Old Labour for New? No chance

The UK government’s tax rise for the better off does not mark a return to Labour’s socialist past – it is a classic New Labour stunt for today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

If Britain’s one-eyed pundits are to be believed, one might think that the UK government has gone almost overnight from being the bailer-out of the banks to the socialist scourge of the rich. In the week since the government announced its annual Budget plans, including record levels of state debt and a rise in the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent, we have been assured that this marks the death of New Labour and the party’s return to its radical roots.

Critics warn of a retreat to the dark days of the 1970s, and headlines play on the link between Red as in socialist and red as in debt (geddit?). Meanwhile, the rump of Gordon Brown’s media supporters cheer what they claim is Labour’s belated rediscovery of its social conscience in the 50 per cent tax rate and the new Equality Bill that is supposed to address social injustice.

Both sides of this nonsense are as deluded as chancellor Alistair Darling’s fantasy forecasts of UK economic growth. They misunderstand the historical character of both ‘Old’ and New Labour. There can be no return to traditional Labour because the political and social conditions that created and sustained it no longer exist. New Labour exists because traditional Labourism has been dead for 30 years. And behind the misleading headlines, the latest Budget confirms that the government remains New Labour to the core. We will not find the alternative needed today by trying to turn back the clock.

There is nothing particularly left-wing about running up huge government debts, unless you believe that George W Bush was the leading communist of the past decade. In any case, contrary to what many now claim, ‘Old’ Labour represented something much more than tax-and-spend or any other particular policy. It was the political wing of the mass trade union movement, a force with deep roots in society and a solid working-class constituency. Labour leaders played the historic role of negotiating between the demands of the masses and the needs of the capitalist system, attempting to use the state as the agent of social progress and consensus. This collapsed in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent, when the unions rebelled against the Labour government’s policies of state restraints on wages and prices.

That rupture marked the end of traditional Labourism and ushered in Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. The Tories took on and defeated the trade unions, culminating in the civil war of the 1984-5 miners’ strike (see The myth of Thatcherism, by Brendan O’Neill). It was the crushing of traditional Labourism that enabled a clique of careerists around Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to create New Labour.

They took over the empty shell of the movement and proceeded to empty it out of any distinctively Labour ideology or principle, symbolised by the ditching of the totemic Clause 4 of the constitution, which had committed the party – rhetorically – to the redistribution of wealth. New Labour was defined by what it rejected rather than anything it stood for. Blair and Brown replaced the politics of the labour movement with the media-focused politics of managerialism and personality. New Labour’s small-minded strain of Stalinism deployed the state, not as a potential instrument of social change, but as a means of managing individual behaviour through the ‘politics of behaviour’ and petty authoritarianism.

New Labour has certainly been exposed as a vacuous PR operation and an inspiration-free clique of incompetent accountants. In desperation Brown has resorted to state intervention to try to rescue British capitalism. But even if he were formally to nationalise all the banks, it would not mean the government was going back to Old Labour. There is no longer any mass working-class movement to lead, no class conflict requiring Labourism to resolve it and maintain stability. Labourism as a political force has been dead for 30 years, and no tax or spending measure can revive a corpse.

A more sober view of last week’s Budget might see it as quintessential New Labour, adapted to the conditions of economic crisis. Darling’s Budget bore the hallmarks of what Brown did for a decade as chancellor during the paper boom: a cowardly refusal to face reality or risk making major changes, the substitution of a blinkered bank manager’s mentality for any bold political vision or leadership, thinly disguised behind a mixture of spin and self-delusion. Plus the obligatory headline- (and hopefully vote-) grabbing New Labour stunt – in this case an attempt to catch the popular mood by raising taxes a bit on the better-off classes.

That rise to 50p in the pound – a very modest measure by Old Labour standards – will raise little set against the multi-hundred-billion pound public debt, but then it has far more to do with politics than economics. And like many a previous New Labour stunt, it is already in danger of seriously backfiring (although we should not swallow the scare stories about how ‘wealth-creators’ will flee the country in response – as if the rich really did create the wealth that they control).

As for Harriet Harman’s much-hyped Equality Bill – idiotically dubbed ‘socialism in one clause’ – that, too, is pure New Labour social engineering. The aim of this vague prescription for yet more petty state intervention and box-ticking is to address class inequalities, not by giving the poor the chance to become better off in real economic terms, but by addressing the ‘culture’ of inequality – one sympathetic columnist suggests this could mean, for example, putting more anti-smoking clinics in impoverished areas… In the hands of New Labour, especially in hard times, the concept of ‘equality’ ultimately means sharing out the misery.

Another sympathetic columnist, Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, in trying to celebrate the radicalism of the Equality Bill’s plans for more regulation of behaviour, gave away the essence of New Labour at its worst. ‘The politically correct society’, she wrote this week, ‘is the civilised society’. Contrast that lifestyle authoritarianism with Old Labour at its best – home secretary Roy Jenkins’ insistence, in support of sixties liberalisation, that the permissive society is the civilised society.

New Labour may be finished as an election-winning machine, but the absence of alternatives means that in political terms it remains the government’s only game in town. An elitist clique that took over the empty shell of a party is now left rattling around inside the dried-out husk of an empty shell.

And let us be clear. For those of us on the left who want to see an alternative, it is no bad thing that there can be no return to ‘Old’ Labour. I recall how we used to talk about ‘the dead hand of Labourism’ holding back the advance of progressive politics in the old days. That dead hand from the past is no longer weighing down in the present. It is high time we had a serious debate about filling the void with a politics of radical change that tries to look to the future.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said New Labour was not dead yet. Josie Appleton asked why New Labour stands for nothing. Mick Hume argued that parliamentary politics has become a battle of courtly cliques. Elsewehere he looked at the fall of Gordon Brown and argued that, despite claims of a Labour revival, you can’t revive a corpse. And to mark the beginning of Gordon Brown’s reign, Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Brown is not fit to be Prime Minister. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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