1990s >> 1999 >> no-1135-march-1999

What’s new about New Labour?

Old Labour said it stood for socialism and advocated policies to run capitalism. New Labour says it stands for capitalism and advocates policies to run capitalism. The only difference between the “old” and the “new” versions is that Blair’s Labour Party is more honest about its love affair with capitalism.

Back in 1925 George Lansbury, darling of the Labour Left, addressed his party’s conference with a rousing declaration:

“Socialism is inscribed on our banners … We intend that the land of Britain and all its resources shall be owned and used in the service of the British people.”

It was a peculiarly nationalistic version of socialism, but Lansbury and his followers clearly believed that they were standing for the principle of common rather than private ownership. Two years earlier 143 Labour MPs voted in favour of the following resolution which they proposed in the House of Commons:

“This House declares that legislative effort should be directed to the gradual supersession of the capitalist system by an industrial and social order based on the public ownership and control of the instruments of production and distribution.”

Again, there was no mincing words about their professed opposition to capitalism as a social order. Labour was committed to something different, so they proclaimed. But the strategy was one of gradual transformation: fighting the capitalist tiger one claw at a time. Of course, such gradualism is completely impossible when there is a clear choice between mutually exclusive ways of organising society. No more than a person can be a little bit pregnant or a part-time virgin can a society become gradually socialist.

Clement Attlee, who was to become Labour’s famous post-war Prime Minister, realised as early as 1935 that

“The plain fact is that a socialist party cannot hope to make a success of administering the capitalist system.”

How right he was. We wonder whether this “plain fact” has ever occurred to Messrs Blair, Brown and Cook—or whether they would consider themselves to be in a “socialist party”. (Oddly enough, when Blair’s Labour Party dropped its mythical commitment to Clause Four of its constitution they replaced it with wording proclaiming themselves to be a “democratic socialist” party.)

What Labour has traditionally meant by “democratic socialism” is benign capitalism. As Professor Eric Hobsbawm put it in an October 1980 article:

“The concept of democratic socialism is that by diffusion of power there will be a change in the relationships between capital and labour . . . Because in the first instance capital has to be accountable to the people it employs.”

This was manifest nonsense, all the more so when uttered by a so-called Marxist theoretician. The function of capital is to exploit labour. Capital can no more be held accountable to labour than muggers can be made accountable to the people they rob on the street. Were this some kind of academic hoax it would be unfunny, but as a basis for political change, in which millions of people have invested their hope, it is a tragedy.

The tragedy is not without its farcical scenes. Its contemporary ideologists have invented a mumbo-jumbo ideology called The Third Way. This is neither capitalist nor socialist, but … who knows? The Third Way is a glib phrase to describe the rhetorical abandonment of socialism and an accommodation with capitalism, albeit an imagined reformed and modernised version of the old system. As Richard Rorty wrote in the New Statesman (8 May 1998):

“We should not let speculation about a totally changed system, and a totally different way of thinking about human life and human affairs, replace step-by-step reform of the system we presently have.”

There is nothing new about this. Labour has always stood for step-by-step reform. The only difference is that in the old days they did so with a pretence of aiming at the creation of a totally different way of organising human affairs. Today New Labour is at least being straight. They can see no alternative to capitalism. They have been hypnotised by the blinkered Thatcherite ideology of TINA (There Is No Alternative) into open advocacy of the existing system.

Socialists opposed Labour when they claimed to be working for socialism by running capitalism and we oppose them now that they have finally rejected any alternative to capitalism. The current system, based on production for profit, cannot work in the interest of the majority of people and no amount of “modernising” rhetoric will disguise this fact. That is why socialism is as vital today as it ever was—and New Labour is as hopeless and irrelevant as Old Labour.


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