24 September 2008

New Labour's Missed Constitutional Opportunities

When New Labour electorally crushed the Tories in 1997, one thing was foreseeable another was not. Not predictable was just how rotten from a progressive perspective Blair’s government would turn out to be: reactionary polices ranged from the Iraq War, privatisation and benefit cuts to the promotion of religious schools. Foreseeable to everybody, however, was that at some point – and it now appears to be 2010 – Labour would lose office.

Progressive political discourse in the eighties and nineties had centred on building an anti-Tory alliance for constitutional reform to bury the re-occurrence of another eighteen years of centralised and reactionary Tory rule on the strength of a minority of votes. The two key progressive reform proposals were proportional representation and decentralisation. With the significant exception of Scottish and Welsh devolution – achieved despite Blair’s personal misgivings – little happened.

Following Labour’s 1997 election victory, the new government set up the Jenkins’ Commission to consider PR for Westminster elections. In the absence of support and direction from the government it dragged on and finally recommended a bizarre PR system, reflecting only a muddled compromise of the divergent opinions of the commission members. Its findings were quietly forgotten. On regional autonomy, John Prescott pressed ahead with an emaciated form of devolution for the micro-region of the north-east. In 2004 a majority of 78 percent of the residents of the area voted against the assembly; the plan was sunk by a coalition of centralisers and those who saw the proposed assembly as little more than a talking shop and an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. In truth, by the early 2000s all meaningful constitutional reform was over. New Labour in London inaugurated an era of constitutional conservatism.

What then are the consequences? New Labour’s 2008 meltdown means that in two year’s time there will in all probability be yet again a majority Tory government at Westminster. Surely one small thing that Blair and Brown could have achieved was PR? After all, the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments as well as the Greater London Assembly are elected by proportional representation. True, if Labour had introduced PR after the 1997 or 2001 elections, the whole political map would be different, probably with a Labour-led coalition, instead of a majority government, in office today. But so what? It was not as if Blair planned to do anything socialist or left wing! Nearly all of his agenda had the support of the Tories or Liberal Democrats – or often both.

In 2010 Labour will still be the leading party in one English region, the north, defined as Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the historic counties up to the Scottish border; in the other English regions, though, Labour will probably achieve second place or worse. The north, consisting mainly of cities and former industrial towns, has about a quarter of England’s population and is its poorest region. Yet unlike Scotland and Wales, the north will have no elected institution to fight for it. Despite the north consistently voting Labour, Blair focused New Labour on the concerns of Middle England, geographically centred in the south and Midlands; northern Labour voters were largely taken for granted and were ignored. Cameron, though, after 2110 will have even less cause to worry about the industrial towns and inner-cities of the north. He wins no seats there, and probably never will.

So déjà vu. Welcome back to the eighties: majority Tory government in London and the non-Tory voting north is left naked. However both these outcomes were easily avoidable: PR to stop a majority Tory government; and decentralisation so as not to leave the Labour voting north uninsulated from a non-Labour government in London. Why was constitutional reform abandoned?

No doubt there are several reasons, but not least among them were the preferences of Tony Blair. Behind Blair’s US-style déclassé persona is a deeply conservative and anti-democratic politician. Having killed democracy inside his own party, he had no taste for injecting it into the British constitution. Using Britain’s centralised state he carried out his own brand conservatism (called New Labour), and when that had run its course he was happy to hand the UK back to the Conservative Party.


15 September 2008

Gordon Brown: his personal failure

Whatever the content of Gordon Brown’s character and mutterings in private, he remains a doubly failed politician. First, he has failed in the obvious sense that he is now leading New Labour to a seeming electoral obliteration in 2010. Second, as junior partner and ‘yes man’ to Blair’s for a decade, he nodded in agreement inter alia for the Iraq War, faith schools, privatisation and benefit cuts. In 2008 he cannot get off the tiger he has been riding.

New Labour faces two years of purposelessness and powerlessness, and with active membership of the party having haemorrhaged, a new leader could only emerge from shuffling the cards at the top. The one manoeuvre that might save the Labour Party, unlikely but still possible, would be a sudden conversation to, and rush to implement, proportional representation for Westminster Elections.

11 September 2008

The End of New Labour in Britain

Tony Blair’s greatest mark on history - aside from the stain of Iraq - was in twisting Britain’s historical Labour Party into New Labour. This glitzy top-down and supposedly ‘post-political’ political party was able with 43 percent of the vote to sweep the Tories out of office in 1997 and end eighteen years of Tory rule. And yet again in 2001with the same share of the vote, Blair’s triumph was repeated. Though the promotional image of New Labour differed from that of the Conservatives giving an illusion of difference, Blair’s politics in socio-economic matters at any rate were very much Thatcherism under new management. Ideologically anchored only in waffle about ‘third ways’ and nebulous concepts such as ‘responsibility,’ the electoral coalition which sustained New Labour was always precarious. In the 2005 election Blair secured a mere 35 percent of the national vote – and fewer votes than the Tories in England, - but was returned to office thanks only to Britain’s majoritarian electoral system. No post-war British government has ever been returned with less support.

