Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Labour Party: 'What's it for?'

by Les May
THE starting point for Kenan Malik's piece 'What is the Labour Party for?' which appeared recently in the New York Times, is the surprise emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a serious contender for the Labour leadership. Malik assumes that some of those who sponsored him did so only to give an illusion of the possibility of real change in the Labour party. Corbyn's ignominious defeat would then signal once and for all that the so called 'modernisers' had won the argument.

But as Malik observes Corbyn's critics 'offer no alternative political vision that would engage voters looking for social change'. Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that there exists a body of voters dissatisfied with the present social arrangements. Corbyn's appeal to Labour members and to already committed voters would appear to make Malik's assumption correct.

Whether Malik is right that Corbyn wants to recreate a Labour Party rooted in the power of the unions is open to doubt. Not least because the voting arrangement which may bring Corbyn to the leadership was put in place precisely to limit the power of the unions to choose the leader. A genuinely popular movement rooted in party membership which saw the unions as partners with a role to play in defending their members may yet emerge.

Surprisingly given his diagnosis that Labour's 1997 victory was as much to do with the internal squabbles of the Tories as with Blair making the party 'electable' Malik does not draw attention to the fact that Labour's present problems stem from the fact that the Blairite Labour party concentrated on getting power without asking why it wanted it. Instead his critique is muted suggesting only that the Blair years failed to provide a long term solution to Labour's need 'to find a new constituency and a new role'.

Although Malik attributes Blair's strategy of 'triangulation', or stealing policies from one's opponents, as being borrowed from Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign it has a much longer and more informative history. The 'post war' consensus which he identifies with Keynesian policies and the use of the state as a lever for social change was based upon 'triangulation' between a 'One Nation' Tory party and Labour. In fact the consensus was also built around a mixed economy, full employment, strong but not overweening trades unions, the welfare state, decolonisation and the Atlantic alliance. Speaking recently on the Parliament Channel  Kenneth Clark described the final two years of the Heath government of the early 1970s as 'like a poor man's social democracy'.

So strongly was this the case that The Economist invented a fictitious figure 'Mr Butskell' when a moderate Tory, R. A. Butler (Rab), succeeded Labour's Hugh Gaitskell as chancellor in 1951. Today the equivalent figure would be 'Mr Camonblair', who may well turn out to be a hermaphrodite.

Butskell and Camonblair are where the two main parties have reached a kind of equilibrium. But those equilibria are poles apart and whether Mr Butskell and Mr
Camonblair would be on speaking terms I rather doubt, with Butskell far to the left in present day terms and Camonblair far to the right from a post war perspective. The emergence of Mr Camonblair may be what Malik means when he argues that the division between social democracy and conservatism has gone. If indeed this were the case then the Labour party has indeed outlived its usefulness.

An alternative view is that these two fictitious figures simply illustrate the futility of arguing about where the centre ground in politics lies. The effect of the Thatcher years was to shift 'the centre' far to the right around a new equilibrium. But it was the unravelling of the post war consensus which allowed Thatcherism to emerge. If, as argued earlier, part of that consensus was 'strong but not overweening trades unions', then union militancy in the late 1970s was as much a factor as changes within the Tory party. No one seems to have suggested that external factors played a role.

Thatcher did not take power with a fully worked out program for shifting the 'centre' of politics to the right. Privatisation was initially an ad hoc gamble which appeared to be popular. Part of the failure in the years preceding Blair was not to spell out why not all privatisations were equal. New capital would flood in for investment in BT because rapid technological changes meant it would return a substantial profit. As we have found, investment in new water pipes, new generating plant or new rolling stock would not unless prices were allowed to rise faster than was needed just to maintain a replacement program and keep up with inflation.

Malik argues that the post war political system has unravelled. But as the last example shows the companies running so called 'natural monopolies' like water are not allowed to raise prices willy nilly and energy companies are forced to invest in programs which are designed to reduce the demand for their product. In other words the mechanisms for state intervention are still in place. A Labour  government could still make use of these for its own programme.

He also claims that what he calls key elements of progressive politics have become unstitched; a belief in community and collective action, a progressive economic policy and a liberal view of individual rights. Of these I identify one as being distinctly socialist; a belief in collective action.

All too often the word 'community' is thrown about like Smarties at a children's party, a 'progressive' economic policy is so vague as to be meaningless and a liberal view of individual rights is not unique to a Labour party built on socialism or social democracy. By legislating for same sex marriage Cameron has come to be seen as liberal minded and progressive, whilst at the same time his Chancellor undermines any belief in collective action to reduce poverty.

I find it difficult to agree with Malik's generalisation that the left adopts a reactionary stance on rights and freedoms. Nor does it seem to me that one can generalise that the left is unwilling to defend free speech. The only Labour MP I know who has suggested limiting free speech is Simon Danczuk who did so in a 'tweet'. Some of the worst offenders in trying to limit free speech are individuals who see themselves as having a liberal view on things like sexual orientation.

If Malik's final paragraph is intended as an outline program for Labour to return to power only one of his three requirements seems to me unique to a socialist or social democratic party; the championing of collective action. Right wing parties can also champion individual rights, particularly when it means a right to exploit others. In the five years after 1945 Labour lived with austerity yet put in place the Welfare State. It did so by ensuring that those who could best afford it bore the heaviest burden.

Questions about purpose do not occur in vacuo. They have context and the questioner may have their own agenda. A marxist and a social democrat would have very different answers, drawn from their own preoccupations to fall back on.

Nor am I convinced of the relevance of questions like this to voters. The revulsion at the mere mention of Margaret Thatcher may owe more to the general impression she gave than from memories of the miner's strike. Ditto Blair, whose continuing continuing interventions merely remind us of a man keen to line his own pocket and rankle far more than the invasion of Iraq. Jeremy Corbyn please take note.


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