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New Labour: forward to the past

Blair has claimed that this century the battle will not be between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and conservatism. But his concept of a non-socialist party of progress is a throw-back to the 19th century.

At the Labour Conference last October Tony Blair delivered a messianic oration. He spoke with great fervour about the fact that he and his party are on the side of progress, identifying the progressives as a vast political movement of high-minded and fair people, who believe in the future, and against the dread-hooded minions of conservatism. Or, as Peter Sellers, put it, that we must go onward in a forwards direction to the future, because time waits for no man, and onwards is the way forward to the place in which we will one day arrive. Or some such.

Blair declared that the Labour Party had thrown aside Ideology, but would stay true to its values. Quite how he thinks values and ideology are dissociable is anyone's guess, specifically since he uses ideology in its meaning as a system of ideas or creed, which is exactly what one should have thought values would mean. Then again, political speeches are not about logical intellectual rigour, nor about clarity or sense. Blair was pulling the biggest ideological dodge in the book (one much beloved by pre-Thatcher Tories) that he is being pragmatic and free from ideology doing what is "objectively" right for the national interest, while his opponents are blinded by their ideological commitments. What matters is not the substance of what is being said, but the appearance. No-one wants to think of themselves as an unreasoning fanatic, which is what ideologue is code for, nor would they wish to vote for one.

Tony Blair also deployed other, simple, logical fallacies in order to try to bolster his political position. Most notably, he baldly deployed the logical fallacy of bifurcation: the presentation of a false set of options, an exclusive either/or option when that isn't necessarily the case. In this instance he has been trying to portray the choice as being solely between a Labour government (of nice sensible progressive types) and a Tory government (full of evil lunatics who drink babies' blood, etc), insisting that the only choice for people who dislike Tory rule is to vote Labour and join his movement of lukewarm progressives.

Lukewarm progressives
Progress does have a warm, fuzzy feel to it, though. The feel of things becoming better, of rational people making sensible decisions, without being shackled by tradition or history. Progress, also, is indissolubly linked to the mindset of the industrial revolution, and the ideas that it spawned about an ever-upward increase in wealth and quality of life. Such ideas were closely linked with the Radical movement of the 19th century; and Blair and his cohorts have repeatedly linked themselves in with that 19th century Radicalism. Gordon Brown styled the labourites as "Credible Radicals", and Blair repeated the word in his speech unto inanity. Indeed, Blair stated that the 20th century had been dominated by the Tories, precisely because the Labour Party had split the moderate-progressive bloc that existed in the Liberal Party of the 19th century.

Blair seems to feel a great affinity for the 19th century radicals. A curious attitude for a moderniser to be trying to resurrect a political movement that died over 100 years ago. For much of the 19th century, Radicalism was closely linked with "middle-class" political agitation, and took place very much in the shadow of the French Revolution. Within the Liberal Party, formed officially in 1859, the Radicals were drawn from the commercial classes, with Richard Cobden and John Bright, of the famous Anti-Corn Law League, among its free-trade luminaries. At certain points of the century Radicalism had some popular support, but there was always a distinct split between its necessarily well-heeled parliamentary leaders (MPs, being unpaid, needed to have substantial private incomes) and its supporters on the ground. By the late 19th century, the Radical formed a distinct camp within the broader movement of Liberalism, and early socialists held out hopes of those Radicals coming over to their side.

The maximum programme of the Radicals was one of political reform: enlargement of the franchise, abolition of the House of Lords, the rule of law and contract, and the abolition of trade protection. The Radicals were largely committed to the market, and laissez-faire capitalism, and their programme was largely about freeing up the power of capital to exploit labour without the old social-restrictions imposed by feudal power and, as with Tony Blair, they deployed a bifurcating argument of the middle and working classes uniting against the aristocracy. Indeed, the Liberals under Gladstone (the idol of Roy Jenkins, the ideological soul-mate of Tony Blair)—who was the political leader most instrumental in bringing about the nearest thing to laissez-faire to Britain—were a disparate group, often only united in their opposition to Toryism.


