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Loosening Labour’s golden straitjacket

Economic crisis presents opportunities as well as stark threats for social democracy, writes the Oxf

Like the early Christians, the founding fathers of the Labour Party were sustained by their faith. They believed that a society based on individual self-interest could be transformed into one based on human fellowship.

Bruce Glasier, a contemporary of Keir Hardie, declared that socialism was not about getting but giving. Such utopianism could not survive the harsh realities of government. The Attlee administration, Lab­our’s first majority government in 1945, came to appreciate that, for the foreseeable future, it would have to administer a private-enterprise economy. Labour became, in practice, a social-democratic rather than a socialist party. Yet, because it was unwilling to face up to reality, it remained, from the time of the demise of the Attlee government until the 1990s, directionless, despite being or perhaps because it was able to form governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet social democracy has been the most successful ideology of the 20th century. What, after all, accounts for the great stability of Europe since 1945 and its high rates of economic growth, compared with the turbulence and crises of the interwar years? The basis of the postwar settlement in western Europe, whether administered by Christian Democrats such as Konrad Adenauer in Germany, the Gaullists in France, or Conservatives such as Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan in Britain, was social democracy, a philosophy which sought to reconcile the competing needs of the people and the market. Yet the success of social democracy was hardly noticed, because its main tenets – a high level of state-provided welfare with taxation to match in an otherwise private-enterprise economy – seemed, for many years, to have been absorbed by all of the mainstream political parties in Europe.

The true hero of postwar politics in Europe is not John Maynard Keynes, and certainly not Friedrich von Hayek, but the forgotten German revisionist Eduard Bernstein. It was Bernstein who formulated modern social democracy, a type of socialism which accepted the market, but insisted that the state had an important role to play in ensuring social justice. Markets where possible, the state where necessary: this has been the slogan of modern social democrats. It was the view that social and economic processes were not spontaneous – but could be controlled by the state – which served to differentiate social democrats from their ideological opponents. In the words of the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, social democracy sought to recreate “through political means the social unity which modernisation has destroyed”.

Over the past 30 years, however, this philo­sophy has been in eclipse. It was replaced by another philosophy, that of neoliberalism. Not only Keynes, but also Bernstein, found himself eclipsed by Hayek and Milton Friedman. In the neoliberal view, any attempt by governments to influence the natural processes of the market would be counterproductive and doomed to failure. Within a basic framework of law and morality, the economy should be left to run itself. People should be allowed to make the most of their capacities and resources, as well as their luck, and should no longer be subject to the overall direction of the state. The social-democratic philosophy of the primacy of the state came to be replaced by the neoliberal philosophy of the primacy of the market.

In Britain, it is possible to pinpoint with some accuracy the moment at which social democracy came to be eclipsed. It happened after the wave of public-sector strikes – the so-called Winter of Discontent – of 1978-79. For these strikes, which kept the dead unburied in Liverpool, sent cancer patients home in Birmingham and left rubbish in the streets in London, could hardly be reconciled with the social and communal solidarity on which the postwar settlement was based.

In 1979, James Callaghan’s Labour government, which had presided helplessly over the Winter of Discontent, seemed to be facing electoral defeat. At one point, however, the polls improved for Labour and it looked as if the party might be in with a chance after all. No, said Callaghan: “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.” And so it proved. Margaret Thatcher was to remain prime minister for more than 11 years; the Conservatives were in power for 18 – the longest period of continuous one-party rule in Britain since the Napoleonic Wars; and Labour was unable to return to power until it had transformed itself into New Labour.

All over the world, social democracy was on the defensive. It was not that social democrats were not in government, but they could only retain power, as in Australia, France and New Zealand, by adapting themselves to the philosophy of the market. Right-wing parties sometimes lost elections, but everywhere they seemed to be winning the argument. “The era of big government is over,” Bill Clinton told Congress in 1996. In 1999 the French president, Jacques Chirac, referred to Tony Blair as “a modern socialist. That means he is five miles to the right of me.” “And I’m proud of it,” responded Blair.

