It is easy to conclude, as we watch Labour’s internecine warfare, that we are witnessing the party’s death throes. There seems to be no escape route, no compromise solution, that will achieve a resolution of the bitter dispute between the parliamentary party and a leader who was voted into office by the membership but is regarded as anathema by his parliamentary colleagues and accordingly refuses to vacate the leadership. Such is the depth of that schism, and of the ill-feeling it has engendered, that a parting of the ways seems the only possible outcome.
The question usually debated is as to who is responsible for the party’s current plight. But if a split is to be avoided, either after or in the absence of a coup by the parliamentary party, a more fundamental question has to be asked and answered – how did it come to this? How did such a division emerge between those who are supposed to be working for the same objective – the election of a Labour government? Or, to put it more tendentiously, how did Labour MPs become so divorced from the wishes and ambitions of those they claim to represent? Both, or perhaps better to say all, parties to the dispute need to think about the answer to these questions about the roots of the dispute.
The answers from all quarters will of course be coloured by the failure to win the last two general elections and what are seen as the dismal prospects of winning the next, whenever it might arrive. But we need to go back further – right back to 1979 and further – if we are to understand what has really happened.
The first point to register is that an enquiry that takes us all the way back to the advent of Mrs Thatcher and to the origins of what we can now confidently describe as the 40 year-long neo-liberal revolution will mean little to anyone under the age of about 50. Only someone born before about 1970 can understand the extent of the change that was ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and that had been prefigured in the writings of Hayek and Nozick and Milton Friedman.
That change meant a huge transformation in the politics of most western countries. It meant that government was no longer seen as the bringer of hope and succour, as the guarantor of a shared understanding of what membership of society implied by way of decent standards of living, and health, housing and education.
“There is no such thing as society,” Mrs Thatcher famously declared. We were instead to repose our confidence in the “free” market. That market was infallible and was not to be second-guessed. Government intervention in its workings could only be counter-productive. For most of our current politicians, the society in which they have grown up implicitly accepted these propositions.
Even on the left, these nostrums proved seductive, especially when society as a whole seemed supportive of them and when accepting them seemed to offer the only way to electoral success. New Labour was a clear manifestation of this acceptance; the role of the left was thought to require only a more competent and compassionate human face to be worn by what were – if not eternal – at least verities for our time.
That is the world in which most members of the PLP have grown up and fashioned their politics. By definition, they see themselves as the vanguard, the thinkers and the professionals in the party. They are convinced that they know better, and their experience of the electoral and parliamentary battle convinces them that this is so.
What they do not seem to know, however, is the extent to which their views have been conditioned by the neo-liberal revolution, unannounced, that has taken place around them for the past 40 years. It has, after all, created the world they know. They are unaware, not only of this, but of the fact that for many Labour voters, the harsh realities of the “free” market have not produced an appreciation of its supposed virtues but a sense that no one understands or cares about the losses they have suffered as a result of its ministrations.
They are also unaware that, just as the way to neo-liberalism was cleared by an intellectual revolution which became visible only when the politicians got into the act, so there is a new revolution under way – a reaction against the increasingly evident deficiencies of a society that has undervalued its democracy and allowed it to be subverted by those who have used the “free” market to deliver an unfair and widening imbalance in power and influence. Their task now, surely, is not to bemoan that counter-revolution but to give it practical help and political effect.
So, what does this analysis mean for Labour’s current troubles? It means that the blame cannot be placed on someone who, without necessarily being ideally cast for the role, has found himself as the chosen spokesman for those who have been neglected – even by their self-proclaimed champions – for far too long and who now recognise the possibility that the longstanding neo-liberal orthodoxy, that has harmed them so much, can be brought to an end. The PLP must ask itself how it has missed the opportunity and responsibility to help that process along.
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This post was written by Bryan Gould