LM Archives
  11:39 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Mick Hume

So what is left now?

We should no longer be embarrassed to call ourselves socialists says Tony Blair, promoting his 'New Labour' message. As it happens I am not, but only because I refuse to call myself a socialist at all these days. Socialism now seems to represent nothing more than a repackaged job-lot of poisonous old prejudices, sold under the flashy wrappers of feminism, communitarianism and fairness.

The political battle lines have been redrawn almost beyond recognition in recent years. The ideological labels 'left' and 'right' have lost the distinctive meaning they once had. This has created a perilous situation where it is easy to get confused about who stands for what. Look behind the old left/right labels, however, and it becomes possible to see that something very different and very dangerous is afoot.

The language and ideas of those now identified as socialists and feminists are being used to lend fresh energy and credibility to thoroughly reactionary proposals, on everything from cutting welfare benefits to strengthening police powers. At a time when the shambolic Tory Party symbolises the chronic state of right-wing capitalist politics, it appears that socialism (or 'social-ism' to Blair) has been entrusted with the task of rehabilitating all of the old crap, only this time in the guise of an initiative from the left.

Anybody who still believes that British socialism is about reforming the country for the benefit of the majority should be made to watch the depressing evidence of October's conference exchanges between the New Labour supporters of Blair's modernised 'social-ism', and the Old Labour champions of 'the socialist traditions of Clause IV'. Neither side had anything to say to people facing the real problems of living in Britain today.

The defenders of the irrelevant anachronism that is Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution (what Arthur Scargill proudly calls 'the old-time religion') have succeeded only in confirming the widespread impression that traditional Labourism is about as pertinent to the nineties as religious fundamentalism. As the Tories never tire of pointing out, the more modern alternative which Blair's people offer is largely a matter of style, not substance. However, despite the preponderance of media managers and spin doctors, New Labour is promoting a political message. But it is not a message that really qualifies as new. It is more like a new voice through which the old conservative concerns about controlling society can be better relayed to a modern middle class audience.

New Labour has abandoned any pretence of being a party of the working classes. The change in the party's relations with the trade unions has been ratified by the formal abolition of the block vote. At a time when there is no longer any organised pressure on Labour from working people, Blair & Co calculate that they can safely ignore the concerns of the old working class and still pick up most of the votes from these traditional Labour supporters. Their priority now is to pitch for new votes, primarily in the south of England. Even here, New Labour's appeals are directed less at the majority of working people than at the professional middle classes, who exert such influence over the political agenda in Tory Britain.

The move to introduce quotas for women in the selection of Labour conference delegates and parliamentary candidates symbolises what Blair's socialism is about. It demonstrates the narrow orientation of New Labour towards the new middle classes - and points up the narrow- mindedness of the politics which result.

The switch away from the union block vote and towards quotas for women MPs has been hailed by commentators as proof that the Labour Party is now more democratic, more representative, more in touch with the people. In fact, all it means is that Labour has substituted one form of undemocratic organisation for another, sending a signal that it is now accountable to an unrepresentative minority of middle class professionals rather than an unrepresentative minority of trade union officials.

In this sense, quotas are just the new block votes. They have nothing to do with democracy; that is about giving people a free vote for the person of their choice, not telling them that they can only vote for candidates of one sex/race/religion. Nor have electoral quotas got anything to do with addressing the real social inequality which prevents most women from taking an active role in public life. They are an undemocratic device designed to meet the concerns of a clique of middle class careerists. No doubt some well-heeled women are now lining up to join the Labour Party so as to walk straight into parliamentary seats.

The influence of this middle class constituency now reaches far beyond the Labour Party's internal selection procedures. It shapes the language and the presentation of every New Labour policy - and increasingly does the same for all public debate in this country.

Many of the fashionable political themes of our time reflect the values of the Blair-ist strain of middle class professionals: the values of feminist, ethical, communitarian politics, of no-smoking policies, anti-harassment codes and equal opportunity charters, of children's rights, parental responsibilities and the 'feminisation' of everything from the Church of England to the Royal Air Force.

