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16 October 1996

New Labour: New Authoritarianism

While the Tories are still struggling with traditional repressive measures, New Labour's success in invoking the spirit of the New Authoritarianism is the key to its electoral ascendancy, argues Michael Fitzpatrick

The key event of the recent party conference season was the speech by the representative of the Snowdrop Appeal, a Dunblane parent, at the Labour conference in Blackpool. The first significant point about this speech was that it was not made to the Tories at Bournemouth. Fearful of alienating the party's rather feeble gun lobby, chairman Brian Mawhinney turned down the approach from the anti-gun campaign. In the event the mawkish sentimentality of a detailed account of the mass murder of infants at a Scottish primary school won a prolonged ovation at the Labour conference and a sympathetic response from the national television audience. The continuing national obsession with this grisly event reflects a mood of morbid self-pity, from which the Conservatives remain aloof, but to which New Labour has successfully responded.

While the Tories prevaricate about tighter gun control, New Labour has no hesitation about endorsing more restrictive regulations. The facts that guns are already tightly regulated and that stricter laws will not prevent psychopaths from getting hold of guns are of no concern to Blair and his team. The point is to show that New Labour shares the prevailing sentiments of fear and anxiety about the breakdown of social cohesion and the repressive impulses which result from these sentiments.

Though New Labour has few distinctive policies, it has seized the moral highground from the Tories on issues such as crime, education, the family and has forced them to respond. In all these areas, New Labour's instinct for responding to middle class anxieties is carried through into measures which invariably involve the extension of state authority into the life of society. The plan to make denial of the Holocaust a criminal offence is a typical of New Labour's new authoritarianism. A moralistic posture against an idiot fringe is used to justify repressive legislation with far-reaching coercive consequences.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are offering electronic tagging for juvenile delinquents and more workfare. While some of their proposals - such as Michael Howard's plan for confiscating driving licences from offenders - appear simply impracticable, others are just more of the same sort of penal policies - like the short sharp shock bootcamps for young offenders - which have already conspicuously failed to bring results. With their plans for paedophiles and legislation against stalkers, the Tories are clearly trying to connect with the more fashionable contemporary preoccupations, but they lack New Labour's more mediated approach.

At the end of the conference season, New Labour seems on course for election victory over the Conservatives. The party conferences confirm the ascendancy of style over substance (all proclaim unity, but unity around what?) and of personality over policy (though charisma is conspicuously lacking). They also confirm the narrowing of the sphere of politics and the increasing aloofness of the major parties from society. The absurd reversal of traditional alignments implicit in Blair's appeals to the City and business, while Major postures as the man of the people, illustrates the party leaders' remoteness from the social bases of their own parties.

Though both parties are riven by internal tensions, New Labour's sense of impending electoral victory has successfully suspended factional strife - at least until the election. On the other hand, the Tories' sense of impending defeat has only served to intensify the forces of fragmentation so unconvincingly pressed into a show of unity at Bournemouth. The Conservatives are an ageing and exhausted party in which the only real debate is about the direction and leadership it will follow after its coming defeat.

The character of the coming election campaign is well anticipated in The Point Is to Change It, Living Marxism's recently published manifesto. While the mainstream party political contest is likely to leave many people cold, our concern is to challenge the notions of low expectations and the spirit of caution and restraint that are shared by all the major parties. In particular we need to challenge the authoritarian dynamic that is the real danger of New Labour as it heads towards government office.

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