the Labour Party has understood but historically been reluctant to acknowledge.

The second is to open up Britain’s political and electoral system as much as it can. Labour needs to change not only boardroom culture, but the political culture of the whole country. If Blair is serious about a stakeholder society the present structure cannot be allowed to stand. It is fundamentally exclusive and denies too many people the right to behave as citizens. And that implies not merely tearing aside the veil of secrecy but also electoral reform. If Labour is serious about wanting and retaining power it must accept that negotiation and compromise with potentially sympathetic allies are an inevitable, and desirable, part of a democratic politics. Furthermore, a reformed electoral system would align the structure of Parliamentary representation with the policies Labour in practice tends to pursue – and especially the policies Tony Blair wishes to pursue. In any case, if Labour needs a high-minded justification for electoral reform there now is one. Until 1979 we had a winner-takes-all electoral system tempered by a largely bipartisan distribution of the spoils. We now have a winner-takes-all distribution of the spoils inflamed by a winner-takes-all electoral system. Since it seems improbable that the former distribution can be restored it is essential to contain it within a democratically representative system of voting in which there is more than one winner.

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