New Labour will win the election. But will it succeed in its wider project of constructing a new system for controlling British society? If it does, says Mike Fitzpatrick, it will be at the expense of democracy
Is Blair Tina's heir?
If you read the election manifestos and listen to the politicians' speeches, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the major parties are all much the same. Easy, but wrong. It is true that at the level of policy there has been a remarkable convergence, particularly between the Conservatives and Labour, and that the range of differences is small. Indeed the absence of major issues of conflict between the big parties has been a key factor in encouraging the preoccupation with scandals, 'personalities', chickens and other trivia that characterised the campaign from the start.
Yet the notion that Labour and the Tories are the same obscures crucial differences in the roles played by the two main parties in British society today. Under John Major, the Tories are a party in chronic decline and disarray, their demise reflecting the exhaustion of the strategy of reviving British capitalism through unleashing market forces that had appeared so successful under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. By contrast, Tony Blair's New Labour is a party in the ascendant, a party utterly transformed and reorganised around the project of reconnecting the frayed links between capitalist enterprise and the communities and individuals which make up British society.
The opening days of the election campaign confirmed the decay of Conservative Party cohesion and morale. Confronted with allegations of sleaze and scandals, party leaders could neither agree on a firm line nor impose it on local organisations. The result was that while one MP, Tim Smith, stood down in the face of the 'cash for questions' revelations, another, Neil Hamilton, defied party managers and the Tory press, to tough it out.
In a parallel set of embarrassments, Glasgow MP Allan Stewart resigned over an extra-marital affair, while Beckenham MP Piers Merchant staggered on, despite lurid tabloid headlines (and photos) of his affair with a '17-year-old nightclub hostess'. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these events was the inability of the Tory fixers and their friends in the media to mount any counter-offensive against the Labour Party.
The resignation of Sir Michael Hurst, chairman of the Scottish Conservatives, over allegations of a homosexual affair, plunged the leadership north of the border into overt civil war as they awaited electoral wipeout. Things were little better in London, where the election after the election (for the party leadership) seemed to be a greater preoccupation for many Conservatives than the contest with the Labour Party.
In fact, the demise of the Conservative Party was not the result of corruption or debauchery. It was the price to be paid for the impact of one of Margaret Thatcher's most famous slogans - 'There Is No Alternative'. Proclaimed in the moment of Western triumphalism over the collapse of Soviet communism in the East and socialism everywhere, this slogan expressed the prevailing conviction of the capitalist elite that the supremacy of the market system was now unchallenged. But in the 1990s it has become increasingly clear that, if there is no alternative policy to that dictated by the market, then in the end there is no space for political life.
The demoralising consequences of 'Tina' were pointed out in the LM manifesto, The Point is to Change It, published last year: 'The philosophy of Tina has fostered a psychology of low expectations which has pervaded society. In a period when it suffers a chronic lack of dynamism in both the economy and the realm of ideas, Western capitalism cannot generate popular enthusiasm or even unambiguous approval for its continued existence. The system and those who run it get by, not by promoting any positive vision, but by suggesting that the negative features of capitalist society are in fact attributes of human nature. The limits which the system imposes in every field of human activity are then depicted as confirmation of human limitations in general. As a result, a profound sense of the limited scope of human endeavour prevails at all levels of modern society.' (For a fuller examination of these trends see p??.)
In the name of Tina, Mrs Thatcher's beloved free market ravaged traditional industries and communities, and also undermined established institutions and allegiances, from trade unions and political parties to churches and the family. The result of these destabilising changes has been that, even when Thatcher's successors pointed to some material improvements over 18 years of Tory rule, the 'feelgood factor' proved elusive among the many voters who had experienced an increasing sense of insecurity under the Conservative government.
Into the void created by Tina has stepped Tony Blair. The key role of New Labour is to rebuild new institutions to replace those destroyed in the Thatcher years and so to restore the weakened bonds between the individual and the capitalist system. To some extent this is a conscious process, to some extent the new arrangements emerge in an ad hoc and haphazard way. New Labour's adoption of the concept of 'stakeholder capitalism' expresses a conviction that it is necessary to recreate, albeit in a new form, the sense of having a stake in the system that has been eroded over the past 20 years. Whatever the form, the central dynamic is the drive to restore some of the lost legitimacy of British capitalism in the hearts and minds of the people.
