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R.I.P. New Labour

The humiliating results for New Labour at last week’s local and London elections amount to much more than just a swing to the Tories by people fed up with government policies. The scale of the defeat is a measure of the break-up of a party that once fondly imagined it would rule for decades.

New Labour came into existence in the mid-1990s through destroying its own history and Labour Party origins and by repudiating any notion that it would challenge the economic and financial power of globalised capitalism. In fact, it dedicated itself to managing the market economy in favour of corporate power. It declared that class interests were a thing of the past and that everyone would benefit from globalisation.

In government, New Labour increasingly merged with the state machine and turned itself into a kind of business organisation rather than a party. There is no longer any internal democracy or opportunity for the rank and file (or, for that matter, the trade unions which founded Labour) to influence what happens. Membership has more than halved and few activists have remained in what is essentially a capitalist party in outlook and organisation. Voters began to turn their back on New Labour, as turnout fell to a record low of 60%. At the last election, in the wake of the illegal and monstrous attack on Iraq, only one in four of registered voters gave their support to New Labour.

Now the chickens have come home to roost. For New Labour’s disintegration in turn reflects the impact on ordinary people of a growing crisis in the global economy, expressed in the “credit crunch”. That’s why Gordon Brown’s party only polled 24% of the vote last week, compared with 44% for the Tories (who, of course, would fare no better in the current climate).

The “wonder years” of economic prosperity have turned out to be a major con trick and illusion for millions of people. Prices of basic foods are soaring, along with the cost of the petrol they need to drive their cars to work. Public services have declined in quality, milked dry by the private sector, while the government is holding wages down below the level of inflation for teachers and civil servants.

Voters have seen the government offering tens of billions to the banks, who themselves are responsible for the financial crisis now engulfing Britain and other countries while, at the same time, hitting the lower paid by abolishing the 10p income tax band. No wonder some New Labour MPs reported that voters were thrusting April’s wage slips in their face on the eve of the elections. At the same time, increasing numbers are facing repossession, unable to meet the payments on their homes and drowning in the debt they were encouraged to take on.

We are now entering the unknown in political terms. Tens of millions of voters hate the Tories and what they stand for; many voted New Labour in the past in the hope things would be different. But Blair and Brown made sure they didn’t turn out that way. As a result, these voters are effectively disenfranchised and disillusioned, denied a chance to exercise their vote in any meaningful way. A few have deserted to the Tories in the mistaken belief that David Cameron’s toffs will solve their problems. Many, many more have stayed at home, feeling that there is nothing in it for them at the ballot box. In the end, only 35% voted in the council elections while 55% of Londoners chose not to vote.
Taken together, these political and economic processes amount to a crisis of the existing parliamentary state system of government in Britain. Clearly, the current state is unable to deliver on basic questions like housing, education, transport and pensions or on wider issues like climate change. Its response is increasingly authoritarian and repressive, as if locking up more and more people will “solve” crime, especially among young people, or detaining people without charge for 42 days will tackle the threat of terrorism. As the decades of credit-driven consumption unravel, the prospects of large-scale unemployment and growing poverty will overwhelm whichever party is in government.
New Labour’s impending demise is not the result of a massive rush to Toryism or a grand triumph of the right, as those who cannot see beyond parliamentarism would have it. Nor is it a defeat for anyone except the careerists and opportunists who have hitched their fortunes to New Labour. Public sector trade unionists and others like the refinery workers in Scotland are ready to defend their conditions through industrial action and rightly don’t give a fig for New Labour’s fortunes. The challenge before us is to build a movement around a leadership that is prepared to go beyond the capitalist economy as well the market state, to create a democratic sustainable future.  A great first step in this direction would be to strengthen the influence of A World to Win by becoming a member today.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
5 May 2008

Phil says:

I can see what you are saying, but I think that you have overstated the supposed demise of New Labour. All governments get a bloody nose in local elections in mid-term, although I admit this is a very bloody nose. Isn't the most likely event that the Tories will win the General Election and New Labour will continue in opposition, and we will still have the two-party system? That is not the same as saying that New Labour will disintegrate, which is what you seem to be saying. Also, I've heard on the radio that John McDonnell and the left of the parliamentary Labour Party are going to back Gordon Brown in new changes that Brown proposes to make. What all the above says to me is that we need to deepen our analysis of the Labour Party as a historical phenomenon, and not wish away problems that we haven't addressed by hoping that New Labour will disappear. My own view is that the Labour Party has never been any form of workers party since its inception, but I know you don't agree with that. I would respectfully suggest to you that the bourgeois character of the Labour Party has always been shown by the character of its leadership and its policies. If this is accepted, it poses the question: What is a workers party?, which is a question that I think we should be urgently and seriously addressing. Unfortunately your piece above tries to pretend that we can get away without openly addressing this question.

Robbie says:

A timeless definition of what the Labour Party is misses that it has changed through history. Having been formed by the unions, it metamorphosised in 1994 from a party that tried to appeal to workers with a watered-down reformist socialism into New Labour that openly championed global capitalism. For 10 years it articulated the requirements of the global corporations much better than the little-Englanders in the Tory Party, hence managed to get the support of the Murdoch press, Financial Times etc. What the recent elections show is that with the credit crunch, this New Labour experiment is at an end, and they certainly won’t be able to resurrect the old two party system.

What is posed is not the formation of yet another workers party but of a revolutionary one, a party that can understand the times we are passing through, and sees as it’s goal the replacement of capitalism.

Phil says:

Robbie, I agree with you that we need a revolutionary party. But it seems that we see different routes to achieving it. There is a lot of truth in what you say about the Labour Party, but in my opinion it misses the most important point about the Labour Party, namely that it has always been a top-down rather than a bottom-up party. A top-down party cannot be any form of workers party, in my opinion, because such a party cannot represent the political independence of the working class. In that sense the Labour Party has never changed through history. I agree with Marx that the emancipation of the working class must be the *self*-emancipation of the working class. The reason the two-party system will continue is that the left simply will not learn the lesson that top-down does not work.

Charles says:

Valuable comments here. I believe the last election was a good one to lose and that will certainly be true of the next. I am afraid the two, or two and a half, party system will stumble on for quite a while yet. A combination of global warming and the oil peak and general depletion of the earth's resources, (water, particularly), and the conflicts that will result from these crises, will probably be too much for any of the prevailing parliamentary systems to cope with. Tragically, however, as Joel Kovel pointed out in his book, The Enemy of Nature, ecofascism might well prevail over ecosocialism.

With the tight grip the corporations and elites still hold over the mass media, and a terribly divided Left the omens are not good. Look at how many socialist websites there are, apart from teems of anti-corporation ones which still seem to believe capitalism can be reformed. Most of these people act as if the others don't exist. This AWTW site is excellent - I also came across another AWTW based in the USA and derived from the CP I believe - as is Z-net and Michael Albert's Parecom group, Swans Commentary and the invaluable Media Lens of David Edwards and David Cromwell. I will be brave here and also put in a word for the world socialist website (wsws) even though it will be outlawed by many because it is Trotskyist. I must admit I get annoyed with it sometimes when it seems to find a Stalinist under every bed, and some of its criticism of Chavez and of course Cuba, plays straight into the hands of our common enemies. Nevertheless, its constant theme of the need for a truely international revolutionary workers movement is vital and some of its political analyses are as illuminating and comprehensive as any I've seen.

Are we ever going to achieve the international unity that will be needed to fight the ecofascists? Protests, however widespread, will not be enough.

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