Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

The New Labour project is indefensible

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I remember the feeling when Tony Blair became prime minister, Labour came to power and the long, ugly Tory rule that had existed for most of my life was ended. It was May 1997; the weather was good, the cricket was good, the politicians were good. I wasn’t a member of the Labour Party then, but I voted Labour, and was desperate to see the change that Tony Blair promised. Of course, I was naive, but back then we were willing to give Tony a lot of rope as long as he got us in.

There have been many brave and positive achievements by Labour in government since then. Scotland has its Parliament, Wales its Assembly and Northern Ireland has an almost functioning political system that looks unable to return to the violence of the past. Devolution was a bold move that has revived civil society in the smaller members countries of our Union and reconnected them with politics.

Also on the constitutional front, Labour started the badly needed reform of the House of Lords, first by removing most of the hereditary members, then splitting off the lord speaker’s role from lord chancellor, then removing judicial functions to a now separate court, and starting to inch towards a fully elected chamber.

I am proud that my party has introduced the National Minimum Wage, which, despite right-wing scaremongering, all major parties now accept as a vital limit on low pay. The NHS has much improved under Labour; after all it’s our baby, and the Labour Party’s proudest achievement! There are still major problems with healthcare in the UK, and a lot can be put down to a mixture of the pressures of social change (population growth and longer life expectancy) as well as lack of proper funding through the wilderness years of Tory government.

I enumerate the successes lest we forget. However, the New Labour project is indefensible. Tony Blair transformed the Labour Party totally. He did not start this process, but completed a few decades of moving the party away from its roots in the labour movement, trade unionism and a socialist ideology.

I remember bits of Michael Foot’s leadership of the party (although I was only ten when he resigned), the last attempt to reintegrate the party with its always more radical grassroots activists and deliver a clearly socialist manifesto. The populism of Maggie Thatcher’s war in the South Atlantic and selling off council-housing stock combined with the SDP breakaway and continually negative media doomed Foot’s leadership, and the right of the party who stayed agitated for a move their way.

One effect of this move to the right in Labour is that the Tories and Lib Dems have sometimes been able to appeal as parties of greater social conscience than Labour (in the case of the Tories, this is clear bunk, as will be demonstrated by David Cameron if he becomes prime minister). The rise of the BNP to greater electoral success is largely due to the abandonment by New Labour of its support of policies advantageous to the working class in a desperate move to woo the fickle middle-class vote. The average White British working-class voter is left with no one else to vote for, and the only choice is BNP or don’t vote. It’s not racism or ‘fascism’ that’s on the rise, but a lack of socialist alternative.

New Labour’s economic policies were designed to show ‘prudence’ to the middle class, while the ‘wealth creators’ were allowed to go about their business unhindered and we tried to ignore the massive pile of debt all this was built upon. Blairism is a mixture of social democracy (like the National Minimum Wage and devolution) and economic neoliberalism (like of Bank of England independence and looser financial regulation). The messy consequences are the public-private partnerships in our hospitals and schools that involve the pumping of more public funds into the hands of private shareholders for services that become more limited in quality and quantity. As the economic policies worsened Britain’s wealth gap, the social policies turned from ‘nanny state’ to something far more authoritarian. Quite apart from the globally stupid ‘war on terror’, New Labour authoritarianism is the product of an attempt to control Britain’s worsening social situation in the face of human-crippling market forces.

It’s important to remember the good bits of New Labour, but the ghosts that constitute the party leadership are stuck on listing these as if a few good policies makes a good government. The New Labour project is indefensible: its neoliberalism infected the party’s connection with its grassroots allowing hate to flourish there, it infected foreign policy by pulling us into a war alliance with the US, it infected social policy and turned it into authoritarianism.

We don’t need or want a Tory government, which will only worsen the state we’re in. I’m even willing to say we don’t need change of leadership (the number of one-more-chances I’ve given Gordon Brown are endless: I like the man, hate his policies), but what we need is to drop the neoliberal agenda, re-engage with core socialist principles to find creative ways out of this crisis of confidence.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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