Some Victory Huh?

Bob Piper’s on sparkling form this morning in relation to Phillip Gould’s letter in the Grauniad; ‘This is the moment of New Labour’s victory‘, responding to Neil Lawson’s article from Thursday; ‘Labour has run into the sand and can’t depend on Brown to dig it out‘.

I can’t help but agree with Bob’s assessment of the situation:

The consequences of this realignment [Cameron’s shift to the centre] in British politics could prove catastrophic for our democracy. What it says is that all future elections will be a fight for the votes of a few hundred thousand people in middle-England. The political parties don’t have to give a fig for the voters in their traditional heartlands. New Labour doesn’t need to tailor their policies to win the votes of whippet breeders in Barnsley, welders in Wolverhampton, or building workers in Bootle. The same is true of the Tories in the Shires. They know that even if they put up a monkey in Buckingham the Tory faithful would still turn out in droves to vote for it (you could say that John Bercow was living proof of that). No…. neither party has to fight for those votes, what they are both after are the votes of those people in the middle-ground of politics.

What we are seeing is a diminution in the democratic options put before the electorate, the descent of the British system into supermarket politics.

Place a Tesco and a Sainsbury’s supermarket side by side and how do you decide where to shop? The differences between the two are at best marginal and you end up choosing one over the other for marginal reasons – maybe you go to Tesco because their milk’s a penny cheaper than next door, or maybe you prefer Sainsburys because the sell-by date on their apples is a day or two longer, or perhaps you oscillate between the two depending on which one has more ‘buy one, get one free’ offers advertised in the window. However you decide, what you end up with are the same products, the same items – the packaging may differ slightly if you buy the ‘own brand’ goods but these invariably come from the same supplier no matter where you shop.

There are things I both agree with and disagree with in Neil Lawson’s article but one thing I can certainly accept is the overall sentiment, that we need to revisit and review our view of socialism and left-wing thought in general – driving right back to first principles where necessary – and consider how it may fit into and become relevant to the 21st Century. Whether that’s a task suited to politicians and political think-tanks is another matter entirely, although I was pleased to see the name-check given to Zygmunt Bauman which, at least, presages some interest in the Labour movement in considering where we go from here from a more philosophical standpoint.

Gould, on the other hand, seems trapped in the kind of dangerously absurdist zealotry that one finds all too often amongst ardent Blarites.

Eight and half years in power does indeed support the contention that Labour has ‘won’ to date both politically and strategicly, although how much of that apparent victory has come solely due to the obvious disarray in opposition ranks that has render the Tories unelectable during that period is open to question.

His claim that ‘New’ Labour has won in an ideological sense is, however, frankly absurd, not least as suspect he wouldn’t recognise the true ideological base of the New Labour project if it got up an bit him on the arse. If New Labour can be said to have an ideology at all, it is one that is far from modern – indeed it’s one that belongs originally to the late 18th and early 19th Centuries and, in that respect, pre-dates Marxism.

‘New’ Labour is, in essence, a Saint-Simonian project best characterised by Saint-Simon’s own formula that ‘The Government of presons will be succeeded by the administration of things’ – a formula which lies at the heart of positivism and influenced both Marxism and, ironically, the latter day doctrine of the global free market through its roots in ‘logical positivism’ which is, itself, largely the translation of Saint-Simonian ideas into economics.

Not really modern at all, then but then for all Gould’s protestations that:

Lawson talks of making history, but to shape history you must first understand it.

An understanding of anyone’s ‘history’ but their own has never been a Blairite hallmark as Gould so ably demonstrates in the rest of that paragraph:

And the mistake that Neal has made is not to understand the strength and power of New Labour. It was never, ever a “gamble on power over principle”; it was always, from the very start, an intellectually coherent, policy-rich project which sought and found new progressive solutions to the challenges of new times. That is why it has sustained itself through three election victories and why the Conservative hegemony of a generation has so dramatically imploded. If we do not understand why we won in the past and the scale of our victory, all the thinktanks and pressure groups in the world will not secure our future.

‘[T]he Conservative hegemony of a generation has so dramatically imploded’ – ???

Clearly Gould fails to understand the full consequences of that particular statement as, presumably, he believes the Tories to lack any real history, or sense of history, beyond the advent of Thatcherism in much the same way as he lacks any sense of Labour Party history which pre-dates Blair.

Thatcherism was not so much an ideology in its own right as a political virus that infected the Tory Party with ideology, a virus it’s found hellishly difficult to sake off. Strip that away, as Cameron is trying to do and what do the Tory’s become?

Not the shiftless, rootless political adventurers that Gould supposes. No, they simply revert to type; the Conservative Party becomes, once again, conservative. They return to the pragmatism and utilitarism of old, the part of them that still believes that they are only natural party of Government – only they can do what is right for the country because only they have minds unclouded by ideology and radical, irrational systems of belief.

Remove Thatcherism from the Tory equation and where to they go? Straight back to Hume, Berkeley and Locke.

The desperate irony of Gould’s letter, his greatest conceit even, is his apparent belief that Cameron is but a wolf in sheep’s clothing whose outer raiment can be stripped away to reveal the same old Tories of the last quarter-century beneath. Funnily enough, as I recall, that’s pretty much what the Tories thought about Blair back in the dog-days of the Major government, and look where that got them?

If the Tories aren’t taking ‘New’ Labour seriously then neither is Gould taking them seriously either – a mistake the Labour movement certainly cannot afford to make.

What Gould fails to appreciate here is that ‘New’ Labour is as alien to the Labour Party as Thatcherism was to the Tories – albeit something that will, perhaps, be less damaging in the long run as the Labour Party has never quite bought into it to the extent that the Tories did.

And therein lies the real danger Cameron poses. Where ‘New’ Labour was, and still is, a departure from Labour Party traditions and values, Cameron’s brand of ‘compassionate conservativism’ 0 what used to be called ‘one nation conservatism’ is really only a reversion to type for the Tories, a minor variation, if it varies much at all, from their natural philosophical inclinations – and once one understands that one also understands that talk of a ‘New’ Labour victory is wholly premature. After all, what value is there in such a victory if it turns out, as is certainly possible, to be the kind of phyrric victory that returns a Tory government at the next election.

Not that I suppose that will ultimately matter overmuch if Cameron sticks the course and successfully steers the Tories away from further relapses in to Thatcherism, as the likes of Gould will no doubt be joining the Stephen Pollards of this world and fucking-off to join the Tory Party anyway – which is at least a possible silver lining to this particular cloud.

  • redpesto

    Thanks for this piece. I read both articles, and think Lawson’s on the money (certainly more so than Polly Toynbee’s recent analyses, which have been all over the place). In any case, Gould’s a pollster, not a political philosopher. Lawson’s key comment (I papraphrase) that there has to be more to a centre-left government than implementing Thatcherism more humanely was missed completely by Gould, who thinks that winning amounts to a political programme.

    I can’t help feeling that Cameron’s victory marked the point at which triangulation was officlally pronounced dead. Blair’s scrabbling around to cook up a dividing line on the education White Paper while his backbenchers smell a rat and the Tories have twigged that it will give them the selective system they want (see also market-led tuition fees and the use of the private sector in the NHS). Gould seems to think that the Tories have had to compromise their core beliefs to accept a New Labour ‘settlement’. My suspicion is that it is the Labour party which has made the bigger compromises, and which will dangerously continue to do so under Blair and the rest of the gang.