Blair accommodated his party to the market philosophy and to globalisation, which the American commentator Thomas Friedman called a “golden straitjacket” for the left. The success of postwar social democracy seemed to have depended on an equilibrium between production and redistribution, regulated by the state. With globalisation, that equilibrium appeared to have been broken, because capital and production had moved beyond national borders, and so beyond the remit of state redistribution. Pure socialism in one country seemed impossible, as François Mitterrand discovered after 1981.

Critics argued that New Labour accepted too much of Thatcherism. Yet Tony Blair and Gordon Brown succeeded in rejuvenating social democracy while, in a sense, appearing not to do so. From 2001, there was a huge increase in public expenditure, especially on the National Health Service. This led to the first increase in the public-sector share of gross domestic product since the 1970s, the last period of Labour rule. It had been made possible by Brown’s prudential economic policies from 1997 to 2001, which had gained the confidence of the markets, and therefore allowed expansion of the public services to occur safely.

The increase in public expenditure constituted a sharp break with the Thatcher and Major governments, and for a time it even transformed the attitude of the Conservative Party to public services. Until the recession, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, insisted that his party would follow a “prudent” policy in government. By this, he meant it would ensure that the public services were fully protected before embarking on any programme of tax cuts. He now seems to have abandoned this position, accusing Labour of failing to repair the roof while the sun was shining. But he has yet to make clear what public expenditure cuts would be on the agenda for a Conservative government; as recently as last spring, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, was calling for more financial deregulation and a smaller role for the state.

The recession is forcing the parties to confront stark choices, and it may be that we are facing another sea change in politics: the recession and the credit crunch could well give birth to a new social-democratic moment comparable to that of the early postwar years. For while, in the neoliberal era, governments had to come to terms with markets, they now have to come to terms with the failure of markets. Our economic problems are the product of a long reign of insufficiently regulated markets, of a regime that produced the housing boom and excess lending by banks and other financial institutions. Governments, therefore, can no longer withdraw from markets, but will have to engage with them more closely. Barack Obama, the nearest America has produced to a social democrat, struck a chord with precisely this message. His chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, now declares that the pendulum “should swing towards an enhanced role for government in saving the market system from its excesses and inadequacies”. Bankers today are more dependent on the state than trade unionists ever were.

Yet governments will also have to engage with society more intensely than they did during the years when the market reigned supreme. In times of economic insecurity, people will insist on a firm safety net of social welfare. They will not be prepared to risk all when markets move. The doctrine that we should all help ourselves and rely on the bankers to make us rich has less resonance now than it did during the neoliberal era. We shall return instead to the philosophy of the immediate postwar years: that the doctrine of self-interest needs to be controlled in the interests of society as a whole, and that a country does better when all work together than when it relies on doctrines of competitive individualism.

The fundamental theme of social democracy is that the processes of economic and social change can be controlled by government. The relevance of this philosophy is becoming newly apparent as the recession bites. Combating the recession, therefore, will depend to no small degree on whether the social-democratic leaders of western Europe can breathe life into the dry bones of what seemed, until recently, a dead doctrine.

In Britain, social democrats are hindered because they have been divided since the end of the First World War, when Labour replaced the Liberals as the main party of the left. Social democrats are divided in many European countries as well: but that is a luxury they can afford, under proportional representation. With first past the post the consequences are ruinous.

In Britain, the divisions on the left have helped encourage Conservative hegemony. From 1914 to 1964, there was just one government of the left with a comfortable overall majority, and this even though there probably was a progressive majority in Britain for much of that period, a majority that would have adopted more imaginative policies to deal with unemployment and the threat from dictators. The divisions among social democrats deepened with the breakaway of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, which served to strengthen the political centre at the expense of the Labour Party.

The leading figures who have done most for the Labour Party – Ernest Bevin, Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – have done so by forcing it to confront its shibboleths, by telling the party that it cannot afford to retreat to its comfort zone. The same courage is needed today if the recession in Britain is not to inaugurate another long period of Conservative hegemony.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book “The New British Constitution” will be published later this year by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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