Did Ed Miliband lead “a traditional left-wing party” into the 2015 elections? Or is the difference between New Labour and the Conservatives “more about what the parties choose to talk about rather than any great differences in policy”?
If we are to believe Tony Blair and much of the oligarch-owned right-wing press, Miliband’s big mistake was positioning himself too far to the left. In fact, the former prime minister (who lies at the heart of the New Labour project) has recently affirmed that, “even if he thought a left-wing programme was the route to victory, he would not adopt one”. Just in case such statements are not enough to show that Tony Blair and the party he corrupted are not ‘left-wing’, however, let’s look in more detail at why they are very clearly on the right (and why that is the key to their failures).
An Attempt to Tame the Beast
New Labour was all about the so-called ‘Third Way’ – trying to reconcile right-wing economics with ‘progressive’ social policies. And, after the collapse of the USSR’s authoritarian political model, Tony Blair and others in the Labour Party effectively accepted Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the current capitalist order represented the “end of history”. At the same time, though, they did talk about their hope of removing the ‘unfair bits’ from the dominant economic system (primarily through state welfare). In effect, then, this stance meant that large multinational corporations would still be free to underpay their workers and overcharge consumers (whilst continuing their never-ending quest to buy and sell every marketable thing on the planet), but the benevolent band of Blairites would step in with public money to subsidise the profits of the richest and allow their exploitation of the global and local workforce to continue.
After the capitalist crisis of 2007-8, Blair did admit that the dominant system needed to be adapted, by implanting into a “new capitalism” a set of “values other than those of short-term profit maximisation”, but then that was the sort of common-sense concept by which a ‘free’ global market was supposed to have been governing itself all along (“investing and building” to ensure “stable and enduring” profits). Now, if we were to have sufficiently little imagination to consider the possibility of an alternative (to a system which, as history has shown us, is not at all interested in ensuring human dignity or environmental protection), we may well think as progressives that ‘investing and building’ for a stable future sounds like a great idea. But this type of polished rhetoric, of course, which Blair refined so well within New Labour, was ultimately based on the premise that capitalism was, at its core, a well-intentioned beast that could easily be tamed (an idea that is not backed up by historical evidence).
A Slightly Softer Face of Capitalism
With such a faith in capitalism at its heart, New Labour began its time in power by continuing with the reduction in net borrowing (as a percentage of the GDP) begun under the previous government of John Major. Soon, however, it felt the pressure to spend more money (in part due to the costly and ill-advised imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) and, as it did not want to risk the support of the ‘wealthy’ citizens it valued so much, it did not offset this spending with higher taxation. In all fairness, though, the money it borrowed was never any higher than what had been borrowed under the Thatcher and Major governments in the 80s and 90s.
Unemployment was reduced under New Labour (a much heralded improvement from the figures suffered under 18 years of Conservative rule), but it never even came close to the low unemployment of the post-WW2 (and pre-Thatcher) years. Income inequality, meanwhile, was not much different, and would vary very little from the nauseating post-79 norm. In other words, the trend towards increasing inequality begun under Thatcher was not reversed under New Labour. In fact, says John Kampfner at The Telegraph, Blair “bent over backwards to ingratiate himself with the rich”.
Thanks to New Labour’s pro-capitalist grovelling and its “failure to reverse the prevailing tide of Thatcherism”, it progressively lost more and more of the hopeful left-wing “idealists who had swept Blair to victory in 1997”. In response, though, its arrogant politicians did not try to emphasise their supposedly progressive credentials to keep left-wingers on board. Instead, they actually took advantage of the lack of a “credible opponent to their left” to assert their right-wing sympathies, invading Conservative territory by privatising utility companies even further than the previous Tory governments had.
To be fair, however, there was some progressive ‘window dressing’ in New Labour, as it built Sure Start centres while spending money “on public works, on the arts”, and “on unemployment benefits”. It also “drastically cut NHS waiting lists” whilst pouring “billions into public transport” and into upgrades for British schools. Furthermore, it bolstered the earnings of low-income workers through the National Minimum Wage, Working Tax Credits, and Pensioners’ Credits (whilst of course keeping capitalism completely intact).
