Friday, 25 June 2010

New Labour meets its maker: cuts, TINA and the future of centre-left politics in Britain

There was a strange and queasy moment during last months Queen Speech debate when, returning Harriet Harman's questions from the Labour side of the House, David Cameron leant over the despatch box and advised: “Let me give a little warning: I can tell you, having sat on the Opposition Benches for the past nine years, that opportunism does not work.”

Coming from a politician as intellectually vacuous as Cameron, the hypocrisy was enough to make your eyes bleed. The queasiness, though, came from the ring of truth to the statement and its broader implications. Labour have not formed a coherent intellectual argument against the Conservatives, the new Coalition government or the significant cuts in public expenditure imminent. Neither have many prominent progressive figures.

Conservative language on cuts and the economy is now largely hegemonic in public life. It's widely seen as a matter of absolute necessity that cuts are deep, immediate and far reaching. Phantoms of Greece are summoned and we're told (wrongly) that our situation is analogues, and that all hell will break lose unless cuts are made. A state of exception/emergency style logic has been set up through which every decision to cut is explained and incorporated, no matter how small the saving or socially damaging the impact; case in point here is the cancelling of a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, essentially described as regrettable but 'unavoidable'. In sum, the politics is being stripped out of highly political decisions.

This is the way Conservatives do business. The whole Thatcher era was built on the idea that a small state and free market was an unavoidable necessity, that There Is No Alternative (TINA) to neo-liberal prescriptions of economic growth, the state ('waste') and the market ('efficiency'). Opposing it was like opposing ageing. Now, as then, the refrain in face of opposition is: “ah yes, but what would you do?”. The worrying sign is that much of the public accept the TINA argument, as surveys and the Conservatives unblemished poll ratings attest (here and here).

Many in the Labour ranks seem to think this support simply owes to the Coalition's honeymoon period; that once the pain kicks in voters will come home. But the problems are more systemic and they involve New Labour's ability to counter the TINA narrative.

That problem is that New Labour, owing to a post-mortem of its defeats in the 70s and 80s, is itself predicated on a peace pact with Thatcherite/neo-liberal political economy and the TINA argument, from which Conservative arguments on cuts emerge. This is not to say it continued Thatcherism, but it accepted it as a framework for economic growth, believing a trade off between investment in public services and free market economics to be a false one; basically their departure from Conservatives concerned what to spend the proceeds of growth on, rather than the model for generating that growth.

What followed was, rightly or wrongly, an adoption of much Conservative language and idioms; idolising 'wealth creators', a view that a sustainable economy could centre on financial services, unfettered movement of labor, 'you can't pick winners', a focus on 'choice' in public services, that government should 'get out of the way' for entrepreneurs, and so on. Many of the policies which flowed from this world view (de-regulation in particular) lead to the very financial crisis which now puts a question mark under the previously untouchable neo-liberal model (such crisis were not supposed to happen in dynamic, free market economies, afterall).

But by broadly adopting that model's language and economic logic, Labour has helped entrench it among the public and tied its own hands in opposition to cuts, not least by posturing to the markets before the election that cuts would be deeper than under Thatcher. That's why it now seems opportunistic and doomed in its tentative forays into Keynsian language (talking about jobs, government stimulus, pushing back against the deficit hawks), when for years it parroted neo-liberal mantras and defined any alternative as an untenable return to the past. At the top level, at least, it has lost a language of social value, of state involvement in the economy, that is now so unfamiliar as to seem cheap and unrealistic.

That is why many mainstream Labour party activists needs to take the opportunity of a leadership election to assess how much they believe in the idioms I listed above, a wholesale critique (rather than temporary), which need not lead to outright rejection by the way, of the fundamentals upon which New Labour was based. You can see a partial attempt at this in its intellectual acrobatics over the movement of labor and immigration, where it seems to be trying to face in both directions at once. It is not currently a party with coherent ideas of political economy or language; until it is, its policies will continue to seem like a series of positions and postures.

In undertaking this review, it would carry with it the future of progressive politics in Britain (at least while the Lib Dems are locked into coalition) and Western Europe, which desperately needs an over-arching, alternative economic vision for spasms of unrest or discontent to coalesce around.

This does not have to indulge a culture of betrayal that says all New Labour has done is wrong, but to realise that the New Labour project was a product of its time, and times have changed. Significant doubts over the neo-liberal/Thatcherite system of economic growth have arisen for the first time in a generation. Opposing it need no longer be seen as electoral suicide. The public could, over time, be swayed by a credible alternative narrative, especially if lefties are savvy and play on events cleverly (the crash as private sector failure, bankers greed, forthcoming pain from public expenditure cuts etc.).

Such a narrative would not be afraid to talk about raising income tax again, about a higher minimum wage, or the inequities private education still entrenches, for instance. More importantly, it would not be afraid to talk about government investment and stimulus to create a re-balanced economy, less dominated by financial services in London, so kids growing up in Stoke or Leeds have more options than either going to University or getting a job in a call centre or supermarket (Paul Mason has done a great piece on this). It would not row back the moment it was accused of being 'anti-city' or 'anti-aspiration'. In sum, it would not be afraid to talk about the state again, in the face of a Conservative ideology which sees the state as the problem.

Only if New Labour, and the left, can generate an alternative political economy in this way, can their opposition to Tory cuts seem anything but opportunistic, and the idea that There Is No Alternative be chipped away at and finally dislodged. One of Blair's many talents was an ability to spot a moment and build an agenda around it. His post 9/11 words, which defined change in the international political system in the last decade, could and should easily apply to the economic system in this. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux", he said. "Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.". It is into this spirit which progressives, of every stripe, should tap in to in 2010.


Twitter: @SteveAkehurst

Bit more reading, for anyone interested:

Ross McKibbin

Simon Johnson

Tony Judt

Guardian editorial

Dean Baker

Jon Cruddas

Laurie Penny

Stuart White

David Aaronovitch and John Harris

Paul Krugman