Hang ’em high with this election
New Labour wasted an unprecedented opportunity to reform Britain economically and politically and cr
New Labour combined two fundamental elements in its energetic break with the lethargy, nostalgia and incompetence of Old Labour: emancipation and centralisation. The long struggle to modernise the left culminated in a coup, staged with exceptional discipline and determination by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Their authoritarianism was in part a response to the equally bullying sectarianism of the left. At the same time, it drew inspiration from the audacity of the boardroom, the idea of human rights and the world of international wealth and power. New Labour's "market pluralism" offered freedom from the narrow oppressions of both the labour movement and ruling-class elitism. Along with its grasping for power, celebrity and control, there was the liberating potential for democracy and reform. But that promise has now been sacrificed to the claims of an enlightened despotism.
At the time of the 2005 election, the columnist Polly Toynbee, concerned the Tories might win because of Labour abstentions over the Iraq war, offered anyone who would go to the polls rather than sit on their hands in disgust "a free wooden nose peg with Vote Labour on it". If you wanted a better society, you should hold your nose and vote the party back in, was her influential call - and it succeeded.
Rightly, Toynbee had a positive assessment of what Labour had initially achieved. And, looking forward, she argued that the main reason for re-electing the party in 2005 was that Blair would be replaced by Brown. Toynbee seemed to believe, as I and many others did, that Brown would reignite the democratic, progressive and egalitarian side of New Labour when finally he had the chance to lead it. He read books. He knew the arguments. He was passionate about helping the poor and was a dedicated constitutional reformer, convinced of the need to engage with the public.Many saw through this, however - Scots especially. When I argued that Brown would be different, the journalist and former New Statesman editor John Lloyd, a Blair supporter, was emphatic that I was projecting my desires on to Brown, who would prove to be no better. Lloyd was right.
The pity of it was that Brown did launch his premiership with the promise of constitutional renewal, and the initial popularity he gained was more than just relief at Blair going. Voters wanted a new approach. Brown had the capacity and the advisers to understand this. But to summarise what happened between July 2007 and June 2009: he could have chosen democracy; instead he chose Mandelson.
Last summer he had another chance. The MPs' expenses scandal broke. Among leading British politicians outside the Liberal Democrats, he was perhaps the only one who could claim he had always wanted bold measures to sweep away a broken system with a new settlement. He chose not to. I mention this history to distinguish the situation now from that which obtained in 2005. One has to make a judgement about the direction a party's leaders are taking. The government is firmly in the hands of Brown and Mandelson, who have an unquenched will to power. Any victory will be theirs. We can judge them by their settled support for global capitalism, inequality, authoritarianism and deception.
In the 1980s the left lost its sense of the future while capitalism, turbocharged by new technology and world trade, projected itself as a planetary project now known as "globalisation". Brown embraced globalisation as socialism in a new guise: a wealth-creating substitute for internationalism that would provide the levers to transform Britain.
Though an obvious shift to the right, his move retained a vanity that often blemishes the left - the belief that one's role is to be the vanguard of the inevitable force of history. New Labour had its own version of this peculiar combination of determinism and voluntarism: in its jargon, we had to embrace science-based, market-driven modernity, or else suffer the ignominy of becoming yesterday's story.
On 19 February this year, speaking at an event for "progressive governance", Brown positioned himself for the coming election with a restatement of this creed:
With globalisation we have a unique chance to recognise our global independence as citizens and work towards a truly global society: towards a world free from climate-change catastrophe; and a world free from terrorism, poverty, disease, illiteracy and inequality.
Together my proposals are the modern progressive way of achieving our historic goals of economic progress, social justice and environmental care.
To achieve this, he called for nothing less than a "constitution for the global financial system". This was a proposal of Blair-like hubris. But what was the contribution regular folk were expected to make towards achieving Brown's "historic goals"?
I believe that as we [develop] the skilled jobs of the future we should see social mobility as the modern route to social justice and devise together the radical measures to massively accelerate the rate of social mobility in our societies.
