Deep within a filling cabinet I keep a copy of the 1998 Marxism Today special that just said “Wrong” on a cover adorned by Tony Blair. I thought of it while reading David Miliband in last week’s New Statesman. In it David proclaimed that Labour should say “loud and clear where we
made mistakes, but we should also insist that the list of gains far outstripped the mistakes. After all, even David Cameron said on coming to office that Britain was better in 2010 than 1997″.
This coming to grips with our past is the essential question facing Labour. Just as New Labour defined itself against “Old”, what the party says about its past now defines its future. But what David gets wrong is the idea that we judge a governments record on some balanced scorecard, like goals scored for or against. But this is not how people judge any government as the election result and subsequent polling shows. Instead governments either succeed or fail in total as political projects. Eden/MacMillan, Wilson, Heath and Major all failed compared to the success of Attlee and Thatcher. Those judgements are made not, for example, by trying to balance the poll tax with council house sales but whether they took their particular political project further forward and made them stronger.
Even if we take the most modest definition of the New Labour project, that of humanising neoliberalism, it is a project now in ruins. Unemployment is soaring and youth unemployment sickeningly high, the poor are being targeted and humiliated with housing benefit and a hundred other cuts, public services are being decimated – all of which would have largely continued under Labour. Education and health are being broken up and commercialised. New Labour paved the way for all this. Democracy is weaker and inequality greater after the biggest majorities Labour has ever had. The party itself is on the floor. Resistance comes from new forces; Avaaz, 39 Degrees and UK Uncut.
Before you ask, what did you expect, a revolution, let’s go back to David who was right last week when he said “The role of social democrats is
to take the values of ethical socialism and put them into practice in a gradual way.” Precisely, Labour is a party of gradualism and pragmatism. It means slowly and cleverly heading in the right direction. Not stupidly and quickly going in the wrong direction. Yes Labour did some good things
but mostly for the wrong reason in the wrong way. It broke the state in its manic attempt to set markets free and then prop them up when they
inevitably failed. In the process it destroyed its own electoral base.The promise of 1997 ran through its fingers. There is no legacy, no intellectual framework, no vision and no countervailing forces. Even the narrow project to humanize capital is set further back now than in 1997. It’s why David Cameron thinks Britain was a better place in 2010 than 1997 – because we failed the test of pragmatism and gradualism not because we succeeded. And unless and until the party recognises its failure it cannot move on.
The core of this failure can be found in the rejection of the politics of interest and the necessary ideas, policies and forces to put the very
interests of society before the market, people before profit and democracy over elites. You can’t humanize the market by giving in to it. That way lies crisis. You humanise it by moral arguments and political strength. That is why Ed Miliband is right about responsible capitalism but now has to package it within a compelling vision of a good society and a progressive alliance of forces, parties and organisations that will deliver and sustain it.
The in-balance approach of David Miliband just leaves us hoping the coalition fails and the party gets back having learnt the right technical lessons, recalibrating and tweaking this or that policy – expecting things to work out differently next time. They won’t. I was an early and excited young proponent of New Labour because I could see Labour needed fundamental renewal. Back then options such a stakeholding and communitarianism offered different futures and was why I argued against the Marxism Today claim of “Wrong!” But they have been proved right.
Today Labour has to reconnect to a centre ground that well knows it failed, but only because it knows where it wants to lead them – to a good society. In this unique crisis of capitalism it should not be beyond Labour’s ability to demonstrate it can tax well, spend well and regulate the worst excesses of the market effectively while building a new and responsive state.
Labour is in what Gramsci called an “interregnum”. The old is not yet dead, the new is not yet born. One paradigm needs to give way to the new. Only Labour can determine how long its interregnum lasts – it can be painful and partial or more quickly and fully resolved. The party can be blighted for decades by a generation of politicians who refuse to admit they got it wrong. In difficult circumstances those politicians did their best. It wasn’t good enough. But failure is acceptable if you learn from it. To do that you have face it. The Tories will never learn and will make things much worse. To do the best for the country Labour has to say it failed. Then it can move on.