As Thomas G. Clark argues at Another Angry Voice, though, “the very idea that the New Labour government of 1997-2010 was some kind of left-wing project is probably the single biggest myth in UK politics”. The party’s time in power, he stresses, “was clearly a continuation of the Thatcherite experiment” (which had sought to destroy “the social reforms of Clement Atlee’s post-war government” which “had been imitated across the liberal democracies of the world”). Until Margaret Thatcher came along with her extreme form of neoliberal economics, he insists, “the UK had been a role model to the world”, but in the 18 years that followed, the citizens of the country were left “desperately in need” of a move “away from the inevitable chaos of recklessly deregulated markets and rampant rentierism”. New Labour, however, would not provide this return to ‘former glory’.
By using “innumerable bits of pseudo-socialist window dressing”, Clark says, New Labour effectively “distracted the trade unions and the workers” in 1997, when in reality it had already “openly embraced” the neoliberal ideology imposed on the UK since 1979. Proof of these right-wing credentials, he stresses, can be seen in New Labour’s:
- “Refusal to renationalise” the railways (as had been promised in its manifesto)
- Continued “deregulation of the financial sector”
- “Abandonment of democratic control over the Bank of England”
- Building up of debt with PFIs (“catastrophically inefficient neoliberal economic alchemy schemes”)
- “Turning a blind eye to the rampant tax-dodging of multi-national corporations and the super-rich minority”.
- “Allowing the development of a vast housing Ponzi bubble built on unsustainable levels of debt accumulation”
- “Refusal to invest in much needed social housing”
- “Refusal to regulate the Buy-to-Let slumlords”
- “The introduction of “Workfare” schemes”
- “The privatisation of air traffic control”
- “Overseeing an exponential growth in corporate outsourcing contracts”
- “Planning to privatise the Royal Mail”
- The “introduction of several privately operated prisons and detention centres”
- “Kick-starting the privatisation of the NHS”
- The “introduction of over 200 privately operated, yet taxpayer funded” academies
- “Introducing the ATOS administered WCA regime for the disabled”
- “Attempting to introduce extremist copyright protection laws”
- “Revocation of the right to trial by jury” and “attacks on Legal Aid in 2006”
- “Privatisation of the HMRC property portfolio (into the hands of a company based in Bermuda for the purpose of dodging tax)”
- And (last but by no means least) support for the destructive and unpopular US-led wars in the Middle East
In short, New Labour was by no means a left-wing government, and the legacy of some of its disastrous decisions would actually leave sections of the British Left lost in a sea of unorganised confusion for at least a few years. Scared of returning to the social decay of the 80s and 90s, many Labour voters surely felt that they had no choice but to support what they saw in New Labour as the lesser of two evils. For those outside the circles of left-wing political activism, there really seemed to be little hope of anything better in a world where mainstream dialogue (driven by the narratives of Parliament and the media) proclaimed that history had officially ended.
In spite of a growing apathy with the UK’s political system, however, the country under New Labour was a developed ex-colonial capitalist state in which most people could live fairly comfortably (as long as they did not think about the immense suffering caused by the government’s wars overseas, about where their cheap consumer goods were coming from, or about how much the dominant economic system was destroying the environment). In other words, most citizens felt they had little reason to kick up a fuss about the sorry lack of political options they had. The future was dull and unexciting, but it was better than the perceived alternative under the Tories.
The Big Weakness of the ‘Third Way’
After the capitalist crisis of 2007-8, the Conservative Party argued that the national debt had grown so much because New Labour had “taxed and spent profligately”. This assertion, however, was “factually incorrect”, according to Treasury data. In reality, until the crisis, New Labour had actually “spent less as a proportion of GDP than Thatcher did”. At the same time, it had also taxed citizens “at a much lower rate than Thatcher did”.
