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.

Inevitably, given its strategy, the most obvious characteristic it shares with Very Old Labour is timidity and a wish to be thought acceptable by the existing élites. One form of this is New Labour’s ready acquiescence in others’ interpretations of the Labour Party’s history. The assertion, repeated ever more enthusiastically, that Labour is no longer a ‘tax-and-spend’ party, apart from writing off all postwar Labour Governments, is simply untrue in the sense in which Labour leaders make this statement. The question is who is taxed and on whom and what the money is spent. The average family now, as Labour has often enough pointed out, pays more in tax than in 1979; the average plutocrat very much less. Furthermore, the argument, explicitly made by New Labour, that ‘tax-and-spend’ Labour Governments were ‘disasters’ is wholly fallacious. Is it seriously suggested that the non-taxing and non-spending interwar Labour Governments were less ‘disastrous’ than those after 1945? Even to ask the question shows the absurdity of the proposition. Similarly, the frequent assurances that New Labour’s behaviour towards business and businessmen decisively breaks with the behaviour of Old Labour ignores the fact that Old Labour always (or nearly always) tried to placate and encourage British businessmen – on a number of occasions even tried to protect them from deserved critical comment – and got precious little in return. Mr Blair’s interpretation of the Labour Party’s history could prove to be fatal since it only confirms in the popular mind the view of the Labour Party as seen from Tory Central Office and the tabloid press.

The deference offered to conventional opinion, as with Ramsay MacDonald’s Governments, will be equally fatal. Labour, for instance, was lucky to escape the ERM fiasco as lightly as it did. It supported the Government’s self-evidently foolish decision to enter the ERM at the highest rate and had nothing to say when the inevitable happened. Had Labour won the 1992 election, we would now be wondering whether it would win any seats this year; and all because of a desire to appear respectable, to adhere to the wisdom of the Treasury, a department of state which in the last few years has had a wretched record in its management of the British economy. Mr Brown should remember that the last Labour Chancellor to be called the ‘Iron Chancellor’ was Philip Snowden, who, while he was being lionised by the City, was leading Labour up the garden path – directly to an election (1931) in which, if Mr Brown has forgotten, Labour won 52 seats.

New Labour also shares with Very Old Labour a fear of power and an extreme reluctance to practise legislative coercion. No political party in a society in which all interests are not harmonious can achieve anything without offending or coercing someone. Indeed, the Conservative Party since 1979 has practised nothing but legislative coercion – usually in ways once considered illegitimate. But any coercion appears unacceptable to New Labour. Many of the worst excesses of Britain’s managerial class could be curbed by amendments to the Companies Act. But, it seems, there are to be no such amendments because they would be coercive, and therefore offensive to those they sought to coerce. At present, the only people New Labour appears unafraid to offend are the members of the Labour Party.

There are signs that New Labour is aware that fear of offending the powerful, as a policy, is an electoral cul-de-sac; thus the invention of doctrines like the ‘stakeholder society’ which attempt to encourage everyone to behave decently but do not actually require them to do so. Yet the stakeholder society, even in the hands of its most persuasive proponents, is at the moment largely hot air because it declines to admit that we do not and cannot all have the same (or indeed any) ‘stake’ in society. And it is, so far as one understands it, irreparably undermined by a refusal to recognise that gross inequalities of power and wealth cannot be wished away by exhortation – only by state action, which must necessarily be partisan.

Like the Labour Party of the Twenties, New Labour has no strategy for dealing with well-placed opposition. Labour leaders apparently wake every morning terrified by what the tabloids might have said that day. To be fearful of the tabloids is not, of course, unreasonable. Probably no other major European country has a popular press as malicious as Britain’s, and Labour politicians undoubtedly have to live with that. It is also the case that a handful of press barons and journalists determine large swathes of British social policy. But that is because they are allowed to by politicians like Michael Howard. We do not know how effective as managers of opinion the tabloids are. On the one occasion when a politician (Stanley Baldwin) has seriously taken them on, the politician won hands down. What does not work is the attempt to anticipate the tabloids. It demeans those who do it, demoralises the Labour Party and leads to a Dutch auction that in the long run only the Conservatives can win. And the apparent decision of the Sun to support Mr Blair at the election in no way undermines the force of this argument.

Labour ministers cannot spend every day scanning the tabloids to see whether their government is acceptable to the press. There is no point to this anyway: appeasing the tabloids earns not their love but their contempt. And policies designed to appease them alienate Labour’s still substantial core electorate. Timidity born of fear saves no government. In any case, the tabloids are not invincible. A Labour government could, I suspect, tell them to get lost without too much damage, while a really determined government could go much further than that – something most media emperors, particularly those who sit on shaky empires, know full well.