The advance of this mood has been interpreted as a radical change in the political climate, as a kind of 'left' turn which has allowed New Labour to reaffirm the relevance of its socialism. That impression is reinforced by the prominence of somebody like Clare Short MP, seen as on the left of the Labour Party, in promoting many of these issues.

Yet what does any of this have to do with the aim of liberating people by changing the way society is run, which is what socialism was supposed to be about when the term meant something a century ago? By contrast, the new political culture of the 'left' is helping to consolidate some damaging conservative notions about society, but in a form that is more palatable for modern times.

Take, for example, an issue like unemployment and job-creation. The switch towards more part-time and other insecure, low-paid forms of employment makes Tory boasts about falling unemployment ring hollow for many people. But bring on a New Labour woman like Patricia Hewitt to celebrate the 'revolution' in flexible working which has 'empowered' more women with children through enabling them to get part-time jobs, and things look a bit better.

It is a similar story with state welfare. Get a Tory back bencher to argue for cutting benefit payments to the poor and it could cause an outcry. But invite Blair to give a lecture about how individual responsibility is an important part of community values, and allow an ardent feminist like Sue Slipman, of the National Council for One-Parent Families, to demand that errant fathers be made responsible for their children, and the notion of introducing tighter restrictions on access to benefits becomes more acceptable.

The same pattern even tends to hold true today for that most Tory of issues, law and order. The mistake which home secretary Michael Howard made with his unpopular Criminal Justice Bill was to present it as too much of an old-fashioned draconian crackdown. Somebody could have told him that the way to win support for a law-and-order crusade today would be to package it much more as a police campaign against racist attacks, domestic violence, child abuse and pornography. The merest mention of anti-harassment measures in the bill was enough to persuade New Labour to abstain rather than vote against it; a few more concessions to the new political culture of the nineties and they would surely have cheered it to the rafters.

The 'left' has been transformed into a contemporary voice for conservative values. This raises important questions about what it can really mean to be left-wing today, about what we should stand for now. That is an issue on which Living Marxism is happy to encourage debate. One thing we should be clear about from the start, however, is that the alternative to Tony Blair's social-ism cannot be any campaign to defend Clause IV.

Clause IV of the Labour constitution commits the party to 'secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry' through state control of the economy. Since Blair made his coded announcement about ditching it, the rump of the traditional Bennite left has protested that it is a sacrosanct article of socialist faith. Come off it.

When Clause IV was written by the Fabian Sidney Webb in 1918, its main purpose was to contain the militant working class within the bounds of parliamentary politics, and to head off any demands for revolutionary change. Having witnessed at first hand the start of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Labour leader Arthur Henderson told British prime minister Lloyd George that 'employers are beginning to realise [that the] only safeguard against control by workmen is control by [the] state'. Clause IV was Labour's political contribution to preventing the horror of 'workmen's control' afflicting British employers in an era of revolutionary upheaval. It outlived its purpose long ago. Whether it stays or goes (and it will go) makes no difference whatsoever to the grim prospects for people under any future Blair-run government.

It is high time to forget about Clause IV, and indeed everything else about the Labour Party, to tear up all of those old 'What We Stand For' statements, and get down to the task of developing a new generation of anti-capitalist politics that is relevant to the real problems facing people at the end of the twentieth century. The first step in that direction will be to develop a critique of the dangerous left-right culture now shaping every issue in political life. That is Living Marxism's aim - and it is one we hope to take further at the Making of Moral Panics conference in London on 19-20 November.

Blair's insistence on giving social-ism two syllables can serve as a reminder of one thing from the past that is worth remembering. In its origins, left-wing politics was about the 'social' question, of how to transform society in order to achieve universal emancipation. It was not about reserving a few more seats in parliament for professional careerists, or demanding more repressive powers for the police.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 73, November 1994

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk