‘Red Ed’ can’t disguise the fact that Labour is dead
Don’t let the flurry of debate about what Ed Miliband will do next distract from the real story: the historic crisis of social democracy.
Only a few years ago, New Labour appeared as a powerful political machine on the verge of displacing the Conservatives as the natural party of government in Britain. During the Blair era, from 1997 to 2007, the party dominated virtually every area of public life. Even big business rolled over, leading the praise for Labour’s ‘sound’ management of the economy.
New Labour also successfully domesticated a significant section of the media and cultural elites. A new oligarchy arose. Consisting of public-sector executives, consultants, public relations operatives and various others, this oligarchy regarded its connection with New Labour as the guarantor of future career advancement.
Yet now, this apparently powerful political outfit, which until recently had successfully marginalised the Tories, has become a spent force. Today, many of the former inhabitants of the ‘New Labour camp’ are mass-mailing their desultory and embarrassingly limited CVs to headhunters, desperately hoping to find a new career.
There was something depressingly banal and completely pointless about the Labour Party conference in Manchester at the end of September. ‘You could literally feel and sense the party’s power ebbing away’ – that was the verdict of one regular conference attendee. After the announcement that Ed Miliband had won the leadership election, many Labour MPs simply decided to bail out and go home. And where once upon a time major multinationals competed with each other to get a conference stall or to win the ear of a party fixer, this year they largely stayed away. So did many of the lobbyists and hangers-on, who usually get a high from the scent of power.
The numerous empty seats during the various debates highlighted how little was at stake at this conference. They also exposed the modest scale of this event. In the evening get-togethers, always an important part of party conferences, there was none of the buzz that there was during the Blair years – at the various bars, there were reportedly only party hacks and journalists. With so few real players in attendance, even the man who personifies Labour’s failures in the 1980s – Neil Kinnock – could reinvent himself as a plausible kingmaker. When Kinnock announced to the world the coming of a ‘new generation’, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that Labour was back where it belonged: in the political wasteland of the 1980s. It was as if Kinnock had decided to use this event as an opportunity to advertise Labour’s new role as the third political party in England.
In retrospect, it is clear that the party leadership contest and the discussion about Ed Miliband has distracted attention away from the steady decline of this once-powerful labour movement. Most of the media headlines focused on the conference’s rejection of New Labour. Numerous commentators claim that the election of Miliband signifies a shift to the left, or at least a return to ‘Old Labour’. A journalist for the New Statesman even fantasised about the party mutating into a social-democratic force, claiming that Miliband’s victory speech was the speech ‘we had been waiting – longing – for a Labour leader to deliver to his party: intelligent, honest, bold and solidly social-democratic’.
Many seem to have confused the rejection of New Labour with a desire within the Labour Party to return to its traditional roots. There is a serious failure to grasp a simple fact: that what we are witnessing is the transformation of a party of government into an organisation desperately looking around for a justification for its existence. All that Miliband did was to insist that ‘I’m not to blame for New Labour!’ and to disown his party’s political legacy. This was a double evasion of responsibility. Firstly, he self-consciously avoided taking responsibility for the legacy of a government that he faithfully served in. And secondly, he rejected the New Labour project without taking on the responsibility to offer an alternative. The bar must be set very, very low when Miliband’s insipid speech can be cited by political observers as an example of ‘solid social democracy’.
The years ahead will demonstrate that it is much easier to get rid of the legacy of the Blair-Brown era than it is to reconstitute the Labour Party’s social-democratic orientation. It’s worth recalling that the very creation of New Labour was based on a realisation that social-democratic politics had become exhausted. During the 1980s and 90s, the social basis for social-democratic politics had dramatically declined in Britain and across Europe. Politically, state socialism and welfare-statism suffered an immense crisis of legitimacy. At the same time, the traditional base of support for social democracy had become disenchanted with Labour. Trade unionism itself faced a loss of its social weight and influence. As a result, not only are the majority of workers and employees not members of a trade union these days, but also organised labour itself is suffering a serious crisis of identity. The Trades Union Congress in Britain is no longer a national force. The only national arena where unions still have some power is within the Labour Party, where they can influence the election of the party’s leader.
Today, however, it is not trade unionists but a handful of leaders who exercise a kind of oligarchical influence over Labour. Back in 1987, a survey conducted by the then Labour MP Derek Fatchett showed that in most constituencies in Britain, links between trade-union branches and the Labour Party were weak. In 74 out of the 202 constituency parties surveyed by Fatchett, the affiliated unions could not find enough people to fill the allotted places on the general committee. Since that survey was carried out, membership of the unions has continued to decline, and the links between unions and Labour resemble an alliance of generals without an army. Both groups of generals rely on each other to secure their mutual survival.
Tony Blair’s main accomplishment in the 1990s was to modernise the Labour Party’s election machinery, to the point that it could succeed despite the decline of its traditional grassroots support base. His success was made possible by the British public’s hostile reaction against Thatcher and the Conservatives in the early to mid-1990s. In these circumstances, New Labour was able to build a temporary coalition based on its traditional support and the support of sections of the middle class. This was an impressive achievement – but it should be noted that the success of this coalition was underwritten by the global prosperity of the pre-recession years. New Labour relied on tax revenues and state borrowing to retain its electoral support. An alliance of public-sector employees and middle-class beneficiaries of the state expenditure-promoted boom allowed New Labour to avoid having to deal with the erosion of its traditional social base.
In the era of recession, however, the New Labour project is no longer viable. Nor is the relaunching of a social-democratic project. Any serious attempt to construct a progressive political project will have to bypass the discredited state-socialist option and develop a new approach towards economic and social life. Yet instead of confronting economic realities, the Labour Party has decided to confine its ambition to changing its image by distancing itself from the New Labour era. Miliband’s constant boasting about a ‘new generation’ having taken hold of the party is testimony to his infantilised political imagination. When public figures boast about their generational affiliation, they inadvertently reveal that they have nothing of substance to say. At least the angry young men of old felt strongly about something other than their age.
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