The kindest explanation for Labour’s current predicament is that it has succumbed to a death wish. Fifteen months ago, it handed the leadership to Gordon Brown on a golden plate. A few disgruntled figures muttered behind their hands, but no one had the courage to stand against him. No doubt a lot of arms were twisted to ensure his coronation, and it is clear in retrospect that a contest would have been better for him personally, as well as for the party. But the fact remains that he is the first leader to have been elected unopposed since Arthur Henderson in the traumatic conditions of 1931.
For a while, the party seemed content with its choice, but when Brown’s poll standing plummeted, his fair-weather Labour followers turned against him, often with self-destructive savagery. The media rushed to follow; and for most of the current year he has been engulfed by a tide of acrimony and spite. Brown, we have been told again and again, is stiff, boring, conventional and right-wing. He wears the wrong kind of clothes on holiday; his smile is artificial; his speeches are leaden; his voice grates; he has no vision and offers no hope.
The spectacle is not just unseemly; it is astonishing. Even if all the charges against Brown were valid (and they are not), Labour has no one but itself to blame for acquiring a leader with these shortcomings. In condemning Brown, it condemns itself. Every anti-Brown démarche in Labour’s ranks, every hostile whisper to an eager journalist deepens the pit into which the party itself is sinking. For this is not a case of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure. When Brown became leader, he had been the second most powerful member of the cabinet for ten years, and a central figure in the party’s councils for at least 15. When Labour presented him with the leadership, it knew – or should have known – what it was getting. His strengths and weaknesses – personal and political – were already plain for all to see.
The widely touted notion that he and his closest followers concealed his true opinions from the rest of the party, that he pretended to be more radical than he really was and deceived the party into thinking that a Brown government would be altogether different from the Blair government, is self-deceptive nonsense. Of course, there were differences of emphasis between Blair and Brown; but, in domestic politics at least, these were marginal. (The euro was a different matter.) For good or ill, the two were joint authors of the new Labour project and of all that flowed from it. And the party as a whole either supported the project or went along with it.
During the Blair government’s long, sad deliquescence, Labour MPs and leftist commentators cast Brown as a saviour-in-waiting, a knight errant on a white charger, carrying hope in his saddle-bags. It is not his fault that hardly anyone stopped to ask what he would actually do. Now he has become the scapegoat for an exhausted party whose only visible purpose is to cling to power, and that too is not his fault. In all the flood of speculation and backbiting about a change of leadership and a new direction, one crucial item is conspicuous by its absence. No one has put forward an intellectually compelling and emotionally inspiring alternative to the Blair-Brown political paradigm we have lived with since 1997.
The windfall tax on the energy sector to which the Labour left has foolishly pinned its colours would not amount to a change of paradigm. It is a characteristic example of the administrative small change beloved of policy wonks, not a signpost to a new politics. By the same token, the notion that the party should now seek salvation from a different knight errant, riding a different charger – a Miliband, or a Straw, or an Alan Johnson – is preposterous. The new knight would become a scapegoat even faster than Brown did. Labour’s current travails are not due to its leaders’ actions or failures to act; they stem from a profound intellectual and moral malaise that has gripped the Labour Party for at least half a decade. Labour lost its soul under Blair, not Brown. I hoped Brown would help the party to find it, and I am sad that he has not. I now realise that the task was beyond the capacity of any conceivable leader.
This is not to say that Brown is blameless. The trouble is that he is blamed for the wrong things. Most of the charges levelled against his policies as chancellor are wide of the mark. The notion that he could have halted the secular shift from manufacturing to services, a central theme of British economic history since the 1960s, is absurd. That shift is one of the hallmarks of a mature economy. He could perhaps have regulated the financial services sector more rigorously, but it is hard to believe that this would have made much difference. The real charge against him is quite different. The current economic downturn is only one aspect of a much more fundamental crisis. At its heart lies a fatal mismatch between public expectations and political rhetoric on the one hand, and the realities of tightening resource constraints, destructive climate change and the mechanics of global capitalism on the other. We now live in a society where everyone believes that they have a divine right to ever-rising living standards: that we have finally reached the sunlit uplands of ever-increasing consumption, and that if the good times come to an end, our leaders must be to blame.