Apparently we must adopt a planetary form of Tebbitism, where everyone has to get on their bike and pedal all the harder to achieve social justice - mobility without liberty.
Behind this supposedly inspiring vision, the hard edge of Brown's global economics had been set out by Mandelson in a speech to the Work Foundation early the previous month. This was a well-crafted case announcing some sharp proposals, appointments and intelligent policies to encourage economic development outside the financial sector but:
First and foremost we need to foster a new climate for enterprise in Britain. There is no substitute for this - no substitute for the drive and ambition that it brings. It can sometimes be a touch ruthless and raw. But it is the single most important engine of economic progress . . .
Enterprise and reward go hand in hand.
Much as it shocked many of my friends when I said I was comfortable with people making themselves "filthy rich", in the context I was speaking I was simply stating a simple truth: that enterprise and effort should be rewarded. It sets goals to spur people and brings gains to us all. And it is often forgotten that I added the important rider "as long as people pay their fair share of taxes".
That's people paying taxes, not businesses. There was no recognition in the speech that public spirit and investment can also drive growth and progress. Mandelson restated an approach that led to Private Finance Initiatives, privatising the delivery of the health service, and now the disastrous subordination of scholarship to commerce. At first he was a tart for deregulation. Now a touch of government is needed. But we can rest assured that it is only in order to manage Britain as a free market for the good of global capitalism.
New Labour's embrace of globalisation has turned it into an offshore government, judging domestic policy by its appropriateness for international finance and investment. This has disabled Labour's social democrats (and they do exist, in both government and party) from addressing inequality with the self-belief required to make a lasting difference. There is no point to social democracy if it doesn't make society less unequal. How to do this with respect to education, opportunity and income may be complicated, but an egalitarian state is, in my view, a prerequisite to succeeding. Debate on these matters, however, can't begin unless the fundamental ambition is articulated in the first place and acted upon. New Labour has made Britain a better place to live, but is it attempting to make it more equal? Is it a social-democratic or a right-wing government?
Equality here is not a matter of assisting the poor, imperative though that is. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in their book The Spirit Level, it involves diminishing the overall levels of difference, holding down the corrupting and degrading effects of widening inequality between top and bottom.
The answer under Blair was clear; he refused to countenance greater equality. Now, under Brown, with Harriet Harman's Equality Bill and the creation of the Government Equalities Office, a serious effort is being made to measure what is happening. This is one of the tricks of Brown's trade. However superficial his policies may turn out to be, he exercises his hegemony by occupying what can be described as the mental terrain of an issue. Raise the question of a social problem under Labour, and a barrage of reports, initiatives, consultations and other evidence will be produced to show how deeply the party knows and how seriously steps are being planned - as if Labour were in opposition, struggling to make a difference. An example is the outstanding report from the National Equality Panel, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, published in January. It shows that Britain would have been even more unequal had the Conservatives won the 1997 election - hardly a cause for self-congratulation - and maps the Himalayan rise of top pay and wealth. They know what they are doing.
The housing shortage symbolises the nature of Brownian policy towards inequality. He had more than ten years to see it coming. He saw it coming. New Labour permitted housing shortfalls that fed the inflation of property prices and could only exacerbate unfairness. When he became Prime Minister and planned a snap election, he pledged an additional 250,000 homes. As with constitutional renewal, the promise makes the failure all the more despicable. So what was Brown doing? Instead of building homes, he was doing all he could to help the City. After he had been anointed Labour leader, but just before he was to replace Blair, Brown gave his final Mansion House speech as chancellor on 20 June 2007. On his watch, the City had become the world's leading financial centre. No sign of shortages here:
I congratulate you, Lord Mayor and the City of London, on these remarkable achievements, an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London . . . And I believe it will be said of this age, the first decades of the 21st century, that out of the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the Industrial Revolution, a new world order was created.
Don't just blame the bankers.
So let me say as I begin my new job [as Prime Minister], I want to continue to work with you in helping you do yours, listening to what you say, always recognising your international success is critical to that of Britain's overall, and considering together the things that we must do - and, just as important, things we should not do [my italics] - to maintain our competitiveness . . .
