The Failure of New Labour was to Ignore Society

May 30, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

After its routing in Crewe, New Labour and its decade of lost opportunities is now over. Its core supporters feel abandoned and betrayed. What comes next for the left? The answer lies in our ability to challenge the New Conservatism, understand its strengths and expose its weaknesses.

The failure of New Labour was to ignore society. Traditional ways of life are disappearing. Communities dissolve into individualism. Social life has been driven back by the forces of money, markets and commerce. The traditional working class has lost its economic function and faces cultural destruction. The prosperity of the middle classes is disappearing beneath unprecedented levels of personal debt. The fear of impoverishment in old age, and the burdens of caring for aged relatives, extend across the population. A recession lies ahead and there is the epochal threat of global warming. For the great majority of people, there are no individual, market solutions to these problems.

Cameron’s Conservatives know this. They say they have the answers. They are creating a compelling narrative – trust people again, let society live. As Cameron has said, ‘the greatest challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival’. Their rhetoric is laced with the promise of hope, fraternity and social justice. They represent a major challenge to the left.

But look deeper and like New Labour they too cannot escape the discredited politics of neo-liberalism. Their answer to the social recession and ecological sustainability is the market, the very force driving social dislocation and environmental degradation. What’s more they propose to dismantle the state which is the only instrument society has to safeguard it from the destructive power of economic forces. They say they will disperse its social and welfare functions to the civil organisations of society. Who then will ensure the fair and democratic distribution of resources so that all may flourish and social justice prevail? Oxfam? The local food co-op?

Their answer is what Michael Edwards calls Philanthrocapitalism. Business thinking and market methods will save the world. The profit motive not government, is the best tool for solving social problems. This was Boris Johnson’s big idea in his mayoral campaign. The Mayor’s Fund, he says, is a streamlined vehicle for the wealth creators to give to communities facing deprivation. Here then is a first step in David Cameron’s plan to make poverty in Britain history. So who will be our new Guardians of the Poor?

The chair is Bob Diamond, head of Barclays Capital who last year earned £22million. He’s joined by Sir Trevor Chinn, knighted by the Tories in 1990, then he bcecame a big donor to Tony Blair. Richard Sharp is a retired Goldman Sachs banker, and Jonathan Marland is a former Tory Treasurer, and a man who enjoys his Wiltshire life in the role of a ‘hearty dog loving squire’.

This is a modern version of Victorian paternalism and should not belong to our future. We have lost faith in ourselves and in our democracy. Many of us feel ill equipped to deal with the new uncertainties. The future is difficult to imagine and some have lost a sense of hopefulness. The Tory nostalgia for a society of security in which each knows his and her place can sound attractive in insecure times.

But this sense of decline is only part of the story. People are forging new ways of life and searching for a set of values to live by. There is extraordinary cultural vitality and a widespread interest in the ethics of living a good life. A great mass of social movements, single issue campaigns and community actions have grown up outside the established order. They reflect a growing level of political activity that is often global in its dimension.

Despite Cameron’s pro-social politics, he will be hardpressed to sustain a connection to these new cultures, because he will not be able to deliver social justice. Nor will he retain the support of those who feel left behind because he will lack the economic levers to deliver social security. The future after New Labour will belong to the left, but we will have to take a cultural leap out of labourism. We will need to develop a new kind of ethical socialism, take ecological politics seriously, and give shape to a democratic social state, quite different to the one created by New Labour.

This article first appeared on Compass.

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This post was written by Jonathan Rutherford

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