The lingering death of New Labour
The party has no voters, no MPs, no leadership, no principles — but we still have to endure another nine months of it in government.
When I was a young revolutionary Marxist, my ambition was to break the choking hold of the Labour Party machine over the left and working class movement in Britain. We were out to fight and defeat Labourism as a barrier to political and social progress. Our aim – which we never came close to realising, of course – was to smash the Labour Party in a great struggle for political principles.
In the event Labourism was killed off, not from the left but from the right. The weakness of Labour’s exhausted politics allowed the Tory governments of the 1980s to defeat the trade union movement on which ‘old’ Labour relied. Labourism lost its hold on the working class and died. New Labour stepped into the empty shell.
Now that I am an old Marxist, New Labour is dying. But not in a struggle or even a debate that might produce anything worthwhile. New Labour is corroding from within, haemorrhaging support and hitting not only a political dead-end, but a moral collapse and a leadership vacuum. New Labour is going out not with a bang but a whimper, enduring a quiet and lingering death that is making us all suffer the consequences of living in a crisis-hit society without a government.
From the first, New Labour was always defined by what it was not – socialist or old Labour – rather than what it was. Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown & Co practised politics-lite, where yesterday’s Labour totems were unwanted baggage and policies were a moveable feast (paid for on expenses).
But even those few ‘values’ they did try to claim for New Labour are now imploding. Thus the notion of New Labour as sleaze-busting ‘pretty straight guys’ on the moral high ground has finally been reduced to farce by the expenses scandal. The attempt to export their political problems in a moral crusade to project New Labour’s authority on the global stage has exploded in the debacle of Iraq and growing disquiet about what Britain is doing in Afghanistan (see Afghanistan: the war for New Labour’s soul, by Brendan O’Neill). Blair’s saleable brand of personality politics has also turned sour under the dour Brown. New Labour is left looking like a PR machine, only without any decent PR or a working machine.
Yes, there have always been questions about what New Labour stands for. Now, however, there are serious questions over who on Earth is going to stand for New Labour. A report in Sunday’s Observer newspaper claimed that 120 Labour MPs will quit at the next general election; 63 have already said that they won’t defend their seats. This was reported as a response to voters’ anger over the expenses scandal. In fact, it is a mass act of resignation in a wider sense, within a party resigned to defeat. That estimated figure of 120 lost Labour MPs does not include the many more who will stand again, but will lose, in what looks increasingly likely to be an electoral wipe-out next year.
It is said that many MPs have decided to quit because the Labour Party plans to ban them from taking on second jobs – but that they will not quit before the election in order to protect their tax-free severance payments. This can only confirm the public impression that most MPs are only in politics for what they can get out of it. As was argued on spiked during the hysterical expenses furore, this is not because British politicians are amassing fortunes but because, when politics lacks principles and purposes, nobody can see any other explanation for being an MP. It is surely a sign of the end that New Labour, the careerists’ party of choice for more than a decade, is now seen as a bad career choice.
In May, The Sunday Times suggested that the moral collapse of New Labour and parliament might get even worse, with up to 170 Labour MPs throwing in the towel when the bell for the General Election sounds. Taking into account the smaller numbers of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs expected to quit, and the dozens of Labour ones likely to lose their seats, the paper reported research suggesting that a total of up to 325 MPs – half of the House of Commons – would be ‘swept away at the next election’.
It observed that this would mean ‘the biggest clear-out of parliament since 1945′. Yet the contrasts between the two periods are also stark. In 1945, there had been no UK General Election for almost a decade, democracy having been suspended during the Second World War. The Labour landslide at the 1945 election, creating the party’s first-ever majority government, brought a whole new generation of MPs into parliament with a clear sense of purpose and desire for progressive change. (Whether they achieved it is another matter.) By contrast, there is no new generation of committed Labour politicians to fill the gaps this time. No doubt New Labour will manage to find candidates to contest the seats. But in political terms, they will remain vacant.
The sudden burst of enthusiasm for open primaries to select parliamentary candidates shows that even the solutions party leaders propose now only make these matters worse. After the Conservatives used an open primary to allow voters to choose their candidate in Totnes, Devon, foreign secretary David Miliband said New Labour could follow suit. The irony is that, in the age of anti-politics, this system makes it a disadvantage to be a party loyalist. That Totnes primary was won by a GP with little experience against two seasoned Tory campaigners, reflecting the public’s distaste for anything seen as party hackery. If that is to be the model, people with aims and ambitions will surely be even less keen to waste their time working for the party.
At the top of this sinking empty vessel of New Labour, there is a leadership vacuum. The confusion over who is supposed to be running the country during the summer holiday season is only a graphic illustration of the lack of leadership that has now become the New Labour norm all year round. The image of Lord Mandelson, an unelected peer, governing Britain by BlackBerry from beside his holiday pool on a Greek island captures the decadence and contempt for democracy now gripping a government in its death throes. Even Mandelson, the notorious New Labour ‘control freak’, appears to be losing his iron grip.
When a party is facing such problems one might normally expect a bruising struggle for its soul. Yet far from a battle for leadership, it seems that New Labour’s senior figures are no more keen to fight for the top job than its MPs are to fight for their seats in the Commons. The most we have seen is Harriet Harman talking up her student union women’s officer brand of feminist identity politics in a bid to appeal to the rump of Labour radicals. That hardly amounts to political leadership in the midst of a social and economic crisis.
Explaining his more relaxed demeanour recently, Mandelson claimed that ‘There aren’t the life and death struggles we were engaged in in the Labour Party 15 or 20 years ago’. Well, he’s half right I suppose. Labour is facing a painful death. But nobody appears to be doing much struggling against it. The fact that New Labour faces looming annihilation at the hands of David Cameron’s weak-kneed Conservatives confirms the depths to which it has sunk.
A handful of self-deluded Labour loyalists are still talking about ‘renewal’ after the General Election defeat, and a return to Real Labour, but this is fantasy politics. We have told them for years that you cannot revive a corpse. Now it is more a case of trying to regenerate a ghost, as there are likely to be few bones left to fight over. That will not stop the bitter recriminations of course. But it will make any post-election debate over ‘Labour’s future’ worse than useless.
The strange, quiet and lingering death of New Labour is casting a pall over politics. Far better if it could be got out of the way quickly, regardless of the short-term consequences, so that there is at least a chance political life can begin again.