Very Old Labour

Ross McKibbin on the prospect before us

Unless the electors intend to play an even more fiendish trick on Labour than they did at the last election, which is not impossible, the Wirral by-election does suggest that Labour will win some sort of majority in May. The size of the victory, however, matters less than the nature of the Party – New Labour – which seems likely to win it. And we must accept the fact that it really is new. When Tony Blair assures us of that he is not, as the Tories insist, merely pretending. Much of this ‘renewal’ had, of course, been achieved by Neil Kinnock and John Smith, while the numerical and political decline of the unions, together with a change in the composition of the electorate and the Labour Party’s membership, made ‘renewal’ much easier and, at least to some extent, necessary. Nevertheless, Mr Blair has carried it deeper and further than Mr Kinnock or Mr Smith could or would have done. They were still attached to the basic ideology and structure of Old Labour while, for all practical purposes, Tony Blair is now attached to neither. No one could have predicted in 1979 or 1983 that the historic Labour Party would have disappeared so fast, and probably for ever.

If Labour wins the coming election it will do so for two reasons: because it is not the Conservative Party, and because it is not very different from the Conservative Party. Yet, while that might be a good way of winning this election, it is a terrible way of winning the next. As he approaches the election Mr Blair has one great advantage and one great disadvantage, but at the moment he is in danger of dissipating the first and being overwhelmed by the second. The advantage is that he was elected as an Old Labour MP, and remained one. He thus became leader of a party powerfully entrenched in British society, particularly in the cities, the North of England, Scotland and Wales: indeed, since 1945, the only party to win a Parliamentary majority in the three constituent parts of Great Britain and the only one likely to do so again. Mr Blair’s importance lies in this: whereas the SDP Gang of Four concluded that the Labour Party could never be ‘saved’ and left it more or less for the wilderness, he wisely chose to ‘save’ it from within, so inheriting its substantial, if decayed, electoral legacy.

His great disadvantage is that he is fighting the election within a political system and on policies which have been designed – quite consciously – by the Conservatives for their benefit. Even if the unpopularity of the present government and the traditions and residual social strength of the Labour Party yield him a majority, and it does not matter whether the majority is ten or two hundred, the political and ideological configuration of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain – a configuration Mr Blair accepts – will, unless he changes tack, prevent him from doing anything with it. The result is that, at the moment, New Labour, by comparison with Old, has only a negative coherence.

Old Labour had all the familiar aims of traditional social democracy: an emphasis on the collective, on equality, on a rational political discourse, on the redistribution of power and wealth, on social and economic modernisation and a sense that the nation exists only to the extent that its poorest and most deprived feel part of it. Old Labour was only partially successful in achieving these aims, but together they made up a coherent ideology, an ideology consistent with itself and with existing social structures. Clearly much of this programme is now irrecoverable, even if it were desirable that it should be recovered. While we might, for example, deplore the way state industries were privatised, no political party today can seriously propose their wholesale renationalisation. Furthermore, the political interest groups which might favour such renationalisation have been so weakened that there will be little pressure on any government to do so.

The proponents of New Labour have been very successful in exploiting the apparent incompatibility between the programme of traditional social democracy and late 20th-century British society. The abandonment of virtually all the components of Old Labour has been justified on grounds of social and electoral change. Old Labour no longer ‘fits’ contemporary Britain while New Labour does. There are, however, two blemishes to this argument. The first is that the question of unequal (and increasingly unequal) distribution of power and wealth in this, as in most other societies, remains absolutely central to our political life. The second, that New Labour has willy-nilly adopted not the best but much of the worst of Old Labour. And Very Old Labour: the Labour Party under Mr Blair more closely resembles the party of Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden than one kitted out for the Nineties.

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