Timidity only further infantilises the English electorate. Labour’s competitive tax-cutting (promises of), rightly criticised by the Liberal Democrats, its insinuations that taxation is at best a necessary evil, its cheerful readiness to pack the gaols, sweep the beggars off the streets, pursue the futile ‘war’ against drugs and curtail civil liberties in order to fight (and lose) the imminent battle against ‘serious’ crime, simply validate the Conservative version of social reality. As for the argument that the electorate ‘out there’ gives not a toss about civil liberties, that is unworthy of comment.

All Old Social Democratic parties believed they had an educative function and all believed that political discourse at a fundamental level should be rational. They were also aware that their programmes went clean against ‘common sense’ or the way things appear. The strength of conservatism as an electoral force lies in the assumption that things cannot be other than they are, and social democracy has spent much of its history trying to demonstrate that this is frequently not true. That it has often failed to do so is to be seen in Old Labour’s electoral record. On the other hand, Old Labour was (for most of the time) quite successful at thinking rationally. The evidence so far suggests that New labour, except in the narrowest, most short-term electoral sense, is not very good either at educating the electorate or at thinking rationally. It is, of course, an opposition anxious to win an election and the understandable temptation in such circumstances is to rock as few boats as possible. This, however, commits Labour to the irrationality and irresponsibility of the tabloid culture, to policies which much of the British élite know to be irrational or irresponsible but which they are too cynical or frightened to abandon. Above all, such a commitment constrains Labour’s social and economic policies by determining the level and distribution of taxation and spending. It is now difficult to see how Labour can restore the income losses of the ‘underclass’ – yet not to do so would be morally and socially repellent – or of public provision more generally. At the same time, more spending is imperative. The Conservatives have lived off the high social and infrastructural spending of the Sixties and Seventies, and neither they nor Labour can live off it any longer. There are, certainly, ways out of this. To permit the local authorities to spend their idle balances on new housing could do much to end homelessness and substandard accommodation, and it would be possible to raise government revenues significantly without directly altering personal income tax. Tax relief on mortgage interest payments could be abolished entirely and companies obliged to pay something approaching a reasonable rate of taxation. But the strategies Mr Blair and Mr Brown have adopted towards the middle class seem to have foreclosed all this.

Furthermore, Labour is committing itself to ever more stringent ‘anti-inflationary’ policies: to a readiness to sacrifice employment and growth to low inflation on the unfounded assumption that somehow investment, and thus employment, will always be assisted by low or nil inflation. This cock-eyed obsession with inflation should be left to those who might gain from it. We can see why Mr Brown, in a lighthearted moment, might promise not to increase inflation; but to assert that he will lower it even more, to capitulate entirely to a fiscal and monetary rectitude which is wreaking havoc wherever it is practised, is scarcely believable. If the Germans or the French wish to shipwreck their economies and social stability on the rocks of low inflation, then more fool them – but we should not join them. In any case, any Labour government which consistently attempts to subordinate output and employment to low levels of inflation, surely inconceivable anyway, will come to electoral grief. Only the Conservatives can do this within the sociology of British politics; and even they have found it increasingly difficult, as their history over the last few years has made only too clear.

At the same time, New Labour is over-committed to expenditure on the whole apparatus of a faded state grandeur, nuclear deterrent and all. Mr Brown has, therefore, landed Labour in a real impasse: under-expenditure on things which matter and over-expenditure on things which don’t. He has offered two ways out: a windfall tax on the privatised utilities, which he should proceed with, and the language of ‘priorities’ – the argument that socialism is not just about spending money. This, alas, is no argument at all. Socialism might not just be about spending money; even less, however, is it about not spending money.

Perhaps the most depressing feature of New Labour has been its adoption of the Conservative/tabloid view of the electorate. Old Labour might repeatedly have been disappointed by the electorate, but it did not despise it, as, by implication, New Labour does. Old Labour believed not only that its function was to educate the electorate but that the electorate was educable. New Labour, in common with the editors of the tabloids, seems to believe that the electorate is passive, a mere instrument of predominant social forces and their media. But no Labour Party can both flourish electorally and act on the assumption that the electorate is perpetually childish. Only one political party can pull off that double and it is not Mr Blair’s.

Maybe the tabloid view of the electorate is correct. The tabloids, of course, think it is, and the electorate’s behaviour has not always been exactly mature. Yet its attitudes are more complicated than the tabloids believe. The empty-headed xenophobia, so central to tabloid culture, is almost certainly weaker than the tabloids would like. The attempt, for instance, by some of the press to work up anti-German hysteria during the European Championship last year was an embarrassing failure. Indeed the behaviour of football supporters, the traditional epitome of tabloid culture, demonstrates how complicated these attitudes now are. The astonishing devotion of Manchester United supporters to Eric Cantona, or of Chelsea supporters to Ruud Gullit (who is not only foreign but half-black), and these are not the only examples, is an aspect of our national culture whose significance we have not fully absorbed.

