The limits and context of New Labour's left turn
The rise of socialist and social democratic politics, driven by the organisation of mass labour rooted in manufacturing and other blue collar industries, probably reached its peak at around the mid-point of the last century, winning in the process some vital gains in terms of the political enfranchisement and economic welfare of the general population. Subsequent years saw the demographic make up of the country change, with manufacturing industry declining sharply as a mass employer, the move of many working class people into white collar work, an increase in home-ownership and the general break-up of the social base that had driven the Labour Party in particular and the political challenge to the vested interests of the economic elites more generally. The end of this historic socialist/social democratic coalition saw the establishment of a new Thatcherite consensus, first by Thatcher herself, then later on by New Labour.
However, recent months have seen something of a change in tone from the Labour government, including a willingness to intervene in support of the industrial sector and to (vocally at least) challenge the banking industry. We have also seen Gordon Brown directly challenge the regressive taxation policies of the Conservative Party and link those to the privileged background of its leading figures. Obviously Labour has to tack left at least slightly in order to rally support ahead of next year's general election. Its traditional base can no longer be relied upon to turn out and vote after 12 years of neo-Thatcherism from Brown and Blair, not to mention Blair's politically disastrous alliance with George W Bush. So trying to shore up that constituency makes sense. But is there also something deeper at work here?
The long-term social changes and trends described above that undermined traditional Labourism, though not entirely within the control of policymakers, were at the same time, not entirely due to forces of nature. The political economy is a system created by human beings and driven by human choices.
Similarly today, with it having become obvious that the British economy is fundamentally unbalanced and over-reliant on the "socially useless" activity of the financial sector, it is right that politicians should make the conscious choice to change this balance away from "financial engineering" towards "real engineering". This is especially true when climate change demands that we radically and swiftly alter the technological base, a situation that offers huge opportunities in research, development and production to the nation states and companies smart enough to take them. More national reliance on capital investment and less on capricious financial flows would also - potentially at least - render the democratic state better able to hold its own against the demands of elite international economic interests.
So it turns out, after 11 years of New Labour being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", that you don't have to accept post-Thatcherite neo-liberalism as though it were written into the laws of physics. You can, in fact, make choices.
The costs of the centre-left's intellectual and moral timidity in the face of the status quo post-Thatcher can be measured in the damage done to the economy by the collapse of those orthodoxies in the autumn of 2008. Labour appears, very slowly indeed, to be coming round to an understanding (an understanding that is at least partially right) of what this might mean politically. It would be a shame if it lost the opportunity to develop this line of thinking more fully, given the unpleasant alternative facing us at the ballot box next spring.
Labour's current politics, irrespective of the recent mild drift away from Thatcherism, still require a serious overhaul or wholesale replacement. That's a long-term task for Britain's progressive majority, requiring dedication and commitment. In the short term, we should be aware of the changing political weather in the aftermath of the banking crisis and work to ensure that the obvious lessons are learnt about the sustainability of neo-liberal economics. In those circumstances, a Labour victory is plainly preferable to a Tory victory in the election next spring. But given New Labour's dismal record in entrenching Thatcherism during its first 11 years in power, and the extremely limited nature of its political conversion post-credit crunch, an anti-Tory vote next spring should be one very small part of a far greater effort to move the long-term trends of the British economy in a more progressive direction.