New Labour: it’s not dead yet
Reports of the death of Blair and Brown’s post-political project have been greatly exaggerated.
‘It was a brief shining moment. For a little more than a decade, Britain’s centre left party turned its back on past economic folly. It had realised that it could offer voters a potent combination. It became not just the party of social justice, but also the unabashed champion of economic opportunity and individual aspiration… Yesterday Alistair Darling, using the sombre tones appropriate to the occasion, provided members of Parliament with details of New Labour’s tragic end.’
This is an extract from a leading article in Tuesday’s edition of The Times (London). The writer was not alone in suggesting that everything has changed. Indeed, the graveyards appear to be filling up with the ideas of the last decade. The passing of Prudence, Gordon Brown’s favourite girl, has been widely reported, and she will no doubt be interred alongside ‘The End of Tory Boom and Bust’.
The argument being thrown around is that since Alastair Darling has announced a number of measures that look similar to the kind of thing ‘Old Labour’ might have proposed, the party must be reverting to type in some way. While The Times editorial throws its hands up in horror at this cowardly backsliding, for others this represents a return to principle. Darling’s plan includes a boost to public spending, partly by bringing forward projects planned for future years, and a cut in sales tax - value added tax (VAT) - from 17.5 per cent to 15 per cent. This will be paid for in the short term by extra borrowing, with Britain’s national debt projected to reach 57 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2013. But in the longer term, most of the tax cuts will be reversed. There will be higher tax rates for those earning over £150,000 per year, to be introduced after the next election, inspiring some commentators to dig out former Labour chancellor Denis Healey’s party conference quote about ‘squeezing the rich till the pips squeak’.
Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of Labour when the party suffered its fourth successive electoral defeat in 1992, was exultant: ‘This is the social democratic moment. And not only because the financial statement was modestly redistributive and geared to the protection of public services. The underlying philosophy is even more important. The effects of the recession will be mitigated and growth will be restored by policies that accept the need for limitations on unregulated individualism and are based, instead, on collective action.’
It is certainly true that things have changed since 1997 when New Labour came to power. Back then, New Labour declared it would stick to Tory spending plans for its early years in office, so sensitive was it to the charge of being the tax-and-spend party. Gordon Brown spent a decade running the economy with a sharp intake of breath any time there was a suggestion of something imprudent, like a Victorian patriarch worrying about his daughter’s ankles being on display. In reality, spending has been going up in recent years, financed by a mixture of borrowing and higher taxes, but New Labour liked to keep up a good show, with the dour, tight-fisted Brown as the perfect frontman.
The financial crisis and the shrinking economy have changed things. The economy, sidelined as a technical exercise for boring bean-counters for the past few years, is suddenly the hot topic everywhere. For the first time in ages, there appears to be ‘clear blue water’ between a high-spending Labour Party and the Conservatives insisting that tax cuts must be paid for by cutting public spending.
The suggestion that New Labour is dead is somewhat ironic since the party is itself merely the zombie left behind after the demise of ‘Old Labour’, which was placed on life support, brain dead, after that 1992 election defeat. When Tony Blair became leader in 1994, his job was, effectively, to switch off the machine and record the time of death.
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What New Labour represents is an acceptance of the idea that there is no alternative to the free-market system. While Labour was never by any stretch of the imagination a socialist party, it had been created by the trade unions as a working-class party. Unfortunately, Labour rarely succeeded in defending the interests of the workers. In fact, its main role was to take charge at times of national crisis and persuade the working class to accept cuts in living standards in order to get things going again. When the Seventies Labour government couldn’t even manage that trick, it was ditched in favour of the no-holds-barred crackdown on jobs and rights launched by Margaret Thatcher.
With its old policies discredited, and unable to offer a viable alternative to the attacks on the working class, Labour spent most of the Eighties fighting itself or telling striking workers not to get so uppity, all in a vain attempt to make itself electable again. When, in 1992, the party couldn’t even beat the increasingly unpopular Conservatives - led by the ‘grey man’ of British politics, John Major - the game was up. Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson spent the Nineties neutralising all the big issues of the past. The economy, taxation, the trade unions would all be handled by Labour in much the same way as the Tories would have dealt with them.
When the major political parties are in fundamental agreement on the major issues, politics is reduced to picking the best managers; elections become tedious job interviews rather than opportunities to reconsider the future direction of society. Government is in danger of becoming pointless. If decision-making become a technical exercise, rather than a political one, why not board up 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament and leave it all to civil servants and financial advisers? Politicians’ response to this prospect has been to micromanage every aspect of our lives.
New Labour, like Old Labour, wants to look out for our welfare ‘from cradle to grave’, but now in a strictly authoritarian manner on the assumption that experts are more capable of managing our lives than we are. So we are advised, vetted, banned, ordered and cajoled on everything from smoking, eating and drinking to how we dispose of our waste and where we drive our cars. And god forbid anyone who might foolishly want to look after, or even just work with, children - the height of suspicious behaviour. While apparently embracing the ‘free market’, New Labour has ensured that we live in a substantially less-free society.
None of that will change. Even the new economic plans are simply the result of technocratic debate amongst government insiders and their advisers. New Labour - indeed, the entire political class - remains fundamentally suspicious of the opinions and behaviour of ordinary people, as Mick Hume notes elsewhere on spiked today (see Strictly Dumb Democracy, by Mick Hume). While the economy goes down the drain, the rest of us remain passive spectators.
Alastair Darling, in a pale pastiche of John Maynard Keynes, might want to create a few jobs to prop up the economy. But the obituary writers for New Labour will remain unemployed for the foreseeable future.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.