02 May 1997
Nightmare on Downing Street
New Labour by a landslide and all the pundits welcome an epochal shift in
British politics. Everybody from the old hard left to the hard-line right
says-get ready for the radical upsurge. We say-get real: the Tories were
bad enough, but you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Tony Blair's Britain will be like an open prison, run by a government whose
instinct is to regiment life, regulate behaviour, restrict freedoms and
curb passions at every opportunity.
The key figures in Blair's team-Jack Straw, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson,
Harriet Harman-are self-righteous, illiberal killjoys. But it is not merely
the obnoxious personalities of Labour's frontbench team that lead us to
expect that their regime will be even more unpleasant than that of the old
gang. New Labour is a product of its times, and the 1990s are the age of
the New Authoritarianism.
As their problems with Neil Hamilton and others revealed, the Conservative
party is still influenced by the traditions and constituencies of the past.
By contrast, New Labour has cut off its roots in the unions and the old
labour movement and constructed a genuinely new machine. Its personalities
and policies reflect merely the mood of the moment, a time of uncertainty
and confusion in society when the general trend is always to clamp down,
for fear that things might get out of control.
The sentiment of 'time for a change' that has swept New Labour into office
reflects a widespread recognition that the old institutions of government
and society are in disarray and that something new is needed. Yet as Tony
Blair has acquiesced to Margaret Thatcher's dictum that 'there is no
alternative' to the market system, major social changes have been ruled out
from the start.
For a New Labour government that wants to change things, all that remains
is to try to change the way people behave, to re-educate them and, if they
refuse to conform, to coerce them. This is why every Labour policy, whether
it is supposed to deal with the economy or education, will turn out in
practice to be a law and order policy, such as workfare or parental
Get set for government ministers preaching sermons about how we ought to
live every aspect of our lives-in the home, in the community, at work. But,
though they may sound like vicars, these politicians are far from harmless.
Blair's team are not only sanctimonious, their sanctimony has a sharp edge
directed at those who refuse to follow their doctrines.
We predict that, under New Labour, our public and private lives are going
to be more regulated and restricted than ever before. We are going to have
more bans and censorship, more guidelines and codes of conduct, more ethics
committees. We can also expect more police with wider powers, more
surveillance cameras and watch schemes, and, perhaps even worse, more
victim support schemes, more counselling, more caring professionals.
New Labour stands for the shift of power away from elected representatives
in parliament towards unelected and unaccountable judges and civil
servants, like Lord Justices Scott and Nolan, and to the commissions and
quangos over which they preside. New Labour's withdrawal of its candidate
in Tatton in favour of Martin Bell signalled its endorsement of the
strategy of using allegations of sleaze and corruption to intensify public
cynicism about politicians to weaken parliament and strengthen the
authority of the judiciary-and even sections of the media.
New Labour's approval for the campaign of the Dunblane parents for stricter
gun control, for Frances Lawrence's crusade for family values, and Blair's
proposal for a US-style 'drugs tsar' to oversee the war against drugs-all
these are initiatives that aim to recreate an institutional framework to
regulate behaviour in society. They begin from a familiar focus of public
anxiety, but move outside the established structures of politics. They
elevate self-consciously 'non-political' individuals in the hope that these
will carry greater moral authority than political leaders. They appeal to
popular sentiment, but all ultimately require the sanction of the state to
enforce an essentially authoritarian agenda.
Under Tony Blair we can expect to have even less freedom than we had under
Margaret Thatcher. Neil Kinnock's warning on the eve of the 1983 general
election echoes uncannily down the years:
'If Mrs Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn
you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.'
In the run up to the 1997 general election we warned people that
participating in this charade of a democratic process could only lend
legitimacy to a contest between two rival agencies of social control. Now
we warn that New Labour presents real dangers to freedom and democracy,
dangers that are all the greater because so many cling on to the illusion
that Blair's party is merely Old Labour in disguise. But New Labour is New
Labour. What you see is what you are going to get-and we need to get ready
to deal with it.
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