Unfortunately for New Labour, though, the global financial crash came at a point when there was still a public deficit. Now that in itself was not such a big problem, but Gordon Brown’s reluctance to lose his support base among ‘higher earners’ saw him choose not to increase taxation in order to bail out the banks. Nonetheless, he saw the latter as a necessity (as did the neoliberal political elites of the USA and Europe). Therefore, he provided £123.93 billion (which the government did not have) “in the form of loans or share purchases”, along with a further £332.40 billion “in the form of guarantees”.
In other words, Brown borrowed money not to protect British citizens but to prop up the capitalist structures which had caused the crisis in the first place. And, in doing so, he “over-reached himself”, allowing the crash to wipe out “huge tax revenues” with immense speed whilst giving the Conservatives (which would almost certainly have bailed out the banks in the same way) “a pretext to reverse the massive gains made to expand the welfare state” under New Labour (which were the party’s only relatively positive legacy).
Overall, New Labour’s “loose regulation of financial markets” and subsequent bailouts (fundamentally pro-capitalist measures) ended up trumping its interest in consolidating its role as a provider of welfare for British citizens. With confusing financial figures floating around in the run-up to the 2010 elections, New Labour’s token social achievements would not be enough to convince voters that it could be trusted to steer Britain towards economic recovery. The party had followed the dominant capitalist prescription in the same way that any other mainstream party in the West would have (including the Conservatives), but the media and its favoured future government (led by the Tories and propped up by the Lib Dems) managed to convince British voters that New Labour had strayed away from capitalist orthodoxy and could not be trusted with the country’s economic recovery. As a result, the neoliberal ideologues of the Conservative Party would manage to convince a significant number of citizens that its continuation of the economic status quo was somehow the way forward. Distracted by mystifying fiscal falsehoods, then, the new regime would leave the putrid economic system (which had been the downfall of New Labour) completely intact, while reducing funding for public services (and demonising the most vulnerable people in society) in an attempt to gain support for the destruction (through privatisation) of the few good things the previous government had done.
In short, it was New Labour’s faith in and commitment to the dominant economic system (along with its spineless pandering to some of the ‘wealthiest’ people in society) that was its truly fatal error – not public spending. Even worse, though, was that it did not recognise this mistake, and thus failed to combat effectively the misleading claims spraying out of Conservative mouths. Instead, it found itself justifying its belief in the capitalist system whilst struggling to justify the meagre public spending which had actually done some good since 1997.
A Blairite Leadership Race?
After Ed Miliband’s failure to offer anything approaching a convincing argument for returning New Labour to power in the 2015 general elections, leadership polls would initially offer party members more of the same from a right-of-centre “Blairite agenda”. Liz Kendall, for example, would claim that the promised restoral of the 50% top tax rate had been a “major problem”, while Yvette Cooper would declare that “Labour should support further cuts in corporation tax”. As The Guardian’s Seumas Milne asserts, New Labour seemed oblivious to the fact that it had failed to win the election because it was simply “on the wrong side of public opinion and outrage at rising inequality”.
Cooper, for example, said that New Labour rhetoric should not “be set against the wealth creators” (an “insidious and divisive” term which right-wingers use to suggest that “the total wealth generated by any business” is made by “those in a position to make hiring decisions”, rather than “all of the capital, both financial and human, that has been invested in it”). Setting herself firmly against public opinion, for whom the “mansion tax, 50% top tax rate and privatised energy price freeze were among Labour’s most popular policies” (while “large majorities” also consistently make it clear that they want the government to be “tougher on big business” and to end o austerity), Cooper was effectively saying that corporations were more important than their employees. And this rhetoric, ignoring the hard labour of workers (along with that of the “midwives who bring [them] into the world”, the teachers who educate them, the “construction workers providing the infrastructure” around them, the health workers keeping them fit for work, and the security personnel who “create a secure environment”, to name just a few), had unfortunately become the norm for New Labour.
