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Beyond New Labour's civil war

The thing about the civil war that is now consuming New Labour is that it is absolutely impossible to take sides. For not even the most powerful microscope in the world would reveal a microbe of a principle in any camp.

On the one side there are the Brownites, whose protagonist is congenitally incapable of leadership or clarity. His policies shaped the first decade of New Labour, with its mixture of privatisation, unworkable means-tested benefits, rising inequality and worship of global markets.

On the other side are the Blairites, who brought us privatisation, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on terror”, rising inequality and worship of global markets. They oppose Brown because he is not Blair and want more extreme pro-market policies. Having watched Brown plot against Blair, they are giving him the same treatment.

And yet these are the people who daily promote “choice” as the way forward! And if there is to be a leadership contest, both sides will no doubt unite to prevent John McDonnell, the lone left-wing voice, from getting on the ballot as they did last year.

The background to the crisis is, of course, the fact that former loyal supporters and the electorate in general, have rumbled New Labour for what it is and the party is facing oblivion. That was the message from Glasgow East, where some of the people most left behind by New Labour turned in despair to the nationalists.

Blair/Brownism is Thatcherism by another name, only deeper and much more dishonest. New Labour has gone where the Tories did not dare in NHS privatisation, the break-up of comprehensive education, attacks on benefits, witch-hunting of asylum seekers, student fees, post office closures and the elimination of human rights.

No amount of leadership changes or revamped policies can disguise this agenda, which has gone a long way to creating a market state in place of the welfare state that, ironically, Labour in its previous incarnation established after World War II. Nor is all this simply the result of policy “mistakes” but is the reflection in politics of the deeper process of corporate-driven globalisation which has eliminated the basis of reformist politics.

New Labour’s demise is truly the end of an era in British politics and if you doubt that, just look at what is happening in Scotland. Brown is nominally the leader of the party in Scotland as well as England. But you wouldn’t think so, judging by the battle to become New Labour’s leader in the Scottish parliament.

Tom McCabe, a former minister, yesterday called for the next leader to have "complete control" of the Scottish party, including Labour's MPs at Westminster. Adopting policies promoted by the Scottish National Party, McCabe said council tax should be abolished and the Edinburgh parliament be given tax-raising powers.

McCabe added: "For too long, there have been Scottish Labour politicians at local government level and at Westminster who have been resentful, and even contemptuous, of the Scottish Parliament. That behaviour needs to stop now." What McCabe is proposing would end Labour’s historic form as a unified party covering England, Scotland and Wales.

As to the leadership contest itself, bitter in-fighting has erupted between the three candidates’ rival camps. A senior member of the Andy Kerr team launched an attack on Cathy Jamieson, dismissing her as a left-wing “cave woman”. Nice.

While the break-up of New Labour is not a time for weeping, it provides a unique opportunity for discussion about how the aspirations of the disenfranchised majority can be reflected in new political forms. Added urgency is given by the onset of recession, combined with soaring utility bills and a housing crisis.

Some unions like the RMT transport workers and the firefighters in the FBU are no longer affiliated to New Labour but are opposed to the Tories coming back. These unions have an obligation to get together with John McDonnell and others and organise this debate now.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
4 August 2008

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