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A crisis waiting to happen

Win, lose or draw, Eddie Veale thinks that there is big trouble ahead for a Labour Party with nothing left to offer

The Labour Party is a very different proposition in this election than it was in 1987. It has made some headway in the opinion polls. It has done so, however, at the cost of ditching its traditional identity - and replacing it with nothing. As a consequence, Neil Kinnock's Labour Party today lacks substance and standing. This already presents it with some serious problems, and promises to create far bigger ones after the election.

The old movement on which Labour relied is finished. The once-powerful trade unions now represent next to nothing. Which workers faced with redundancy in this recession would think that they could turn to their union to fight for their jobs?

Inoffensive material

As its relationship with the old working class movement has unravelled, Labour has transformed itself into just another centre-ground party. Kinnock's policy reforms have made Labour more and more moderate and bland, as it seeks to appear as inoffensive as possible to as many people as it can.

Many commentators concede that there is no longer any real difference between Labour and Tory policies. Even as the run-up to the general election began, Labour was moving closer towards the Conservatives by making significant concessions on its opposition to the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and the racist Asylum Bill.

These changes have probably made Labour less objectionable to some anti-socialist voters. But they have also deprived Kinnock's party of any political distinctiveness or sense of dynamism. This is one reason why Labour has had such trouble breaking away from an unpopular Tory Party in the opinion polls. That failure could cost Kinnock dear in the election.

Lesser evil

In the eighties, there was a sizeable body of opinion which would vote for the Labour Party as 'the lesser evil'. That was hardly an enthusiastic endorsement, but it was a definite reason for supporting the Labour Party based upon its policies. This time around, that view is far rarer.

The liquidation of traditional Labourism means that people who want a change from the Tories are more likely to talk in general terms of simply voting for 'something different'. And that sentiment will not necessarily lead to a vote for Labour. It could just as easily benefit the Liberal Democrats, the natural party of the marshy middle ground. Kinnock's chances of forming a majority government still seem pretty slim.

Whatever difficulties Labour faces now, however, the real crunch will come after the election. Win or lose, the nothingness on which the New Model Labour Party is founded looks set to create big problems after polling day.

Four-time loser?

If Labour loses, it will be its fourth successive election defeat. It will mean that, over the past 13 years, the party has lost both on its old programme and its new policies. Every option will appear to be just about exhausted, and the question of what is holding Labour together is likely to come to the fore. The resulting crisis could lead to far-reaching realignments.

Even if Labour wins, or enters a coalition government, Kinnock could soon be in serious trouble. Labour ministers will be faced with some hard decisions about how to shore up British capitalism. Their commitment to market economics suggests that they will quickly abandon any last trace of radicalism, and pursue a Tory-style economic policy. That is likely to explode the tensions within Labour's ranks beyond control.

Screws and splits

Back in 1929-30, the Labour Party split when Ramsay MacDonald's government responded to the start of the Depression by turning the screws on the working class. If there is anything like a repetition this time around, the consequences could be even more serious for Kinnock. Unlike in the thirties, there is no longer any mass movement to ensure that the Labour Party survives the crisis.

The Tory government has taken a lot of stick over its handling of economic crises. But at least, among their core constituency within the establishment and the middle classes, the Conservatives have been able to rely upon a solid base of support for the financial restraints of a 'good housekeeping' policy.

No turning back

Labour ministers would have no such support to appeal to when forcing through harsh economic policies. Their core constituency wants more public spending on health and welfare, not further cuts. The austerity programme which Labour would soon have to impose would only further speed up the demoralisation and fragmentation of its base of support.

The vacuity of Labour Party policy provides an unanswerable case for a new political alternative. There is certainly no solution to be found by trying to turn the clock back to the old postwar Labourist programme. But, as the crisis facing Labour suggests, getting rid of the political baggage of the past is not enough if you only replace it with a pragmatic commitment to managing capitalism in the present.

Left behind again

The British left cannot come to terms with the fact that everything has changed. Despite being discarded as Labour has turned itself into a moderate machine of the centre, most on the left still insist that Labour can be transformed into a socialist party.

The fragments of the traditional left continue to define themselves in relation to a Labour Party of the past. Socialist Outlook dreams of a return to the 1970s, and hopes that a Labour general election victory would somehow 'shatter' the 'quiescence of the labour movement' (23 November 1991), which is rather like asking Kinnock to raise the dead.

Socialist Worker believes that voting Labour still signifies enthusiasm for a socialist alternative, so that a Labour defeat will bring 'widespread disillusionment and demoralisation among large numbers of people who have put their hopes in Labour' (1 February 1992). They don't seem to have noticed that disillusionment set in years ago, and that few people now invest real hopes of a better future in Labour.

Sometimes there is a glimmer of recognition that something has changed. Militant's decision to stand candidates in the general election as 'Independent Labour' (supported by the Socialist Workers Party) marks a shift from its previous blind loyalty to Labour, and is a sign of the damage done by Kinnock's witch-hunt.

However, Militant still explains its balancing act of continuing to argue for 'Labour to power on a socialist programme' while also standing candidates as merely 'a detour through which we can strengthen the forces which in the future will lead the transformation of the Labour Party' (Militant editorial statement, 24 January 1992). In other words, the past may not be about to return today, but they are convinced that it will come back sometime in the future.

The rump of the old Communist Party of Great Britain, the Democratic Left, does acknowledge that some changes are permanent. For them, traditional left politics are 'now archaic. Things have moved on' (New Times, 22 February). But the former Stalinists have gone completely the other way, suffered a total moral collapse, and abandoned any notion of being anti-capitalist. The Democratic Left's 'new challenge' is therefore centred on the familiar-sounding ideas of 'a classless society, citizenship and the limits of politics' (New Times, 22 February).

While one section of the old left dreams of 'reclaiming' Neil Kinnock's party, the other part ends up sounding like John Major.

Tessa Myer
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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