In fact, argues Milne, “the Thatcherites and neocons” (backed by less than a quarter of eligible voters) had been “let off the leash” in the 2015 elections thanks to New Labour’s weak opposition. Giving “credibility to Conservative claims about the economy by signing up to austerity-lite”, he says, the party establishment had shown “a time-warped failure to grasp the impact of the economic crisis, and their own legacy”. In short, their hopes that a continuation of the New Labour project would prevent votes from going to the SNP, the Green Party, and even the right-wing populists of UKIP were “clearly delusional”. Failing to take an anti-austerity left-wing position because of this wishful thinking, they had chosen to argue for just a slightly softer version of what the Conservatives were already offering – a tactic which caused it to continue suffering from the “cataclysmic decline among working class voters” it had begun to see under Tony Blair.
In summary, says Amit Singh at The Independent, New Labour’s “progressive credentials” were simply “a joke” in the 2015 general elections. Miliband’s support for the renewal of Trident and “0% voting record on the issue of ‘Iraq Investigation – Necessary’”, for example, ensured that anti-war left-wing voters would not be won over. And overall, asserts Singh, the party was clearly “pro-business, pro-austerity, pro-war and definitely not pro-ordinary people” (albeit “slightly less regressive than the Tories”). In other words, it had essentially the same ideology as the Blair and Brown governments (which, as seen earlier in this post, were just right-wing regimes with a few progressive sprinkles on top).
Corbyn’s Challenge to the New Labour Establishment
What the Labour Party would really need, then, in order to truly reconnect with the Left and the working class, would be a politician who could represent them in a meaningful way – someone who had not been tarnished by the party’s considerably negative record in power under Blair and Brown and its continuation with the ‘New Labour’ experiment. And, with 184 Labour MPs (including three leadership candidates) being whipped into abstaining over the Conservatives’ ‘Welfare Reform and Work Bill’, the pool left behind was pretty small. The small grouping of Labour rebels, however, was accompanied by one leadership candidate – North London MP Jeremy Corbyn.
Having “rebelled more than 500 times since becoming an MP in 1983”, Corbyn was clearly a politician prepared to vote according to his principles rather than the official party line. Supported by 47 other Labour rebels (along with the SNP and members of smaller opposition parties), Corbyn made it very clear that, in his opinion, the party did not (and should not) “have to be on the centre ground to clinch victory” in the 2020 elections. And his voting record in Parliament shows that this assertion was not just rhetoric. The leadership candidate had, for example, voted “against the Iraq war, ID cards and increasing tuition fees”, and had criticised Ed Miliband before the 2015 elections “for promising too much austerity” (emphasising that “there should be more nationalisation and a £10 minimum wage”). Furthermore, he was “one of eight [anti-apartheid] politicians arrested for breaking a protest ban outside London’s South African embassy in 1984”, has “spoken out against nuclear weapons, opposes renewing Trident and is a vice-chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament”. He is also “a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign” and “chairman of the Stop the War Coalition”.
Because of his impressive anti-war credentials and progressive social and economic views, Corbyn would soon have the “mainstream” (read neoliberal) Labour First pressure group asking “supporters of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall to help each other to ensure leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn [would not] win” the leadership elections. With the progressive London MP setting out “a £10bn plan to scrap all tuition fees and restore student maintenance grants” (to be “funded either by a 7% rise in national insurance for those earning over £50,000 a year and a 2.5% higher corporation tax, or by slowing the pace at which the deficit is reduced”), however, it would be difficult for even the most powerful of pressure groups to take away his popularity among younger Labour members.
In addition to strong grassroots support, Corbyn also gained the support of Britain’s biggest union Unite (“the party’s most generous donor”) fairly early on in his campaign, along with the backing of the RMT, Aslef, the Fire Brigades Union, and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).
Soon, the popularity of Corbyn (for whom the leadership election was primarily about “whether we accept another five years of a race to the bottom based on cuts that destroy services and damage living standards, or whether we invest our way to growth and fairness”) began to look unstoppable, with polls suggesting he would “sweep to power” in September. YouGov, for example, found that Corbyn was “the first preference for 43% of party supporters – way ahead of bookies’ favourite Andy Burnham on 26%”.
