Home > Labour Party News > Fatalism and the two roads for Labour

Fatalism and the two roads for Labour

Blair and BrownThere 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.

Categories: Labour Party News
  1. August 1, 2008 at 12:38 am

    What Bogdanor was saying that the experiences of the 80s shaped Labour into appreciating he need to reconcile themselves with capitalism. The Marxist critique is not valid: capitalism isn’t inherently prone to crisis, history isn’t predetermined to lead to class conflict. The notion of class as solely determined by economic status does not apply to a society where power, ownership and wealth are increasingly dislocated from each other.

    Coming to terms with the market is a phase that is now complete: what is needed is to develop a more cogent argument in favour of the areas where the market outcome is not the optimum outcome (such as health and education). This doesn’t mean hostility to markets (which by and large function well), but to develop solutions to problems that cannot be solved without an active role for the state. One example is the labour market: it’s predicted that the number of unskilled jobs in the UK economy will fall from 5 million to 800,000 over the next 20 years. That is going to put a huge pressure on the economy that if we don’t attempt to rectify will lead to huge social problems. Where do the Tories stand on this? Their point is that if you’re poor/jobless then it’s your own fault. In the words of Tebbit, get on your bike.

    That attitude is increasingly the dividing line in politics, between a party that thinks the state (and the affected individual) is the problem and a party that knows that only the state (if necessary in concert with other providers, but always leading) can enable individuals and community to overcome the constraints of inequality. To say that Purnell is a reactionary is ridiculous: the welfare state needs reforming, end of.

    Yes it will be difficult (and I mean really really hard) to hold on next time but not impossible: I fell into the trap of thinking opposition might be a way out but that is just cowardice. We need to stand and fight, rediscover what we’re about, who we want to help, and how we plan to face the challenges ahead. And we need to get out there and highlight that there really are differences in our approach compared to the Tories.

  2. August 1, 2008 at 12:41 am

    I also seem to have been added to your growing list of hacks (is this blog a covert Hack-Watch?!). An interesting epithet for sure…

  3. August 1, 2008 at 1:09 am

    Power, ownership and wealth aren’t dislocated; every empirical study admits of that, whether conducted by the worst sort of American globalist or by the most rampant Marxist. There is a global elite now more emergent than ever, supranational in character and power. No one is disputing that national governments must move beyond merely national economic questions to deal with this – but then we’ve been saying that explicitly since Trotsky’s “United States of Europe” slogan.

    As for such a glib dismissal of the Marxist critique of capitalism (and history for that matter) I beg to differ. Capitalism is prone to crisis – just how many do we have to go through? 2.5 million unemployed in the 1980s; the 1990’s when all was certainly not rosy and now this cataclysm of unregulation: an unregulation which was produced…due to the politico-economic pressures inherent to capitalism.

    And in terms of class not being the determinant throughout history, well the less said the better because we could (and one of us has) written dissertation length essays on the subject.

    Then this talk about how Purnell is not reactionary and about how the welfare state needs reforming. We put an investment banker in charge of a review of welfare rolls and surprise surprise, he figured that only 700,000 out of 2-odd million should be receiving disability allowances. Was anyone remotely surprised that this chap came up with that figure?

    Purnell himself, where does one even begin? Let’s start with the underlying contention. During the 1990s the Tories made it exceedingly hard to claim a disability cheque or various other forms of welfare – and that was one of the major things that contributed to their downfall.

    Stories about how panels would ask how an interviewee got to the interview, and if they could drive, they were automatically disqualified from welfare (this is a real-life case from Tory Britain) are just the beginning if we ‘reform’ the welfare rolls as you seem to think necessary. Reform, so far as I can see it, is just another word for squeezing the hard-up til the pips squeak – and for what?

    Pushing these people isn’t going to create the jobs the country requires for them to get off welfare. It’s simply going to create a massive backlash which we’ll regret in years to come. Much like the backlash which the privatisation by stealth of the NHS is and will cause.

    Rediscovering what we’re about is all very well but I think the truth is that this government is for wildly different things that those people who voted it into office. I’m not saying that all those people agree with me – but they certainly don’t view this ‘social-democratic’ project (if such it could, in all bitter irony, be called) with much favour.

    Finally, I wasn’t insinuating that you were a hack; that first barb was merely commentary on the numerous attempts (averaging one every three or four days) in which the Party has emailed me to solicit money, often with that phrase as a headline. But let’s not forget the speeches on the subject by various members of the leadership.

  4. Tom
    August 6, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    David, you’re always welcome to come and campaign in Gillingham!

    Tom Davis (Office of Paul Clark MP)

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