Top of his list of what we should not do was "a British Sarbanes-Oxley", the act passed in the US in 2002 after the collapse of Enron. Thus Brown explicitly opposed the need for regulation that he now maintains is essential to the construction of his new world order. Helping make Britain a more equal society was not openly listed as one of the things "we should not do", but the implication was obvious.
Given its tremendous differentials of wealth and income, Britain needs a major party whose core mission is greater equality. This ought to be the Labour Party. Its policy advisers are now much better equipped to introduce intelligent and effective ways of achieving this. But if the government remains under the control of Mandelson and Brown, it won't embrace them. Labour has to sort itself out in opposition before it can present the electorate with a credible commitment to a "fairer way forward".
In the mid-1980s, Robin Cook told me a story whose veracity I have not been able to confirm, but which has stayed in my mind. Cook had been at a private gathering in Europe during Jim Callaghan's premiership. Monetarism (what today we would call "neoliberalism") was the subject under discussion. Nigel Lawson told the gathering that Britain did not have the conditions to introduce monetarism. Asked what these were, Margaret Thatcher's future chancellor answered, "Water cannon."
That was at the dawn of neoliberalism. Thatcher and her cabinet subsequently found the requisite conditions: a successful war, a stupid miners' leader who opened the way to a confrontation that destroyed Labour's praetorian guard, huge cash surpluses generated by North Sea oil, Rupert Murdoch, and a realignment of economic power that brought immense productivity increases in its train.
The political culture that accompanied this change replaced the stiff upper lip and consensus politics with a boastful, authoritarian spirit. But if intimidation was essential to the implementation of the free market it also helped unstitch a historic nation. Thatcher incarnated the tension, agreeing to an EU single market while trying to say "No" to Brussels. It proved even harder for her successors. Blair tried to become a war leader, too, but, unable re-create her populism, turned to faith. Brown attempted a redefinition of Britishness, to deserved derision.
But below the radar, and from early in the New Labour years, he and Blair initiated an audacious and sustained "transformation of government". Its ample official documents, never debated by parliament, set out to restructure the relationship between the state, citizens and business. It is a programme for a "database state" in which government departments can transfer information on citizens without them knowing, where surveillance is ubiquitous and government becomes the corporate deliverer of Britain's inhabitants to the marketplace. The "DBS", as it is cheerfully known, presents a novel and formidable challenge. A supporter recently told me that the database state is "inevitable and desirable. What we need are strong rights within it, iron-clad privacy within a context of the DBS."
But there cannot be "iron-clad privacy" within its context. That is the whole point. And I was struck by the combination of the “inevitable" and the "desirable", of fate and enthusiasm, the coin of New Labour from the start, merging delight in power with historical inevitability.
We are entering a new kind of constitution, one overseen not by judges, but by the Association of Chief Police Officers, organised as a private company outside the reach of Freedom of Information. The state that results can penetrate our daily lives at will without a warrant, log our movements, demand to know our intentions when we travel and compile, as with the DNA database, police records that imply guilt irrespective of charges, let alone a verdict.
Central to this redefinition of what it will mean to be British is the National Identity Register, with the ID card as its visible expression. This is not a card that permits us to claim our rights as with a passport, which was meant, as the name itself records, to be a laissez-passer, a right to travel. The UK identity card is closer to the electronic tag worn by criminals allowed out on probation. It belongs to the state and will entail an obligation to keep it informed and updated as the state manages our identity for us. Should it become compulsory, it will mark our subordination to the electronic leviathan.
Hardly popular, you might say, and opinion polls bear this out, which is why the policy itself is also being managed rather than debated. A marvellous example was provided by Brown himself in his party conference speech at the end of September last year:
In the last two years we have looked again at how we can give the best security to our British citizens whilst never undermining their liberties. We will reduce the information British citizens have to give for the new biometric passport to no more than that required for today's passport. And so conference, I can say to you today, in the next parliament there will be no compulsory ID cards for British citizens.
I think it is fair to say that without the Convention on Modern Liberty organised by Henry Porter and myself the previous February, such "looking again" would not have occurred. The announcement of no compulsory ID cards got one of the loudest cheers of Brown's conference speech. But what he was really saying was, "Re-elect me and there will be compulsory ID cards after the next parliament." What appeared to be a welcome retreat was in fact a blatant, yet devious, decision to carry forward the creation of the state management of our identities, while sterilising it as an election issue.
We don't live in a police state. But the potential for a modern authoritarianism has to be reversed, or else its forms of intimidation, far more sophisticated than hosing protesters into the gutter, may become irreversible. On this issue, above all, Brown is imposing his will, and he will have his way, circumventing open debate, unless he is defeated at the polls.
Deception is a New Labour hallmark. Its routines were established early in what we can call "the Campbell Code", in which presentation is substance, projection a form of media war and the appearance of truth its warrior sword. It was on display at the Chilcot inquiry as Blair insisted that the invasion of Iraq was a matter of his "judgement" as prime minister. But when Lawrence Freedman queried Blair's judgement for telling parliament it was "beyond doubt" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Freedman was told that this was what the former prime minister "genuinely believed". An effortless transformation of the issue into one of sincerity.
Blair got away with it. And the bankers got away with it, without even as feeble an inquiry as Chilcot. For the public, the scandal of MPs' expenses was decisive - it was a "Gotcha!" moment. Trust won't be "restored" by somehow instilling financial propriety among MPs, because the crisis involved a ruling culture of deception and entitlement having its cover blown. David Cameron can't oppose it credibly, since he presented himself as the heir to Blair. So, when the government attacked the Conservatives over the influence on them of Michael Ashcroft's money, Cameron's reply was that "people in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones". In parliamentary terms, the riposte worked. But the episode confirms that ordinary voters are right to see both parties as living in the same corrupt conservatory. And the taint of corruption is embedded deep in the system. In 1985, in his Mackintosh Memorial Lecture (which Brown would have read at the time), Neal Ascherson argued:
It is not possible to build democratic socialism by using the institutions of the Ancient British State. Under that include the present doctrine of sovereignty, parliament, the electoral system, the civil service - the whole gaudy heritage. It is not possible, in the way that it is not possible to induce a vulture to give milk.
Part of the appeal of New Labour before 1997 was the implicit promise that it would tackle this culture head-on. Instead, its leaders stripped away such decrepit checks as parliamentary procedure and cabinet deliberation, so as to exercise all the more fully what is, in effect, royal power. Power thus exercised is intrinsically corrupt. Personally unimpeachable politicians, such as the Miliband brothers, are just as contaminated by it all as Blair.
Brown could have stopped the rackets that kept backbenchers quiescent in the Commons. He could have abolished the crony appointment of half of our parliament that besmirches the UK's claim to be a democracy. He could have, but he didn't. Instead, he drank the vulture's milk.
Here is a test. Ask a Labour candidate if he or she is politically honest. They will assure you that they are. Ask them if they will accept the will of voters in their constituency on election night if they fail to get the largest number of votes. "Of course," they will reply. Then ask them whether, should they be elected, they intend to accept the will of the voters across Britain? Here, there might be a pause for calculation. Taking advantage of the pause, develop the question. Suppose that the Conservatives were to get 5 per cent more votes than Labour - in other words, a clear majority of the popular vote between the two parties - but Labour were to win as many seats. Wouldn't it be dishonest to support Labour in forming the government? Shouldn't they agree that they will not defy the clear preference of British voters by preventing the Tories from realising a chance to exercise power? It will take no time at all for your honest candidate to dismiss such a suggestion as naive. You will be told that you "do not understand" how things work. In fact, you will have understood it very well. It goes to show that we do not have an honest politics, however honest individual MPs may be.
