As the part privatisation of Royal Mail is announced, James Maxwell explores the ideological chaos at the heart of the British Labour Party
During the 1990s, the Labour Party quietly abandoned the language of the old left and adopted a less politically-loaded vocabulary. References to the ‘working-classes’ vanished and ministers began talking instead of ‘hard-working families’.
Discussions concerning the redistribution of wealth and the nationalisation of key industries dried-up, while thinly sketched concepts of social justice and equality of opportunity appeared with increasing frequency in the party’s press releases and campaign pamphlets. Eventually, most of the ideas traditionally associated with the social democratic movement in Britain were reduced to a series of glossy, uncontroversial slogans. Today, by way of an official mission statement, Labour offers only empty rhetoric:
“(Our) purpose is fairness: fair rules, fair chances and a fair say for everyone”.
This vague platitude is indicative of the ideological confusion that has engulfed the Labour Party and most of its affiliate organisations since the ascendency of
Blairism and the electoral victory of 1997. Blair and Brown were supporters and enthusiasts of the ‘Third Way’ – a project that claimed to have reconciled two mutually opposed philosophies: socialism and neo-liberalism. It argued that, in practice, the latter is unrivalled in its capacity to generate wealth and prosperity, while the former is more conducive to the collective good and social welfare of the country.
The distributive power of central government must, then, be combined with the productive power of the market and the profits shared equitably throughout society. With the state operating at arms length, private capital- under the benign guidance of Smith’s ‘invisible hand’- will stimulate unprecedented economic growth, employment security, and increased tax revenue, which can, in turn, be translated into better schools, hospitals and city transport systems. In other words, New Labour believed that capitalism could be used as a means by which to achieve socialist ends.
If successful, Labour could present itself as both a ‘democratic, socialist party’ committed to massively expanding public sector investment, reducing material inequality, and promoting international development, and as a supporter of low taxation, unregulated markets, and free-trade. It could be a friend to the banker and the borrower; the trade unions and the bosses; the City and the slums. It could finally resolve the conflict of ideas that has determined debate in Britain since the start of the twentieth century. It could effectively put an end to politics. The difficulty, however, that the former Prime Minister and his Chancellor failed to recognise — the theoretical flaw that would ultimately banish Labour to the ideological no-mans-land it currently treads — is (and it now seems painfully self-evident) that socialism and the free-market are not compatible. For all its slick sociological jargon and expert analysis, the ‘Third Way’ is essentially an illusion.
Over the course of the last twelve months that illusion has been repeatedly shattered, on a world-wide scale. The implosion of the global financial markets and the partial collapse of the British banking system have given lie to the notion that the state can control private enterprise from a distance and produce results that serve the interests of working people.
For example, Labour’s refusal to impose tighter restrictions on mortgage and credit companies’ lending habits has lead to an astonishing and unsustainable increase in levels of personal debt. This has plunged the economy into recession at time when state debt is approaching record highs. As of January this year, it accounted for almost 50% of the UK’s gross domestic product, while government expenditure rose to more than £585 billion.
Gordon Brown is now faced with choice of addressing the Treasury’s astonishing deficit, or pumping money into public services. He can’t do both. Labour’s attempts to balance a lightly regulated economy alongside large scale municipal development have, predictably, caved in on themselves.
And yet the government and its supporters stick firmly to their dogmas. David Tait, Convenor of Debates at the GU and a member of the Labour Party states:
“It is categorically not the case that there is a contradiction between being in the Labour Party and being a socialist. Within socialism there is a tension between practice and theory. This government has established a healthy compromise between the two. It has used the market to achieve concrete good, without sacrificing its principles.”
Mr. Tait identifies the minimum wage, working families’ tax credits and increased public spending as evidence that the ‘Third Way’ works. But all these achievements have been put at risk by Labour’s unshakeable faith in the ability of the free-market to regulate and direct itself, even in the middle of a crisis.
The minimum wage is meaningless to someone who cannnot find work or has been made redundant; working families’ tax credits are only operational when those families are working; and public services are certain to suffer during times of recession. In the coming months, hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs because a generation of so-called social-democrats capitulated to the political settlement established by Mrs. Thatcher.
Further evidence of the intellectual disorder the Labour Party presently languishes in can be found here, on the campus of Glasgow University. Last year, the GU Labour Club revealed a new slogan: ‘Serious About Socialism’.
Like David Tait, GULC co-chair Patrick Mcglinchey denies that there is any necessary conflict between considering one’s self part of the radical left and being an active member and admirer of Labour in its existing form:
“The Labour Party”, he says emphatically, “is something worth fighting for”.
So far, however, those who have battled to move the party back onto more progressive territory have lost every fight they have engaged in. Government policy remains in the hands of the extreme centrists and the social Thatcherites. With these self-proclaimed ‘modernisers’ still in charge, there is no good reason to believe that Labour will resolve its identity crisis any time soon. On issues of asylum and immigration, it will continue to parrot the rhetoric of the ultra-right; on public investment and state intervention, it will claim inspiration from Clemet Atlee and Aneurin Bevan.
The party is in a state of moral drift. Even, Mr. Mcglinchey admits that it needs to “re-discover its purpose.”
For over a decade, Labour has defied those who have attempted to place it at one or other end of the political spectrum. It has declared itself beyond the false left/right dichotomy. It has refused to publicly define itself.
As such, the electorate is now struggling to discern exactly what the party stands for, where its values lie, and why it deserves to govern the country. In fact, voters are increasingly looking to the alternatives for a more precise and purposeful leadership in the UK. After all, that seems only fair.