Saturday, December 05, 2009

The limits and context of New Labour's left turn

Today's editorial in The Guardian takes up an interesting theme: the long-term changes in the political economy of Britain and how the apparent move towards "industrial activism", made recently by New Labour, may fit into broader economic trends.

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.

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Blogger Liza said...

Not anything constructive, but just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your reading your website/diary/blog and its a good source of information.

Just though I'd put that here, since you haven't got a comment.

I'll reply on with some of my own thoughts on your future posts (if you make them).

Sunday, December 06, 2009 11:56:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

thanks, Liza

Monday, December 07, 2009 7:09:00 AM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

oh David, i wish i shared your optimism

Monday, December 07, 2009 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger joe90 kane said...

Just for the record DD,
I put a link to your estimable blog article here -
See my comment #33
BBC Question Time Balance Under Scrutiny
Socialist Unity
05 Dec 2009

As I'm here and just in passing,
SU has just posted an article (forgive me, I haven't read it all as yet) on the forthcoming cataclysm if the Tories get into government at the next election.
I'm no fan of Labour myself, and have the cushion of the Scottish Government to fall back on, but...-
The Lying Horsemen of the Apocalypse
07 Dec 2009

all the best

Monday, December 07, 2009 2:00:00 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

Sam - wasn't it pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will that Gramsci talked about? I don't have any illusions that New Labour is going to turn into anything like the sort of government I'd really want to see. But its been slightly less right-wing recently in some respects (its been forced to by the political and economic conditions btw) and I welcome that. What I am optimistic about is the ability of the general public to take advantage of this and push for more meaningful change, through campaigning and political activism.

Monday, December 07, 2009 9:25:00 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

Joe - thanks very much indeed

Monday, December 07, 2009 9:25:00 PM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

Yeah but david, isn’t the critical question whether the progressive public should be throwing their weight behind a revamped new old new labour or whether it must make a break from it? To be honest I am torn on the subject. I too have been intrigued by the recent moves by the government—indeed this ( was one of the more interesting headlines I have read recently. I am also wondering whether the Conservatives are actually going to go mental( once elected. However for how long are we going to side with the lesser evil? It seems to me that the government knows its dead in the water and so is a) rhetorically manouevring to secure the left for life in opposition while b) substantively simply following the orders of the business community (

You are absolutely right that a shift towards manufacturing (for whatever the reason) is a cause for optimism, in terms of greater union power, more leverage for workers etc. But should this opportunity be channelled through Labour or not? I wouldn’t have thought so, at least not until after the election.

its the first time i dared to use html codes for hyperlinks. and they weren't successful. how do i do it?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

I'm not suggesting anyone necessarily "throw their weight behind" the Labour Party. What I'd hope for people to do long term on a day to day basis is to work to promote genuinely progressive politics of the kind I've been trying to articulate on this blog for the past few years: politics that are obviously at odds with New Labour's programme.

I'm quite sure that Labour is moving slightly leftward (or slightly less right-wing) for cynical political reasons. They're doing so under public pressure. Well fine. That's often how progressive change occurs. The Tories and Liberals extended voting rights when they did, not because they were great progressives, but because the Chartists, Suffragettes etc effectively made them do it. Its no less a positive thing for that.

This is often how you make progressive change happen. By forcing concessions from the powerful, thus opening up the system and laying the ground for further progress.

I see it this way. The main thing is to get into dedicated, committed activism. You do that long-term on a day to day basis and that's what really has an effect. When an election comes along you make the best of it. Its not a small thing, but its not the main thing either. The main thing is to work hard to alter the conditions in which politicians make choices. And then when the political conditions change, as they are at the moment with neoliberalism discredited and pressure on the powerful to inch leftwards, you recognise that and try and think of ways to exploit the opportunity further.

On the narrow question of what happens on election day, plainly Labour are preferable to the Conservatives, in the same way as plainly the Conservatives are preferable to the BNP. If I lived in a marginal BNP-Tory seat I'd vote Tory. I wouldn't vote Green, the party I actually support, and thus help allow violent fascists to gain a Parliamentary seat. That wouldn't mean "throwing my weight behind" the Tory party. Just recognising that in these limited situations you have to make the best or the least bad out of what's realistically on offer.

People have to make a choice based on their particular constituency come election day. Can they get a good candidate in? Can they at least avoid a worse one coming in? Its not great, but that's how it is. And its what you do on the thousand plus days between elections that really matters.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009 10:21:00 PM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...


Tuesday, December 08, 2009 11:38:00 PM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

although we seem to be in dissarray at the moment...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009 11:43:00 PM  

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