By the early summer of 2008 New Labour was in tatters chalking up only 23 percent in opinion polls. The collapse can best be probed by looking at the two electoral groups that coalesced to propel Blair into office in 1997: Middle England and the mainstream working class.

Middle England

Middle England is a politically defined social group which comprises skilled and better paid manual workers, the self employed and middle-rank white-collar workers across the small towns and countryside of southern England and the Midlands. Between 1979 and 1992 this group was won over to the Thatcherite project. Two key factors explain its shift to New Labour in 1997, and its subsequent return to the Tory fold in the late 2000s.

The first is economics. The recession of the early 1990s culminating in the Black Wednesday debacle was attributed to Tory economic mismanagement, just as today the collapse in the housing market, the onset of recession and the surge in utility, fuel and food inflation is laid at new Labour’s door.

The second is image. The defeat of the Major government in 1997 was also the result of a shift in values and identification. New Labour emptied itself of ‘workerist’ imagery; the ex-public schoolboy Blair symbolised urbane bourgeois values, which were also manifest in such men of the age as Peter Mandelson. Imagery of this kind proved more attractive to Middle England than did the petty-minded nastiness of high Thatcherite Toryism symbolised in men like Norman Tebbit. Yet after Blair’s resignation in 2007, new Conservatives leaders such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson came to represent those urbane bourgeois values better than does Gordon Brown, Blair’s grey former deputy. (Much of motivation behind the move to replace Brown by David Miliband over the summer is the latter’s public image as a suave bourgeois.)

Middle England is thus extremely fickle in its political identification. Both the Conservatives and New Labour fight for this group which is the determining constituent in Britain’s first past the post elections. For Middle England, unlike the mainstream working class, it makes little difference to their economic interests which party runs British capitalism; hence the capriciousness of their voting preferences.

The mainstream working class

The core of the Labour voting working class is centred on the low paid particularly in the large cities, the older industrial areas of northern England, and in the Celtic countries of Scotland and Wales. Whereas Middle England is returning to the Conservatives, the working class vote is fragmenting over a wider spectrum.

With New Labour having designed itself to woo Middle England, the working class lost historic Labourism as its electoral home. In the economic upswing which lasted till the mid 2000s, a combination of apathy and voting New Labour prevailed. However, Brown’s bungled attempt at the beginning of the current recession to endear himself to Middle England through increasing tax on the very low paid to fund tax cuts for the better off raised the fundamental question in the working class: what is Labour for? That question was posed even more sharply in the late summer with double-digit increases in utility charges coupled with food inflation exceeding eight percent. Suddenly and obviously, the working class became poorer both in absolute and relative terms. Imposing a two percent pay ceiling on public workers has further rubbed salt into the wounds.

Such disorientation has led to a flight from Labour particularly within the white working class. In England and Wales the local elections in May 2008 and the Crew by-election saw, in addition to a move to the Conservatives, a small but growing attachment in certain localities (e.g. London, Stoke) to the fascism of the BNP. In places which were historically more solidly Labour (e.g. Sheffield) the Liberal Democrats have been the main beneficiaries. In Scotland New Labour’s collapse was even more dramatic with the SNP capturing Labour’s third safest seat Glasgow East in a by-election in July.


Blair’s New Labour was founded on replacing policy with spin, on portraying neo-economic liberalism as ‘cool’ and everybody’s friend and on believing you could win and win again by outflanking the Tories. With a long upswing in the trade cycle ‘Teflon Tony’ oiled his way though two general elections, and even after the Iraq war lies he scraped through in 2005. But now devoid of purpose and support the Labour Party stands at the precipice of electoral disaster. Everywhere, except perhaps in Scotland, the collapse of New Labour has led to a shift in electoral support rightwards. This is indeed the tragedy of the age.

1 September 2008

Denying the obvious

Propaganda and spin under New Labour is all embracing.

Today the media acquired a confidential internal Home Office briefing letter sent to Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. The message of the letter was that the economic downturn which is causing rising levels of poverty and unemployment would in turn be accompanied by an increase in crime and other related social problems.

The BBC News political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue said that although it comes as no surprise that ministers expect crime to rise in an economic downturn, there will be embarrassment that these thoughts have become public.

Two issues seem to me to arise from this sorry episode. First for what possible legitimate reason is ‘advice’ of this kind to government ministers kept confidential in the first place? Second, to what depth has government propaganda sunk – along with popular expectations of government behaviour – when something as obvious as “recession equals higher crime” can’t be acknowledged by the government. What started off under Alistair Campbell as “spin” as the key to all government communication – i.e. a policy of perennial propaganda in government speech – has now led to situation where citizens expect their government to misrepresent and deny the obvious. Is this one of the so-called British values that Mr Brown is so keen to promote?