21 April 2007

Defeatism and New Labour

Several writers recently (e.g. Ross McKibben LRB, Martin Jacques The Guardian) have elaborated the defeatism thesis to explain the failings of New Labour. In essence, the argument is that Labour’s fourth election defeat in 1992 propelled the leadership (after John Smith’s death in 1994) to replace social democracy with Daily Mail policies: no tax and spend, further commercialisation and a repressive agenda on crime – i.e. remoralising the poor through punishment. All this was intended to garner and retain the votes of so-called Middle England, and thus secure the repeated election of Labour governments.

The defeatism thesis contains more than a grain of truth. Yet it is hard to explain the right-wing Blairite New Labour agenda merely as the policies of electoral opportunism. The sycophantic relationship with George Bush and the Iraq war never had middle class backing. Middle England makes use of, but has never fallen in love with, faith schools. PFI is widely seen as the financial swizz that it indeed is. The repressive agenda (from identity cards to speaking CCTV cameras) goes way beyond assuaging middle class security concerns.

Defeatism didn’t simply involve Labour throwing policies overboard so it could reach port; defeatism enabled an new authoritarian captain to take on new cargo, turn the ship around and sail backwards.


The defeatism thesis that McKibben, Jacques and others are putting forward is the belief in the Labour Party leadership by the early nineties that any Laborite reformism, however moderate, could not win an election for Labour. Hence the invention of New Labour and the choice of Tony Blair as leader in 1994.

I basically agree with this argument, but I go on to make the point that many of Blair’s policies, e.g. Iraq, are governed not by electoral calculation (as the defeatism thesis would suggest) but by a specific policy agenda adopted by Blair et. al. to move politically rightwards, irrespective of public opinion.

In essence, what was a first a compromise or tactic of moving rightwards became a raison d’etre for New Labour.

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