The recent intervention by David Miliband and the resulting manoeuvrings reveals much about the febrile state within the Labour Party. Beyond the Blairite-Brownite soap opera, which goes on even after one of the protagonists leaves the stage – rather like Ernie Wise continuing to define himself after poor Eric passed away – this is an existential crisis for Labour.
What does Labour now stand for when ‘economic growth and social justice’ has become so hollow, and ‘for the many, not the few’ sounds meaningless? Who does Labour give voice to and who does it claim to represent?
The Miliband intervention invoked ‘change’ and radicalism’, but there was a sense of continuity and conservatism in his message. New Labour have got used to an Orwellian world of words, where ‘community empowerment’, ‘double devolution’ and ‘localism’ are used as attractive window dressing, while at the same time, the remorseless centralism and march of the market agenda on public services goes on.
For those New Labour supporters who doubt this account lets examine the record in a few areas. First, the post office network. Under New Labour, the government has been waging a slow, deliberate war against the post office network, first, dividing it from Royal Mail, and then stripping the offices of their profitable services.
The government’s intention for all its rhetoric of ‘localism’ is to reduce the network from 14,000 offices two years ago to 7,500: a brutal cut of nearly half the post offices in the country reminiscent of Beeching in scale and style. This is a once in a generation change and attack on the vibrancy and sustainability of communities up and down the land by the narrow mindset of New Labour accountancy.
Second, where are the senior New Labour voices denouncing the James Purnells and Andy Burnhams of this world as they propose considering top-slicing the BBC licence fee, which can only give sustenance to the forces of commercialism (ala Murdoch and company?).
Third, who in New Labour dares to disown the determinist view of the world offered by the recent government commissioned Julius report, which following Nicholas Ridley, argues that you can outsource all government actions apart from the commissioners? A party venturing into such terrain is one which no longer understands its historic mission of protecting people from the power of the market.
Then there is the issue of inequality and what to do about it. A recent revealing set of focus groups with a select group of the new rich in London’s legal and financial worlds showed that they have no idea what life is like in modern Britain. These astute, finely-tuned minds thought the starting point for being in the top 10% of incomes in the UK was £162,000 when it is £39,825, and believed poverty wages began at £22,000, just under the median salary in the country.
What do the Blarities and the Brownites have to say about this? Phil Collins and Richard Reeves, two uber-Blairite insiders, got it partly right when they railed against the ‘poisonous’ long shadow of Fabian centralism which has like an Upas tree killed off Labour’s older decentralist traditions.
However, their remedy is even more ‘poisonous’ than Fabianism: an anti-political, dogmatic and narrow view of politics and economy, one which is bereft of any idea of political economy, and filled with a notion of ‘change’ shaped by management consultants and buzzwords.
Labour desperately needs to change how it thinks of the world, and see the reality of the world as it is outside of the Westminster village. To do so it needs to weave a path between the pitfalls of Fabianism and the labourist impulse, and the zealousness of the new conservatives.
The new terrain it needs to explore is not the Blairite time warp shaped by the battles of the 1980s, or the Brownite world of fear and caution, but can be found in the discussions within ‘Compass’, and within the politics of the new devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales, about what being progressive really means.
This can be seen in the discussion between Neal Lawson and Robert Philpot of the loyalist ‘Progress’, where the former wants to address inequality, tackle the super-rich and think of the public good, and the latter is stuck in the language of the last decade, unwilling to move on. If we are being honest there are still numerous omissions and silences in the progressive agenda being outlined by ‘Compass’, along with a wider crisis of confidence about what a progressive politics entails thirty years after the Thatcherite counter-revolution began.
There are in my opinion only two really influential books written on Labour in the last fifty years. The first is Henry Drucker’s ‘Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party’ which argues that Labour’s culture mattered as much as its policies. Drucker argued that examining the ethos of Labour’s culture was the key to understanding the conservative, ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude in the party.
Ralph Miliband’s ‘Parliamentary Socialism’ is the second, which made the case that Labour throughout its history has always put its allegiance to parliamentarianism before socialism. Ralph, of course was David and Ed Miliband’s father, and it seems to be a book neither son has read, for if they had they would understand a bit more the predicament they are in.
Writing in the early 1960s, Ralph dismissed talk of Labour’s problems as being of recent import. ‘Like Hobbes and fear’, he wrote ‘crisis and the Labour Party have always been twins – Siamese twins.’
He then went on to outline his disappointment at Labour’s role as ‘a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system.’ How times change and don’t change.
Ralph Miliband had heady hopes of a different social order long banquished from the mainstream left and that vacuum has left a lingering sense of loss and lack of direction in Labour and politics generally.
In many respects, what David and Ralph Miliband show is that we are back to the political style of Old Labour pre-Blair, of crisis, plot and disunity, but in the setting of a world old Ralph could only have dreamt of in a nightmare: of a Labour Party institutionalised as the party of alternative business. Indeed, it is worse than that for New Labour have bought into a caricature of what business is and does informed by accountancy firms and consultancies.
It is a situation his eldest son David seems to want to do nothing about beyond challenging the captain of the ship rather than its course.
This article first appeared on Compass.
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This post was written by Gerry Hassan