Traditional Labour voters and the public alike are disillusioned with new Labour. We must forge a new progressive consensus.
These are troubling times. Disillusionment with the New Labour project is deeper than the normal disappointment that comes with the swing of the political pendulum. Large numbers of lifelong party members have left, and much of the moral and intellectual core of Labour’s support has been withdrawn. Obviously Iraq has played a major part in this, but the causes of disillusionment go much wider.
Since the beginning of New Labour’s second term in office in 2001, there has been a cumulating stream of policies that contradict traditional Labour values and are the cause of growing disenchantment. The continuing erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law, and the imposition of compulsory identity cards, show a deep disrespect for the best of our traditions and institutions. And the scaremongering approach to the so-called “war on terror” is increasing rather than reducing the threat of terrorism.
Beyond the errors of policy there is a problem with the style of the Government. The addiction to spin and soundbites under Blair has led to a widespread view that they do not tell the truth, and there is an arrogance that leaves people feeling that the Government listens to no one. The headline-grabbing, tabloid-teasing, ill-thought-out and unprincipled way in which policy is bounced out of No. 10 through the media, without proper consultation or thinking through of the consequences of each new initiative, displays an incompetence in public administration that is causing widespread frustration.
This does not mean of course that some good things have not been achieved by the Government – most notably from policy commitments put in place in opposition, such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, the minimum wage and the tax credits that have improved the incomes of some of our poorest families and poorest pensioners. There have also been historic improvements in equality for gay people. The establishment of the Department for International Development has led to a fuller consideration of developmental issues. And increased public expenditure for our investment-starved public services has been welcome – although its benefits are undermined by the constant reorganization. The commitment to eliminate child poverty, though highly ambitious and deeply welcome, mask an abandonment of Labour’s long-standing commitment to the reduction of inequality.
During the 2001 election campaign Tony Blair refused to answer Jeremy Paxman’s question about whether it was acceptable for the gap between the rich and the poor to get wider. His response was, in essence, that what mattered was the situation of the poorest, not the rising income of those at the top. The issue for Blair was poverty, not inequality. This is a significant departure.
New Labour is a major disappointment. Despite the benign economic inheritance that contrasts very strongly with the difficulties with which the Wilson and Callaghan governments had to grapple, we have to conclude that there is a nastiness of style, a centralization of control, a lack of concern for inequality and a support for extremist US foreign policy that makes New Labour more the creature of the hegemony of the Thatcher era than the creator of a new settlement.
It is also notable that when people seek to resist privatization of their schools, cruelty to asylum seekers, the undermining of civil liberties or an immoral foreign policy, the Left’s capacity to organize and resist is weakened because it is a supposedly Labour government that is bringing forward these policies. And thus the Labour Party which is the creation of 100 years of struggle by British people to create a more just society and more equitable international order has been weakened and undermined at the hands of the New Labour project.
It is not just in the UK that there is disenchantment with politics. Right across the OECD countries, the turnout in elections is falling; there is a broad disbelief in politics and a sense that there is little choice. There is also a growth of inequality worldwide. One part of the explanation is the impact of globalization and realization that old leftwing nostrums do not work in the face of the intensification of global competition. Thus we need new thinking and a renewal of political debate. But this is almost impossible in the face of a deep dumbing down of politics, as 24-hour media leads to agenda setting through media management. It is notable that increasingly figures with media appeal rather than strong moral or intellectual ability have risen to the fore: Blair, Bush, Berlusconi and the rest.
A Clement Atlee or Winston Churchill would almost certainly fail to rise to the top in modern politics, dominated as it is by a voracious media. Just as the country prepares to move on from Tony Blair, the leader of the Conservative Party has reinvented himself as a Blair Mark 2 with lots of attractive spin, slick presentation, talk of social justice and care for the environment. Clearly these are the values the polling indicates that British people hold dear and thus, as with Blair, we get warm words, but in practice strong support for US foreign policy, economic growth at any price and Thatcherite reform in public services.
It is increasingly clear that the highly materialistic, competitive and unequal societies that are being created as a result of the intensifications of global competitiveness do not create contented or stable societies. The global political élite are leading the world into a growing nightmare.
A just settlement in the Middle East is available. It involves a two state solution on the basis of international law for Israel and Palestine, a negotiated withdrawal from Iraq and the withdrawal of all WMD from the region. But again, despite warm words, there is no prospect of the President of the US, our own Prime Minister or, I fear, his successor, supporting such a policy and therefore the bitterness and bloodshed will continue for some time to come.
We have the consequences of global warming which are not being adequately addressed. Serious scholars tell us that if we fail to make major changes before 2030, human civilization on this planet will be in danger within a period of 100 years. Some human beings may survive, but the civilization in which we currently live could not. People everywhere are aware of the risks and troubled by the situation. But there are as yet few movements, leaders and – most importantly – political ideas that can advocate a new settlement that will enable humanity to surmount the current challenge.
The Left has always insisted that every single human being is of equal value and importance and that moral standards apply equally to all. The world now has sufficient knowledge, technological capacity and capital to eliminate poverty and provide for the needs of every single human being. We are the first generation to be in a position to eliminate extreme poverty. This means large-scale conflict must be ended and our forces used to prevent disorder and help people to achieve security so that they can build the structures of competent states capable of promoting human development. And such states will be in a position to negotiate international agreements that could ensure that our environmental resources are used in a way that ensures that human life on our planet is sustainable. This will mean we will have to move to a higher level of civilization where all people have the basics that they need, and then we must develop a new way of living which gets beyond an obsession with the ownership of more and more material goods and economic growth for its own sake. We must learn to enjoy caring for each other, nature, literature, the arts, philosophy and the spirituality for which Western people in particular are yearning as they find that material plenty does not provide meaning to their lives.
All of this may sound fanciful, but as Mrs Thatcher once said about less significant matters “there is no alternative”. We either look forward to mounting catastrophes that threaten our survival or we create a more equitable and sustainable world order. To rise to the occasion we need to set aside soundbites, triangulation and celebrity politics and get back to a search for ideas and a moral way of working and organizing that can help inspire people to come together to face the challenge that lies ahead.