For those brought up on the modus operandi of the past 30 years, it is difficult to adjust to the monumental shift in US politics. The idea that General Motors – for so long the jewel in the crown of American manufacturing – will now be reshaped by the federal government is remarkable.
From finance to industry, the US government is now more involved in the economy than at any time since the 1930s. Furthermore, while the Republicans stand on the sidelines, warning of creeping socialism – itself an amazing charge – most of society seems to believe that there is little alternative other than a huge dose of state intervention to rescue the economy.
For the first time in my memory, the federal government is now well to the left of the great majority of European governments.
The picture in Britain is far less encouraging. Labour faces a huge defeat at the next general election, to be succeeded by a government of Conservatives who, ever since the recession struck, have sought refuge in an increasingly Thatcherite stance – attacking Keynesian solutions, enthusiastically embracing cuts in public spending, and reverting to a strongly Eurosceptic position.
Despite all the talk of progressive Conservatism, the main thrust of the Conservative Party’s efforts under David Cameron during the past two years has been in the opposite direction. The disparity with the United States, so long the inspiration for the British neoliberal right, could hardly be greater. But why are US and British politics moving in such contrasting ways?
At the heart of the British problem, one suspects, is that New Labour is the incumbent government. As the financial crisis struck, Barack Obama was able to present himself as an alternative to the Bush years; New Labour had no such advantage. On the contrary, it had been the architect of a system that had culminated in the mother of all postwar crises. The party has paid a savage price for its enthusiastic endorsement of neoliberalism. There is nothing Gordon Brown can do to escape that responsibility – he is deeply culpable, just like Tony Blair before him.
The result is twofold: first, people’s discontent with the recession has inevitably taken the form of a turn towards the Conservatives; and second, there is virtually no credible and strong left-of-centre voice.
The net result of 12 years of government by New Labour (plus three years before that of leadership of the party by Tony Blair) is the disintegration of Labour as a radical force. The true cost of New Labour, in other words, is not just the imminent electoral massacre, but the undermining of the party as a progressive force.
In the light of Obama’s example, it is no longer tenable for New Labour apologists to argue that “leftist” and “popular” are contradictory terms. Obama has demonstrated, in what was a far more inhospitable political environment, that it is possible to win support for the refrains and core values of the left.
But naturally he represents much more than that: in no sense can he be regarded as a throwback. He may articulate a familiar discourse of the left but he is an entirely new phenomenon. He is black; politically he comes from somewhere entirely different; he represents the radicalism, energy and experience of the black American community; and he has found a way of making that resonate in the political mainstream.
Obama in every sense represents a political earthquake. Now compare that to Blair and Brown. The objective of New Labour from the outset was to reassure people that it would not frighten the horses. Blair and Brown symbolised this perfectly: Blair remains, at heart, a public-school- and Oxford-educated Tory, while Brown is a deeply conservative and very timid product of the Labour tradition.
While progressive America – for so long besieged and isolated – has been energised by the galvanising effect of Obama, the equivalent constituency in Britain has been left demoralised by the baleful legacy of New Labour, inert, bereft of ideas, deeply pessimistic and lacking in any derring-do.
On top of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the political class, as a result of the expenses scandal, is now confronted with a crisis of legitimacy. Again, New Labour has been quite unable to offer any kind of answer, leadership or moral compass.
Unsurprisingly, given New Labour’s worship of money and the market, its MPs seem as corrupt and as much “on the take” as those of the Conservative Party. The consequence is that Labour, as the incumbent and the sitting government, is likely to receive the severest punishment from the electorate. At the same time, an incongruous bunch of celebrities – from Esther Rantzen to Simon Heffer – are offering themselves as representatives of the people and upholders of ethical values. In the United States, on the other hand, Barack Obama is palpably the standard-bearer for morality and probity.
Nothing more clearly exposes the disaster that is New Labour than the comparison to Obama. That is the easy part. The much more difficult question is how the left is to break out of its impasse and set a very different course for the future.
The starting point must be the defeat of New Labour attitudes within the Labour Party. But beyond that, unless the left can find ways of tapping new sources of energy and dynamism, the kind of transformation that Obama has wrought in the US will remain nothing more than a fantasy.
Such outreach has always been alien to the Labour tradition. Perhaps the crisis that will engulf the party over the next few years will encourage a change of culture – but don’t hold your breath for it.