8 October 2010

New Labour's Repressive Legacy

Labour can never be a progressive party again unless it confronts its flirtation with authoritarianism while in office.

Since his election to the Labour leadership,Ed Miliband has attempted to shut the door on the excesses of New Labour. Muffled criticism has been heard on Iraq, social inequality and the demise of civic and personal liberties. Nevertheless the overall tone of the Labour leadership is that we should move on. But can the sins of New Labour be so readily forgotten even if not forgiven?

If the left can easily explain, but not forgive, the Iraq fiasco and the boosting of social inequality, there is one aspect of the Blair-Brown years (1997-2010) which needs careful examination, namely New Labour’s assault on civic and personal freedoms. This was no small matter: people incarcerated without trial or public evidence; wide scale intimidatory use of stop and search powers against people on the street, especially photographers; people threatened with prosecution for criticising religion; mass registration of people on the pretext of combating paedophilia… and so on. By 2009 it was possible to talk about the lights going out on liberal democracy in Britain.

The reflex response of some on the left, namely that all this was prompted by the future necessity of repressing the working class, who would rise up in response to the capitalist crisis is surely nonsense. The organised working-class had never been weaker. The key to understanding this phenomenon lies elsewhere.

Many of the repressive measures were due to a cynical populism (detention of supposed would-be terrorists) or a desire to outflank the Tories and the Daily Mail. The security industry is a strong lobby (technology for ID cards and E-Borders); yet there is something else, something more fundamentally rotten.

When the Tories ran Britain (1979-97) they had obvious political and economic objectives, but no clear social one; didn’t Mrs Thatcher say that there was no such thing as society? Politically, the Tories destroyed the institutions of working-class resistance: the trade unions and local councils, many of which, and especially so in urban areas, were in Labour hands. Economically they imposed market fundamentalism on Britain, but socially they cared little about what happened to the swelling ranks of the unemployed. The jobless had scraps of welfare thrown at them and lived in junk estates.

New Labour made minimal attempts to empower and/or ameliorate the conditions of ordinary working people, other than the ephemeral palliative of permitting the intoxicating and ultimately disastrous credit boom. Instead, using the language of ‘responsibility,’ and for Blair ‘communitarianism,’ they deployed state repression to weld everyone into their ‘place’ in Britain's class-divided capitalist society. This, I believe is the true origin of New Labour’s authoritarian statism, and it is something that needs to be fully explored and rejected.

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