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A government in freefall

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one minister, Mr Brown, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four in two days looks like carelessness. Actually, it looks like more like meltdown time for the New Labour government as it tears itself apart.

The leaked resignation plans of home secretary Jacqui Smith and the decision of two other ministers to leave the government yesterday in advance of a cabinet reshuffle, only reinforce the view that Gordon Brown is now prime minister of a government that is holed below the water line (thus the appearance of rats leaving a sinking ship). The resignation this morning of communities secretary Hazel Blears only adds to the nightmare on Downing Street.

And when even The Guardian, a newspaper known best as a New Labour supplicant, tells Brown that his time is up, you get the picture. The paper wants Labour MPs to “cut him [Brown] loose” now, while there’s still time, in its view, to rescue “progressive politics” in Britain from oblivion.

Several questions arise. Would replacing Brown make any difference to New Labour’s prospects? And, in any case, what is “progressive” about this government that is worth preserving?

There is considerable doubt about whether any other prime minister would make a difference because, in the end, it’s New Labour as a whole that’s despised, not just Brown. The reasons why the government has run into the sands are complex, but the turning point was undoubtedly the financial crash that began in 2007.

Almost everything New Labour did and does was based around introducing in a messianic way the alleged virtues of the market into areas of public life like education, housing and local services. After the kind of open market capitalism championed by Brown and Blair before him plunged into crisis, the government’s ideological underpinning went into tailspin too.

The bailing out of the banks is hailed as “decisive action” in some quarters, but it also showed the general population that a) the government had deceived them about the economy b) the bankers would not suffer in any circumstances c) ordinary people would pay the price in terms of unemployment and repossessions.

When the scandal of MPs expenses was added to this cocktail recently, the die was cast. Leading members of the government, not content with their six-figure salaries and massive pensions, as well as backbench MPs, were milking the system for all it was worth and Brown was unable to respond as the political crisis mounted.

And so what is so “progressive” about New Labour? The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? A systematic destruction of human rights and civil liberties? Cutting welfare benefits? Promoting financial and corporate interests without hesitation? Allowing privatised rail companies to rip off the public? Presiding over growing inequality? Opening public service provision up to the private sector on a vast scale? Reducing Parliament’s status further to the point where there was hardly anything for MPs to do? Encouraging the economy to “grow” on the basis of massive consumer debts? The list is endless.

The disintegration of New Labour is neither a time for rejoicing nor an occasion for sorrow but for a sober assessment as to where we have arrived at politically and historically. Wherever you look, the old order is breaking apart and political instability at a time of economic and political crisis obviously brings dangers along with it. But they also present opportunities to develop and organise a movement that looks beyond the narrow focus of who may or may not win a general election towards a democratic reorganisation of society as a whole.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
3 June 2009

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