For Tony Blair, the possibility of a Corbyn victory merited weighing in on the issue. Perceiving that New Labour’s losses in 2010 and 2015 had somehow been the result of a ‘deviation’ from the party’s neoliberal agenda, the former party leader showed a complete lack of understanding of why his ‘Third Way’ had actually failed. In fact, his comments probably did more to boost Corbyn’s support base than it did to damage it.
What Does Corbyn’s Candidacy Mean for the British Left?
Of the Labour leadership candidates, Jeremy Corbyn appears to be miles ahead of the others in terms of proposing real alternatives (without getting rid of capitalism) to the status quo both in the party and in Parliament. For example, he has affirmed that, in government, he would “not cut the deficit on the backs of the poor” but would instead make society’s wealthiest pay “a little more” in taxation, while clamping down on corporate tax avoidance and using “up to £93bn of corporate tax reliefs to create a national investment bank”.
So while Blair has arrogantly argued that “those who believed their hearts were with Corbyn should “get a transplant””, we should remember where the former prime minister’s heart lies (his “personal fortune worth many tens of millions”, accumulated by advising “controversial businesses and regimes”, should make that very clear to us). The man whose “private jet is worth £30million” is not exactly the type of person we should trust to determine how progressive the Labour Party should be or not be.
Showing how insignificant Blair now is to many voters on the Left, Corbyn has not allowed the bloodied millionaire’s comments to distract him for too long, and has made it very clear that austerity (favoured by his leadership competitors) is “about political choices, not economic necessities”. In particular, he has offered real opposition to the anti-democratic Conservative regime currently in power, asking “what responsible government committed to closing the deficit” would commit to inheritance tax changes for the richest 4% of households when such a decision will “lose the government over £2.5bn in revenue between now and 2020”?
Keeping our feet on the ground, we can see that Corbyn is not exactly calling for an end to the corrupt and destructive capitalist system, but what he is clearly putting forward are sensible ideas which can bring even citizens in the political centre into a broad coalition of progressive forces. “Six out of ten people”, for example, “want to see rent controls on landlords”, while “two thirds of Brits want to see an international convention on banning nuclear weapons”. There is also “a public appetite for a 75% top rate of tax on incomes over £1m”, and “renationalising the railways has cross-party support – even from Tory voters”. Meanwhile, the Independent reveals, the public supports a cut in tuition fees, believes in a “mandatory living wage” (what George Osborne has proposed is “not actually a living wage”, according to the Living Wage Foundation), and has no real interest in going to war (siding with Corbyn on both the Iraq and Syria debates). In short, many of Corbyn’s ideas actually represent how the majority of the country feels.
Therefore, if we are to make the little democracy we have in the United Kingdom more meaningful, we should emphasise very clearly that, without Corbyn as its leader, the British Left will almost certainly continue directing its efforts into smaller, less powerful political groupings which (because of the anti-democratic electoral system we have) are unlikely to bring about electoral reform. With Corbyn as Labour leader, however, the mainstream opposition to austerity will be made a lot stronger, and the country can once again begin to have a real discussion about what genuine alternatives there are for our future. Yes, it will probably cause a rift between Labour’s left and right wings if he wins, with “Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna all saying that they would not serve in a shadow cabinet led by [Corbyn]”, but these figures would probably feel more comfortable in the Conservative Party anyway.
The fact is, says Corbyn, that “there’s a whole generation out there that does not accept the orthodox economics of austerity and are looking for something different”. I for one think that this statement captures very well the mood on the British Left today, which will clearly not find anything approaching a representative voice in the upper echelons of the neoliberal New Labour machine. Therefore, a Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership contest is the only positive outcome, and would be a result that could well turn dreams of a unified Left into reality. So whether you join the party to vote for him, show your critical support from the side-lines, or just wish him the best while you organise your own community, don’t lose hope of a broad, progressive movement of the Left just quite yet.
 “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
 http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/dec/05/oecd-ineqaulity-report-uk-us and http://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/maps_and_graphs/2011/12/5/1323092463106/UK-income-inequality-grap-001.jpg?w=620&q=85&auto=format&sharp=10&s=4cd78799aa30d457078bd3d5843dbcb0