"You remind me of a woman I once knew"

What is noticeable about their programme is that it bears more than a little resemblance to that of Thatcherism—as do the values and programme set forth by Gordon Brown fighting monopolies (what greater monopoly than a nationalised industry?), fighting fraud and rip-offs, protecting people from unscrupulous bankers; in effect: trying to make the market work properly. Blair is, then right that this is entirely in keeping with the history of the Labour Party.

Branding of identical products
The clear reason for Blair's risible sophistry is that the Labour Party has become concerned that people do not feel an attachment to it. Labour are worried about the next election. The false choice of Tories or Labour is a way to try to fool voters into trooping into the ballot booths to give assent to spinach over cabbage. When there is little discernible difference over policy, then the politicians have to appeal to feeling, and attitude: we cut welfare out of "tough love", they cut welfare to be mean and spiteful. It's like the differences in branding between two almost identical soft-drinks.

The Labour politicians are worried that they may have to work hard to win the next election despite the contemptible and patronising sophistry applied by spin doctors; as the Labour Party has been stung by the low turn-out in recent elections. Their pretence that the voters are just too satisfied with them to vote holds no water—satisfied voters turned out in the 70s percent range in the fifties and sixties at by-elections.

It's clear that the reason voters are not turning out is because they think it's pointless. This is an inherent flaw of representative democracy: voters are infrequently called upon to cast a vote, which seems to be far removed from any action or result; there is no immediate reward for the vote. The voters thus feel, correctly, that their influence is slight. Traditionally this was overcome by political parties being closely attached to identifiable social groups, with the members of these groups being able to feel a part of the ongoing political process. The party represented, in one way or another, the aspirations of that group; thus they would turn out to vote with a strong feeling of involvement.

Once the political structure is unable, as now, to accommodate any semblance of reforms so as to be able to give any vent to the aspirations of more dispossessed sections of society, then politicians can no longer rely on that sort of support. They have to resort to trying to scare the electorate into supporting them, into fooling them into voting for them. They know that to keep the system functioning, they have to persuade people to turn up, and give their support for it. That is the politicians' job; since they cannot actually make or change events, they have to work hard to pretend that they can. Their function is to win and maintain public confidence. At the end of the day they are merely actors, and our modern media-driven politics could be easily called a thespocracy, rule by actors.

This is also the reasoning behind Labour's new-found devotion to local mayors: a single person contest, wherein the personality of the candidate will be all important, and which will be more of a media event. It's about trying to return public interest to a system where there are no significant policy differences.

Moderate party of obstruction
We need only look across the Atlantic to Canada or America, where the Liberals (or Democrats) did not suffer the same collapse in the 20th century as their counterparts in Britain, where they have held power for proportionately more of the century than Labour has managed, to see that no real gain is to be made by building the grand-movement of progress. Rather, such a force would be solely a pretty bulwark by which the current corrupt system is defended¸ a Great Moderate Party of Obstruction, to appeal to rational people who want to see change, and direct them off into the hopeless quagmire of personality politics.

So long as the press continue to look into whether Tony wants to block Ken, or how Gordon and Tony might be having a tiff, or whether Peter Mandelson has been brought back too soon, they continue to ignore the desperation of poverty, the wanton and authoritarian cruelty of the government, and ignore the unspoken iron-rule of the dogma of capital.

There is, though, hope to be drawn from Blair modernising the country back to the 1890s. It shows the real face of the Labour Party, how it is still, how it has always been: how many Labour governments have called for partnership from the unions, or have seen making the market work as the way to improve people's lives? All of them, only now this one is dropping the façade of socialism—leftists no longer have any justification whatsoever for asking us to follow these insulating sophists. Labourites who think themselves to be socialists have had their illusions thrown back in their faces with a rude wake-up call.

PIK SMEET