Brown and Mandelson love being in power. They will do everything they can to stay there. Maybe they have lost interest in the tiresome country that they also have to "run", preferring to call for global constitutions instead. But they need national office, if only as a base from which to advance their planetary pretensions. They long ago replaced their socialist hearts with a triple-bypass that beats to the pulse of globalisation and international finance. And to secure their base, they have initiated a staggering reconstruction of the British state, using their unchecked executive power to modernise our government and policing, and to pre-empt the democracy of constitutional citizenship with hi-tech subjecthood. Brown, Mandelson and Blair are not the only begetters of the corruption of this country's political system; the responsibility lies with the political class as a whole, something that the public understands pretty well. But they alone inherited the power to reform it and they must take the responsibility for failing to do so.
I watched David Cameron talking recently about Brown's suggestion of a referendum on the voting system. He said that what this country needs is "strong government". An involuntary shudder passed through me. Have they learned nothing? What this country needs is an opposition: an alternative to the two-party bad faith on Afghanistan (pity, but we have to stay), the EU (pity, but we have to stay), the House of Lords (pity, but it will have to stay), strong government (got to keep it in order to ensure the above). When the expenses scandal struck, Cameron declared that it was time to give "power to the powerless", while Brown pleaded that he was a long-time supporter of Charter 88. Who are they kidding? Neither will deliver change.
As there isn't an opposition, we should start to invent one by opening up the political space from which it can emerge. It would be best to do this with the Liberal Democrats, but if not with them, then without them. The slogan is short enough: "Hang 'em".
We need to hang parliament and hang the two main parties. We need to vote Brown and Mandelson out, first of all, but not vote Cameron and company in to carry on where Labour has left off. We need a hung parliament so that invention and new voices are registered, so that the public can express how it has lost trust in the political class, and different forces be allowed to reshape the political scene. In my view, one of these should be an English voice, so that the United Kingdom can move, at last, to a grown-up federal model. I note this to signal that I am not afraid of such an outcome. Naturally, other populist sentiments will emerge. But the longer they are bottled up, the more twisted and resentful they will become. If we want a progressive realignment, it has to come from below.
How should we hang 'em? By voting for the candidate most likely to increase the number of independent and third-party MPs of all kinds. That means Lib Dems in constituencies where the party looks the most promising. And Caroline Lucas in Brighton for the Greens; Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party where they have the best chance; even, despite his loathsome attack on Herman van Rompuy, Nigel Farage of Ukip against the Speaker of the House of Commons (who anyway endorses the need for rough justice). Ideally, the Lib Dems would seek English electoral pacts wherever possible, and likewise in Scotland and Wales. Alex Salmond got it right when he said that the SNP should aim to hold the balance of power. This, surely, is the bold approach Nick Clegg, Vincent Cable and Chris Huhne should take. A single list of independents, nationalists, Greens and Lib Dems should be negotiated, on the basis of who is most likely to open up politics, so that everyone can vote to hang the two main parties. And to hot things up, the list should also include maverick MPs from the Tories and Labour - Frank Field and David Davis come to mind. This would send out a different kind of signal from the one the political class expects: that it pays to rebel.
It's easy to imagine the headlines - especially from the Sun, which "prayed" for Britain to become great again when it switched allegiance to Cameron. It would lead to confusion, it would make us look weak. We'd lose our credit rating and Argentina would invade the Falklands. But think of the upside. Arguments that attract popular support might have influence - thanks to a public, it should never be forgotten, that was wiser than the political class about Iraq. Real thinking could begin, and, who knows, there may be a role for websites and magazines such as the New Statesman in debating the future of the British system, rather than supporting this or that party, this or that faction.
Those on the left should help Britain vote out New Labour, but frustrate the Cameroons. Brown, Mandelson and Blair had an unprecedented opportunity to reform the British system with public support. Instead, they chose to intensify the centralisation of power. There were important reforms, yet these have only moderated but not reversed the construction of an authoritarian government, dating back to Thatcher, the function of which is to support a profoundly unequal and exploitative global order. Voters don't want this. As the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan argued recently, the public is "to the left not simply of New Labour, but the political and media classes as a whole". If he is right, then, in order to let the people speak, we must break open our political-media class and, above all, the two-party system. The best way to do this is to hang 'em.
Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom. We will be publishing replies to this essay in the next few issues, beginning here with David Marquand.
This article appeared in the New Statesman under the headline "Hang 'Em"
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