What’s wrong with the Labour Party and the left?

May 8, 2015


Woke up the morning after to discover the Tories have an outright majority.

I feel very, very angry with the Labour, and with the left, as I have done for much of my adult life. The almost consistent unwillingness of the Labour Party to think, plan and fight for actual power appalls me. Since 1951 the Labour Party has only ever won four decent working majorities in parliament and every one of those Labour Governments was hated by a big section of the left, and one can’t but help feel they were hated precisely because they had done what was necessary to actually win. The Tories, even at their most divided, seem to have a deeper and more profound hunger for actually winning power and it shows in the results. Winning power is what most of politics is about, it doesn’t matter how great or progressive your policies are, if you don’t win its all pointless.

So what were some of the pillars of Labours failure this time around.

Failure to come to terms with the success of New Labour. The Post Blair years have been a disaster for Labour. Why? Its not as simple Iraq because although the left hated Blair for Iraq the rest of Britain didn’t, they re-elected him after the invasion with a thirty seat majority. Blair was an unusually talented politician but that doesn’t explain the Labour collapse since his departure. The New Labour project didn’t unravel, its was deliberately unpicked, and much of the left couldn’t wait to do that. The result of that casual destruction of the only successful project that Labour has had since 1951 (the 1966 Wilson government was hardly successful) is that we now face five years of Tories torturing poor people. It seems obvious to me that the place to start is with looking at why for three elections in a row Labour won big, at times massive, majorities with the New Labour strategy. What did New Labour get right, why was it so successful? The fact that so many on the left would groan at such an exercise, the fact so many of the left want to forget New Labour, is just a sign of its deep, deep addiction to failure.

When Brown turned out to be an incompetent PM and Labour lost in 2010 we got the election of an obviously weak new leader, via trade union block votes, with a message which was all about making the party feel good in an old fashioned and familiar way, and the casual abandonment of the hard lessons that had been learned in the early 1990s and which underpinned the success of New Labour. Labour needs to think profoundly about how and why it won three big majorities in a row and then suddenly seemed to lose the plot. It needs to think about why it exists and what political success in Britain means. It only has one unique political task, which is to protect us, and most importantly poor people, from the Tories. Failing at that, over and over again, is unforgivable.

The economy. Browns handling of the actual acute phase of the financial crisis was very, very good, but from then on he, and Ed Miliband, let the political agenda be set by their enemies with almost no attempt to argue for a different sort of perspective. Spending was not out of control under the last Labour administration. In retrospect it would have been prudent to reduce public debt a bit if one knew what was coming but nobody saw the crisis coming and it was bailing out the banks that inflated government debt and its was the inevitable financial impact of recession that worsened the fiscal position. There was a failure under Brown to get to grips with the political impact of the financial crisis. The public were furious with the bankers and Brown could/should have grabbed control and set the agenda by riding on that wave of anger. There was way too much focus on relative trivia such as bankers bonuses (blaming the financial crash on the greed of bankers is like blaming a plane crash on gravity) and almost no attempt to think deeply about the lessons of the crisis.

Ed Miliband in opposition then compounded Brown’s failure to set an agenda by only offering a sort of austerity lite. The economy of the UK has done better than big parts of the eurozone, because Osborne stopped deflating it, but its still has deep structural problems: low productivity, a globalised financial system that does not service the needs of domestic businesses, a big and growing current account deficit and a budget deficit that means government finances could be crashed very quickly if the markets turn against gilts. On top of that the big global structural problems that lay behind the financial crisis have not been resolved so the UK is swimming in a low growth world. I have not seen any real deep thinking about this by Labour, instead they just talk about feel good public service stuff and a gentler version of austerity.

Europe. Given that the Tory party is riven by deep divisive fissures around Europe, given the rise of UKIP and given the fact that the rest of the EU has been in a profound crisis for most of the last parliament why oh why did the Labour Party not have anything to say on the matter? Why didn’t Ed Miliband travel the length and breadth of Europe building a profile as a leading figure of European reform, there are plenty of potential allies out there. The Tories under Cameron have been frighteningly parochial but their parochialism was matched at every step by Labour. Its as if the Labour leadership decided to just not talk about Europe. Why?

