The Blair kitsch project

A Century of Labour

Keith Laybourn <em>Sutton Publishing, 224pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0750923059


Centenaries need to be marked by something. Academics need to write books to earn the points that their managements demand. And so books get written or produced in great numbers, only to be remaindered a few months later. I fear that this fate will befall both these volumes. Keith Laybourn, a professor of history at Huddersfield University, has very little to say that has not been said before. Kevin Jefferys had a neater idea: profiles by well-established journalists and academics of every Labour leader over the past hundred years. There are a few nuggets here (especially in the essays on Gaitskell and John Smith by Brian Brivati and Andy McSmith respectively); but, in general, the collection is predictable. What we need is a follow-up volume to Ralph Miliband's classic, Parliamentary Socialism. It could chart the decline of traditional social democracy and be titled Parliamentary Capitalism.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was not simply the Soviet Union or the "communist idea" or the efficacy of Marxist solutions that collapsed. Western European social democracy, too, was severely dented. In the face of a triumphalist capitalist storm that swept the world, it, too, had to trim its sails. That, barring Spain, social democratic parties or coalitions govern most of western Europe today is of interest largely because of the collective experience it provides: these parties can no longer deliver effective policies to improve the conditions of the majority of electors whose votes have placed them in power. Capitalism, unchallenged from any quarter, no longer feels the need to protect its left flank by conceding reforms. In these conditions, social democracy finds it difficult to protect the underprivileged. All it can offer its respective electorates is either fear or vacuous ideological formulae whose principal function is to conceal the poverty of any real progressive ideas. The net result is either an electoral shift towards far-right demagogy, of which Austria is only the most recent European example, or an increasing alienation from politics.With popular culture so heavily Atlanticised, can politics be far behind?

Nowhere in western Europe has a social democratic party capitulated so willingly and completely to the needs of deregulated capitalism as in Britain. This is not simply the result of 1989. The Labour Party under Tony Blair is, in many ways, the most significant success of the 1980s counter-revolution. Margaret Thatcher crushed the trade unions, demoralised the Labour Party and used the media to promote the message that no alternative was possible. Blair's Labour Party is the product of this defeat. Political differences have been reduced to which party has the better advertising company and whether new Labour or the Tory party is more responsive to market research. It is hardly surprising that this process produces mediocre politicians and reduces politics to pure kitsch. This is the reality that separates Continental Europe from contemporary Britain. The workers' movement and its political parties in Germany, France and Italy have not so far been crushed by local equivalents of Ronald Reagan or Thatcher. Lionel Jospin's victory in France irritated the Blair circle, not only because the French leader appeared to believe in some form of social democracy, but also because his very presence rebutted the idea that only telegenic, fashion-conscious politicians could win elections.

The new economic regime promoted by Reagan and Thatcher had a tough political agenda. A powerful ideological assault was mounted on the old postwar settlement. Overnight, Keynesianism became a dirty word. A new social, political, economic and cultural consensus was born. It was ugly, brutal. It appeared to work. It had to be made hegemonic.

Blair's victory as leader of the Labour Party was not pre-ordained. It was the result of John Smith's untimely death. Ideologically, Smith, as Andy McSmith reminds us in Leading Labour, was a staunch European social democrat, to the left of new Labour. Blair modelled himself as the English Clinton, who, seared by the experience of Reaganism, had shifted the US Democrats to the right - abandoning any pretence of a New Deal - and had, in the name of the new Democrats, won the presidential election.

The scale of Labour's victory in the general election in May 1997 surprised its leaders. They had fought a banal campaign, strong on presentation, weak on politics. It stressed continuity with the old regime rather than any serious change. Blair's image was used to reassure voters that he was not too different from the Tories, and that he would be a friend of big business. Here was the first Labour leader who appeared to loathe his own party.

His advisers were so convinced that victory had only been won because they had ditched a traditional social democratic programme that they ignored the reality of Britain under the Conservatives. The Blair people did not want to believe that the electorate had wanted to punish their predecessors, not for small demeanours, but for their bigger crimes, and that they really had voted for some change. The decline in education, in the National Health Service, the sale of the railways and of water had never been popular. There is still a large majority in favour of renationalising the railways, but focus groups are only useful to shore up reactionary policies. Where the public differs, it can be ignored. But presentation alone will no longer convince core voters - as the Livingstone affair has revealed.

Thatcher had decided to make Britain a nation of small businesses - her much-vaunted "popular capitalism". By 1997, the year of Labour's victory, personal bankruptcies had "stabilised" at 22,000 a year, and 30,000 companies became insolvent from 1990-97 [figures from an official OECD handbook]. The "flexible labour market" so beloved of Thatcher, Blair and the transnationals had, in reality, made unemployment a mainstream experience. In December 1997, it was estimated that one in five men and one in eight women had suffered at least one extended spell of joblessness in their adult lives. It is this insecurity that modern capitalism, which lives for the short term, values so greatly.

In these conditions, the cold-blooded decision taken by new Labour's leaders and thinkers to discard the very concept of equality and social justice, and to ignore redistributive policies, marked a break with traditional social democracy. Harold Wilson, Richard Crossman, Anthony Crosland and Barbara Castle, not to mention Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, appear as "loonie lefties" for insisting that the state had an important role to play in regulating capitalism. The first three decisions taken by new Labour were highly symbolic, designed to show the City of London that this was not an old-style Labour regime. They had made their peace with free-market values and no reformist nonsense would be tolerated. It was decided to detach the Bank of England from government control and give it full authority to determine monetary policy. A second determining act in office was to cut £11 a week in welfare benefits to single mothers. The savings for the state were minimal.The aim was ideological: contempt for the "weaknesses" of the old welfare state and an assertion of "family values". The third measure was to charge tuition fees to all university students - a proposal that had been rejected more than once by the preceding Conservative government on the grounds that it was unfair and would discriminate against students from poor families.

On Europe, the Blair government, until very recently, showed signs of real confusion, giving the impression of paralysis. After an extended display of brashness in pushing the British neoliberal model for the rest of Europe, an uncharacteristic silence has gripped the government.

In the realm of foreign policy, the brutal assessment of the man who inspired Madeleine Albright's offensive foreign policy is far closer to the truth than the mealy-mouthed evasions of Robin Cook. Zbigniew Brezinski, in his book The Grand Chessboard, stresses the need to encourage European unity, although "the brutal fact is that western Europe, and increasingly also central Europe, remains largely an American protectorate, with its allied states reminiscent of ancient vassals and tributaries". Among these, Britain is the least important and without Continental relevance: "Great Britain is not a geo-strategic player. It is America's key supporter, a very loyal ally, a vital military base and a close partner in critically important intelligence activities. Its friendship needs to be nourished, but its policies do not call for sustained attention."

Cruel, but accurate. Not something, alas, that can be said for either of these two books.

Snogging Ken: an after-dinner entertainment by Tariq Ali, Howard Brenton and Andy de Latour opens at the Almeida Theatre in London on 18 April

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy