Booze for the terraces, pink vehicles for the ladies, tough love for the scroungers, pride for the white vans, nurses to attend ailing Scots by the thousand. All is catered for within the sweepingly incoherent stance that Labour has adopted in advance of the general election.
Marx’s famous observation, that history happens, as it were, twice (first as tragedy, then as farce) is one that the party would do well to remember. Because, if this is a re-run for Labour, the precedent suggests a longer term decline.
The last time Labour attempted to regain power from the Tories after a single term, it was led by an eccentric leftist intellectual, Michael Foot. Miliband may have the intellect and the eccentricity, but as his policy-lite posturing has demonstrated, the party remains terrified of a coherent ideological challenge to right wing Tory policy.
This re-run of tragedy for Labour will be rendered farcical by the overwhelmingly weak content of its campaign. The party’s 1983 manifesto, notoriously dubbed the ‘longest suicide note in history’, may have been an attempt by the right of the party to clear out left wing policies such as nuclear disarmament, knowing that the election would be lost anyway. It did however present Labour as a distinct ideological alternative to Thatcherism on a number of issues. In 2015, there are no radical policies in Labour’s bid for power. The acute trauma of electoral politics in the 1980s has, in large part, meant that politics in Britain has scarcely progressed since.
In response, Labour has become trapped by its attachment to a studied silence on major economic issues. Indirectly, this results in an ongoing expression of various forms of identity politics, the roots of which lie in the emergence of a new-left that came to emphasise minority rights and social-cultural emancipation. Though this turn was a welcome and radical development against the forces of conservatism a quarter of a century ago, today it has left a residual husk. A nominal ‘left’ in UK politics tacitly accepts an enormously unjust economic order and denies any legitimate expression of class as a foundation for politics.
Of course, the siloing of the social and the economic is an ultimately false division. The history of Scotland, the north of England and Wales in the past quarter century is an object lesson in this. Labour have done nothing, post-Blair, to recognise the shape of these problems in the heartlands. The drastic and necessary recalibrating of an economy from one based on a precarious service sector and casino finance into a productive one would take the kind of political will that the Labour party has not displayed collectively for well over a generation.
The offer of change from all three ‘mainstream’ parties has long been skin-deep. All are entirely unprepared to acknowledge that a Britain that wants to make things cannot continue to harbour an unbridled City. Where previous governments propped up declining heavy industry, the last Labour government underwrote the losses of the financial sector. A profoundly anti-social industry was saved by public money and we’ll be paying for it for a long time.
Miliband does not understand that such outcomes have turned politics upside down. Probably because no party mandarin is willing to tell him. Instead, lost in a generation of career politicians, Labour offers an incrementally less brutal regime of austerity. Many, both within and without the party look on at a nominally ‘democratic socialist’ organisation unable to reform Britain because it is too traumatised by Blair’s prolonged deracination to reform itself. It remains, essentially, New Labour, the party that wanted people to get filthy rich, systematically used public money to underwrite the losses and low pay of private enterprise and stigmatised poverty. Its crassness in government must not be forgotten. The economic problem, at the turn of the century, was solved. Such complacency would see inequality under Labour reach new and obscene levels, a corrosive element last present in the 1920s. Foreign wars would alienate ethnic minorities far more effectively than Tory racism had ever managed.
Miliband’s leadership is the logical, farcical arrival at a destination to which Labour has long been headed. Ed’s tenure has become like a long and drawn out extension of Brown’s Gillian Duffy episode. It is puerile dispatch box sparring and a withering fear of being cast as anti-business. It’s also an obsession with politics as cosmetic gesture: a relentless effort to either patronise or cosy up to whatever group of swing voters a six figure salary strategists has selected. In the meantime Britain is being broken, not by immigrants, not by benefit cheats, but by its own parasitic elites. Almost every institution in Britain: parliament, the press, the financial sector, the monarchy, has displayed profundity anti-social tendencies. Such behaviour within the highly centralised, moneyed, world of power and privilege is hardly surprising in itself. What is remarkable, is that no mainstream party is proposing the kind of wide ranging, systematic reform that scandal after scandal points to.
Herein lies the depths of the Labour malaise. It must be more Scottish than the SNP, more disparaging of Blair’s immigration policies than UKIP, more safe than the Lib-Dems, more radical than the Greens and more nasty than the Tories. It faces distinct threats everywhere. But nowhere is it prepared to stand and fight. The party long ago accepted that to win in Britain, it would have to do battle on terms that were destined to alienate its core voters and values. This problem is not new. Despite all that the gods gave New Labour in 1997: an unprecedented mandate, money, goodwill, activists and youth, it failed to play the long game that Thatcher’s party quickly grasped. The 1980s was revolutionary for Britain, a class war waged from above, if you like. The only response that can make working people central once again to British society must be, in turn, as ideological and radical in its intent as Thatcherism once was.
The actual nature of what the British left needs is a massive effort to change course. The change has to be a full-scale inversion of Thatcherism: a programme fixed on socialising profit and making the private sector stand on its own two feet. The impetus for such a change is of course the 2008 financial crash. If it was militant labour that propelled the right to victory in the final decades of the 20th century, surely, the recent actions of capital, of markets and banks, is an adequate equivalent for the left to fight back. That such changes represent far too great a leap for the dominant force on the British left, makes the prospect of progressive change increasingly elusive. Labour’s analysis of what is needed for its own victory is premised on leaving austerity unchallenged and the self-evidently insane notion that regulation of Britain’s tax haven economy is not a pressing political concern. Miliband must first go on his knees to the city if he wants to rule the UK: so rotten is the state of the nation.
Who you subsidise says a lot about who you seek to represent. No system anywhere can placate both the needs of predatory financial capital and ordinary working people. Today, Labour remains on the same side as the banks. There are many people within the Labour party who must feel sick at this reality. But they must never again think that the mere possession of power will make a better party more attainable. Indeed, the opposite has been the case. In the meantime Britain desperately needs a change of course with or without the Labour party at its helm.