Constitutional change. Given that labour seems so regularly incapable of delivering a working majority under this system its continuing opposition to proportional representation is shameful.

Scotland. Losing the whole of Scotland to another left of centre party must count as staggering political incompetence. In the ‘safe’ seats and in its rotten boroughs Labour can all too often be far too tolerant of petty corruption and complacency, and the London leadership seems clumsy in the way it has grappled (or not) with the renewal of the party in Scotland.

Jeez – I feel like my life is a loop and we are now back in 1992.

Joan May 8, 2015

What I dont understand about New Labour is in what way does it differentiate itself from the Tories. They are both parties that manage capitalism perhaps one is more rooted in finance and services and small government and the other in production and more government but is there a point in having 2 parties. Would we be no worse off without a labour party now? Or is it just a question of the level of fairness that the labour party could conjure? I am not being disingenuous I really do feel confused about it and would like to understand it.

Tony May 8, 2015

I think there is a big difference between New Labour and Thatcherism and the current Tory party but before delving into that I want to start with responding to your comment about managing capitalism. This is a pretty big question so I am going to be ultra concise. The great big lesson of the 20th century was that a non-capitalist economy not only does not work (i.e. it fails to deliver material welfare) but appears, based on many real world experiments in building non-capitalist economies, to be incompatible with democracy, human rights and diverse social tolerance. It seems to me that the evidence is overwhelming that by far the best way to deliver human welfare in the broadest sense is through societies that have the following characteristics: economies that are about two thirds private capitalist enterprise and one third public social provision, societies with democratic political systems, freedom of speech, a strong rule of law and a highly developed civil society with high levels of social tolerance. No other form of social organisation comes close in terms of delivering human benefits.

Having said that, that still leaves lots of room for disagreements about the various balances in society, should the state be bigger or smaller, active of passive, should private enterprise be managed or left alone, etc, ect.

Prior to New Labour the UK had been managed through Thatcherism, a neoliberal ideology and politics, for a couple of decades. Thatcherism wanted to shrink the state and transfer the provision of as many social functions to the private sector as possible. It also wanted to remove support for poor people (because apparently monetary support does not incentivise poor people) and give more support to rich people (because apparently monetary support does incentivise rich people).

New Labour was very different. It wanted to enhance and improve the public provision of services and it wanted to help poor people stop being poor. It differed from older Labour because it was far more agnostic about how to do that, it believed that some things were best delivered via old style public sectors system, but some maybe could be better delivered via all sorts of hybrid public/private systems. New Labour sought constantly to improve the value of the services it was paying for by trying lots of different ways to deliver them, some of the new ideas worked and some didn’t.

Unlike much of old Labour, New Labour didn’t want to roll back the private sector, nationalise industries, grow the state for the sake of it, or attack people who wanted to get richer.

My personal experience as I worked in the public sector under both the Thatcher Tories and under New Labour, and the personal experience of my extended family who lived in council housing and used state schools in Islington under both parties, was that the difference between the two periods was startling. Under New Labour the relentless and slow crumbing of the public sector came to end. New schools and hospitals were built, every hospital in north London was modernised, every school was modernised. Every council flat and house in Islington was renovated, and renovated to a high standard. Investment poured into the transport system. Nationally child poverty plummeted. Find out about the amazing services that were delivered to mothers and children via Sure Start under New Labour. This was Social Democracy in action, nothing spectacular just the study improvement in the fabric of society and in the lives of those most dependent on the state.

I get pretty angry when people fail to see the real social progress that New Labour delivered just because it was not wrapped in a red flag and anti-capitalist slogans.

I don’t give a fuck about about slogans or symbols, I just want Labour to win, keep the vicious Tory fuckers out, and just deliver steady and reliable social progress. Its that simple. Instead the Labour party reverted to its stupid self indulgent and comfortable old left posturing and its let the Tories start to roll back the progress made under New Labour and grind down the poor and vulnerable again. Shame on Labour and the Left.

Sorry if that’s all a bit incoherent but I have only had 3 hours sleep in the last 36 hours and I am feeling mighty pissed off at the moment.

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