Age of austerity
This flies in the face of 250 years of capitalist history. In truth, swings from boom to bust are intrinsic to capitalist market economies, and have been so since the South Sea Bubble. To that truth we must now add an even harder one: the environmental crisis stemming from climate change is no longer a distant threat. It is already a reality; and the current economic downturn is partly due to it. The rising costs of food and energy, which have helped to aggravate the switch from boom to bust, are not acts of God. Like the vast pool of debt that helped to power the boom and now exacerbates the bust, they are the poisoned fruit of the age of abundance, which is now coming to an end – yet which all political leaders, virtually all schools of political thought and most of the Westminster-centred commentariat still take for granted.
The age of abundance will pass, whatever we do; and it is likely to pass a lot more quickly than seemed probable only a few years ago. The choice lies between a gradual, controlled, but still painful transition to a new age of austerity, and an infinitely more painful and destructive transition at a somewhat later date. The first option is patently the right one, but it involves a transformation of the moral economy – a revolution of mentalities as radical as the Reformation or the implosion of communism – of which there is, as yet, no sign. The real charge against Brown is that he has failed to grasp this ugly truth. The insistent mantra of his chancellorship – that he had banished the old cycle of boom and bust for ever – was a classic example of the politics of the sunlit uplands. His decision to reject an energy windfall tax in favour of a programme of energy conservation is a step in the right direction, but he has been coy about the implications. Regrettably, he seems to be saying, we have been expelled from the sunlit uplands for the time being, but we shall soon return. He cannot bring himself to say, and may not realise, that return is impossible.
But Brown’s failure to construct a rhetoric and statecraft appropriate to the end of the age of abundance is only one example of a much more comprehensive failure. The entire Labour Party, indeed the social-democratic tradition itself, is the child of the age of abundance, and stamped through and through with its assumptions. The fundamentalists of yore, who rejected what they saw as the shallow optimism of their revisionist opponents, had no quarrel with the promise of future abundance; they merely insisted that it would not arrive until the expropriators had been expropriated and the means of production socialised. As for the revisionists, they built their whole case on the assumption that abundance was here to stay. Blair and Brown, Tony Crosland and Aneurin Bevan, Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie were all pedlars of prosperity. So were their Continental counterparts. They did not seek prosperity for its own sake, of course; they saw it as a means to an end: of social justice, of a classless society, even, in some cases, of a socialist New Man. But they were as eager to achieve it, and as confident that they could do so, as any economic liberal or capitalist entrepreneur. The ghastly economic failures of the communist bloc did not come about because Marxist-Leninists spurned abundance, but because they spurned the price mechanism and relied on the crudities of central planning, instead.
The great question is whether the social-democratic tradition has the intellectual and moral resources to interpret, assimilate and adapt to the end of abundance, in the way that the Catholic Church adapted to the early victories of the Reformation and the Conservative Party to the arrival of a partially democratic suffrage. The omens are not propitious. Few of the social-democratic parties of continental Europe are in manifestly better shape than the British Labour Party, and none of them has yet found a way to adapt their traditions to the imperatives of global austerity. In principle, the right ought to find it easier to do so than the left. Its traditions are more varied; and some of them, at least, go back to earlier times, before the mirage of the sunlit uplands took shape. Christian democracy, to take an obvious example, draws on theological teachings that reject materialism and hedonistic individualism.
Yet, in practice, the European right has not yet shaken off the assumptions and reflexes of the age of abundance. Across the Channel no less than in Britain, the politics of the sunlit uplands still prevail. Europe’s record on the environment is far more impressive than those of the world’s other great economic blocs, but it is not clear if its commitment to environmental sanity is firm enough to sustain the radical challenge to the culture of consumption to which the science now points.
The one certainty is that British social democracy cannot adapt as it needs to in isolation from other political traditions – not only in Britain, but in the rest of Europe. There is more to be learned from Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill than from Sidney Webb, and at least as much from Catholic social teaching as from Karl Marx or even Eduard Bernstein. Labour has no hope of reinterpreting its tradition to chime with the coming age of austerity until it clambers out of the old trench of left versus right and progressive versus conservative, and starts to think and feel in European rather than in narrowly British terms. To these challenges the endless flood of gossip about the shortcomings of the leader and the implications of the latest opinion research is sublimely irrelevant.
David Marquand’s “Britain Since 1918: the Strange Career of British Democracy” is out now (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)