Equally, for all the divinings of New Labour’s spin doctors, they seem to have little sense of the electorate’s priorities. Labour will gain few votes, for example, by trying to outbid Michael Howard: penal policy does not rank high in the electorate’s order of things. The majority of the electorate favour capital punishment, but no candidate is going to be elected on that policy alone because it is so marginal to the average voter’s concerns. The present criminal justice legislation is not a result of the pressure of public opinion but of an attempt by the Prime Minister and Michael Howard to work up a public opinion unfavourable to Labour. Nor are there many votes to be lost by raising the top marginal rate of income tax on those earning more than £100,000 a year – particularly as they are mostly thought by the electorate to be bosses of the privatised utilities. And such a step would go some way to restoring the equilibrium of social justice – something New Labour seems very reluctant to do. Further, the nature and distribution of taxation bear on the kind of capitalist society Britain should be. Capitalism, as such, is not at issue: all Labour Governments have accepted that the British economy is and will be predominately capitalist. What is at issue is the particular form of British capitalism and even more the use to which it has recently been put. Not since the 18th century has this sceptr’d isle more resembled a tenement or a pelting farm than it does today. No Labour government can leave such a system in place.

In only one respect does New Labour genuinely make up for the deficiencies of Old: it is readier to undertake institutional and constitutional reform. Indeed, it is committed to them. Nowhere was Old Labour’s failure more disastrous than here. This presents New Labour with a historic opportunity which, again, is likely to be missed. Constitutional and electoral reform is certainly not easy. The proposed changes in Scotland and Wales are laden with difficulties, and agreement on a new electoral system or the extent and nature of the rights of local government will not come easily. Caution is therefore unsurprising. More surprising is the half-heartedness of the whole thing, a feeling that constitutional change, instead of being embraced, should be confined to obligations which are now inescapable. It has taken 18 years of Conservative constitutional mayhem even to get Labour thinking about the Constitution, while the majority of Labour MPs, as a result either of perceived self-interest or of simple obtuseness, insist on believing that the present electoral system favours the Labour Party. Its reform is treated as a kind of bagatelle, to be played when the real music is done. This represents a complete misunderstanding of the reasons constitutional and electoral reform should be central to Labour’s programme. We are living through the rapid decay of a once viable system of social relationships which shaped a political culture itself now played out. The institutions of state, Parliament, the Civil Service, the electoral system, local government are not exempt from this decay. Their failure is, in fact, partly responsible for the decay of the formerly predominant political culture. Institutions and culture lived and are dying together.

The Labour Party has been extraordinarily slow to come to terms with this: slower than the Conservatives. Thatcherism was an authoritarian attempt to restore the old political culture by denuding it of much of what democratic content it had, and by attempting to transform the relationship between citizen and state. That the attempt has largely succeeded is partly due to the fact that Labour never seriously challenged it. Yet in the wreckage of the old social and political system and in the unintended consequences of Thatcherism there is recognisable democratic potential. However, a democratic political culture, in which alone the Labour Party has a long-term future, cannot simply emerge: it has to be willed, and one of the few ways Labour can directly will it is by constitutional and electoral reform. This means, among other things, the democratic ‘reformation’ both of Parliament and of the electoral system – whether Labour leaders like it or not. Labour is not free to treat this as though it were something for the next term, or never. It is indispensable; something the Labour Party has persistently refused to admit – and always to its cost.

At present, however, each step in New Labour’s progress represents a faltering; and not only in the reform of the political system or the persistent retreat from spending commitments. The increasingly aggressive and mean-minded attitude to the poor and the unemployed, the hounding of teachers, the bullying attitude to schools whose failings are largely the failings of the environment from which their students are drawn, the clear reluctance to rehabilitate the LEAs (as in the case of the opted-out schools), or even spend more on education (where, after all, is the money to come from?), are all retreats from a democratic society at a time when the possibility of such a society is greater than at any moment since the Forties. It is characteristic of Labour that manifestations of this, as in changed attitudes to the monarchy, have apparently come as an unwelcome surprise to its leadership.

And in five years’ time who will have joined this bloodless party? There will be those who are fired by the traditions and purpose of Old Labour and who will constantly be at war with the present leadership, hardly what the electorate likes; or else the fair-weather friends, who always swarm about a party of expediency but who will immediately drift away when its prospects diminish – to the City, the Conservative Party, or even darker places. Either way, Labour loses.

Everything said here, of course, might be the purest pessimism. A victorious New labour might seize the initiative, might mobilise a ‘progressive’ majority, might find the courage to take on the tabloids, might create a democratic political system, might recognise that the hard-faced Judaeo-Christian piety which dominates the thinking of much of the political élite is not shared by all the electorate. All these things can be done and New Labour might do them. But at the moment there is little sign that it will. A perfectly defensible strategy of opposition, to give nothing away, looks more likely to determine the way Labour behaves in office. There will be no dynamic, no confident sense that the Government is shaping its own and the electorate’s circumstances. Indeed, the contrast between the way Labour is approaching the 1997 election and the way it approached the 1945 election could not be more painful. This is doubly tragic. Unless a new Labour government behaves very differently, not only will it fail; it will get no second chance.