Fatalism and the two roads for Labour
There has been a lot said, mostly by Labour Party hacks, about the Party ‘renewing itself in government’ – a catch-all phrase encompassing the changeover between Blair and Prescott with Brown and Harman, a way to reverse the sliding scales of popularity and a new method of saying we’ll do something for the poor without actually scaring the CBI and their associated allies.
For Vernon Bogdanor there is only one route to a turn-around. Labour must tread the very ‘third way’ New Labour was originally set up to find, within the ‘golden straightjacket’ of globalisation theorized by that noted social commentator T.L. Friedman. Anything else and we might be indulging in the fatalism so ill-regarded by our friend over at Cole Not Dole. Heaven forfend.
I prefer a different explanation for the seeming fatalism of so many Labour supporters after the last year, or indeed since the advent of the 1997 Labour government. It is the natural response on the part of Party members when they don’t like where the government is going but can’t see any way to change the direction of Party and government, at least prior to the next election.
On the other hand, it can also be a byproduct of the stasis into which Labour is descending amidst increasingly hostile reception by every quarter of the media and the gaping fissure existing between the different sections of the popular alliance knit together by young politicians and their professional electioneering machine, on the back of overwhelming antipathy to the Tories, to overthrow an ageing government.
I fear that renewal in government is a forlorn hope when faced with a government floundering, caught, as it were, between two masters and able to please neither. Without challenging the overarching weltanschaung of Thatcherism, there is little the government can do to combat the intrinsic disorders of the free market except withdraw even further from duties on things like fuel. Up with that most people would not put.
If I am fatalistic, it is an explicitly political position; I do not want to see Gordon Brown re-elected. What James Purnell and the other members of this Cabinet have laid out is a reactionary, Conservative agenda and it may as well be Conservatives enacting it under their own banner. At least then when we point to the class enemy, New Labourites will have adopted a radical guise and will help us try to tear down that enemy.
What worries me most is that at the next election, good parliamentarians will suffer because of their party political allegiance, even though those parliamentarians have fought as hard as possible within the constraints of one Party against all the things which are now coming back to haunt Labour. A five-figure majority may not protect men like John McDonnell, or even soft figures like Bob Marshall-Andrews.
That is enough to rouse me from any fatalism to the point where I feel the need to travel up to Gillingham or Hayes and Harlington to campaign. Even that, however, will not be enough for those of less nuanced political view. No few people I know, still loosely connected with the Party via Co-operative societies and the appertaining social network, think of the entire PLP as only somewhat to the left of Mussolini.
Marxists like myself often get attacked for economic reductionism or a fatalism induced by an imputed sense of the inevitable fall of capitalism. Perhaps I should in turn attack Professor Bogdanor for his reduction of ‘renewal’ apropos governments to some transhistorical concept wherein a Party must seek its Canaan of new policies and new ideas that will give its discourse, whether left or right, new life.
More fitting, I think, would be to gleefully accept the challenge to ‘renew Labour in government’ whilst categorically rejecting the methods whereby the Party autocracy has decreed that I can make my voice heard: the National Policy Forum, NEC elections, Leadership elections and (one might issue a harsh laugh) national conference. Renewal for this government means root and branch reform of all these things.
Yet that is a reform of which it is incapable – compelled by its own inner logic and the class forces which have shaped it out of the defeats of the 1980s. Unable to go back, the other choice is to become ever-more like the Tories, as the Party has done under Brown’s leadership, inevitably marching towards the final showdown with its own inconsistencies. That these inconsistencies, as seemingly impersonal as avenging Furies, now threaten to rip the Party apart is not the result of fatalism on members’ part, but it might seem like Fate.