Blair's decisive first step in this process - a step central to his current appeal to the electorate - was his success in transforming the Labour Party into New Labour. The contrast between New Labour and the Tories in the opening week of the campaign was revealing. Local Conservative associations openly defied the leadership and insisted on keeping Hamilton and Merchant as their candidates. Meanwhile New Labour constituencies behave with a spirit of obedience more characteristic of a monastic cult than the militant outlook of the local parties only a decade ago. Not only has the leadership intervened to ensure the selection of candidates congenial to the New Labour ethos, it has given them detailed instructions about what to wear.
Blair's achievement since he became party leader only three years ago, in ditching Labour's historic Clause Four commitment to nationalisation, not to mention all its radical policies and any radical candidates who might have squeezed through the selection processes, reveals what an empty shell Old Labour had become. The capitulation of the old left to the new style of party management personified by media fixers like Peter Mandelson confirmed the disengagement of the Labour Party from its historic roots in the labour movement. In a short time, Labour has been completely transformed into the political instrument of a section of the elite, supported by a layer of new recruits drawn largely from the professional middle classes.
Blair now offers New Labour's skills in institutional reform to tackle the wider problems of the British establishment. This project involves shifting power away from discredited old institutions, particularly parliament, in favour of even less democratic bodies and less accountable officials. The campaign against sleaze provides a good example of this process at work, based on a model provided by recent trends in Italy.
The Italianisation of British politics means using allegations of corruption against politicians to intensify public cynicism about elected representatives, and so to encourage a shift of power away from parliament towards the judiciary, senior civil servants and even sections of the media. In fact the backhanders paid by Harrods proprietor Mohamed Al Fayed in return for favours from a number of Tory MPs, that are the basis of the sleaze campaign run by the Guardian newspaper, were of a modest scale that would attract little interest in Italy, or indeed in most other countries. The consequence of this campaign, however, is not merely to discredit a handful of Tory backbenchers, but to weaken the authority of parliament.
The cumulative effect of the 'arms to Iraq' scandal (investigated by Lord Justice Scott), the issue of MPs' 'outside interests' (investigated by Lord Justice Nolan) and the 'cash for questions' scandal (investigated by Sir Gordon Downey) is that two judges, a civil servant and the editor of the Guardian - none of whom is elected - now enjoy more power than government ministers. Characteristically in full sympathy with this trend, Blair has suggested that a New Labour government would make the Nolan Committee into a permanent constitutional commission.
The anti-democratic dynamic inherent in the process of Italianisation was well illustrated by the agreement of both New Labour and the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their candidates in Tatton, so that an 'anti-sleaze' candidate could challenge Neil Hamilton. While the opposition parties played a game of holier-than-thou, it was left to the local parish priest to protest at the contemptuous attitude to the electorate revealed by this ploy: 'The election ought to be about more things than sleaze and there should be a range of candidates who can be sounded out on all relevant current issues that make up the political mix.' (Guardian, 29 March) Sleaze may not be of much interest to Father Kevin Moorhouse or the other electors of Tatton, but it is the cutting edge of the New Labour campaign to enhance the status of the new institutions that run British society.
In his election special Why Vote Labour?, the New Labour MP Tony Wright includes a chapter on what he terms 'the new democracy'. He consistently disparages existing parliamentary institutions - 'yah-booism', 'arid adversarialism', 'stultifying and suffocating' party politics - and proposes more collaboration among the parties, tighter regulation of MPs, greater authority for European institutions and regional assemblies. All of these measures have one thing in common. They mean moving power away from elected representatives into the hands of party officials, state bureaucrats and judges. Wright is critical of the 'quango state', but proposes further quangos in food safety, environmental protection and other areas. All these measures inevitably mean more power to the state and less to the people and their elected representatives. New Labour's plans for constitutional reform point to a less and less accountable system of government.
New Labour's approval for the campaign by 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 and society. They elevate self-consciously 'non-political' individuals in the hope that these will carry more 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. For 'non-political', read unelected and non-accountable.
While New Labour looks beyond the election to the task of remoulding the institutions of British capitalism, Old Labour is looking forward to refighting the battles of the past. According to Ken Livingstone, in a pre-election interview, 'the six months from the moment the polls close to the Labour conference in October is going to be the most electric and decisive six months in British politics for a generation' (Red Pepper, March). Why? Mainly, because of 'the struggle to save the Labour Party' from the further depredations of Mandelson and his 'Millbank Tendency'.
In fact, of course, Livingstone and his colleagues lost this battle years ago and the only sparks flying after the election are likely to be around his own head. In the meantime, however, the old left - inside and outside the Labour Party - continues to provide a useful service to the leadership. While Blair and Mandelson forge ahead with the New Labour project, the old left secures the rear by keeping up the pretence that Old Labour lives on and is only waiting for its moment post-election. Don't hold your breath.
Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997