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Comment

The stakes are too high

We thought Tony Blair would renew social democracy. We were wrong

Neal Lawson and Paul Thompson
Monday August 9, 2004
The Guardian


The prospects for a modern social democracy look bleak. Downing Street and its outriders are setting out an agenda for a third term - individualised consumer choice in health and education - which is hard to distinguish from Tory policy and for which there is little enthusiasm among public or party. Given the volatility of contemporary politics, it is by no means impossible that Labour will lose in a reverse landslide. But the most likely outcome is that we will stumble across the line first, and, as with the Tories after 1992, the electorate may soon resent us and our fall in the next crisis could be sweeping. Unlike the Thatcherites, we won't have transformed the political, economic and social landscape - despite the benefit of huge majorities, a pathetically weak opposition and a strong economy.

The European results are another indication that the party hierarchy does not realise what a hole it is in. They demonstrated the dealignment of political loyalties that has been accelerating under New Labour. We know of many members (not diehard leftists) who did not vote or voted for the Greens or other parties. The government is puzzled, citing the strength of the "economic fundamentals", low unemployment and record investment in public services.

In its script, disaffection is framed in the traditional narrative of mid-term blues. If it really believes this, it is making a big mistake. The dominant feeling in the electorate is not so much that there are no differences between the parties, but rather that two terms of office with huge majorities haven't made a difference and parties don't behave any differently in power. On the crest of a political wave unrivalled since 1945, New Labour has been unable or unwilling to change the political weather. Worse, our democracy has been eroded, there is no new politics and trust in politicians is at an all-time low.

New Labour has burnt so much political capital, but for what end? Most of the progressive policies, such as devolution and minimum wage, are first term and can be considered as much old Labour as New. It looks as if the second term will be remembered for Iraq. None of the rationales for the war stands up: there are no weapons of mass destruction; and the country, the region and the world are not safer places. Tragically, Tony Blair still appears to believe that if he can only explain it one more time, we will get it. But we get the message - we just don't accept it. Iraq is Blair's poll tax, a fundamental breach of trust, demonstration of arrogance and strategic blunder for which the party as a whole is paying the price.

New Labour's timidity has always been framed by certain assumptions: that Britain is a conservative country and elections can only be won from the centre ground; that the forces of global capitalism are ideologically and practically given; that markets and choice enable us to compete efficiently in the global economy, and must flourish in public and private sectors; and that the role of the modern state is to equip workers to thrive on the opportunities of globalisation. The Conservatives, who see no active role for the state, are thus an obstacle to Britain's ability to compete in the global economy and must be kept out of office at all cost.

The strategy defines Tony Blair as the best leader in Labour's history for marginalising the opposition. But the cost to social democrats is debilitating. Sure we have power, but are denied the means to do anything purposeful with it. This is the Blair Catch 22. We are saddled with a historically low level of taxation to spend on public services and to redistribute, we are privatising the public services, if more humanely than the Tories, and we are denying the possibility of a social democratic Europe, the only talk being about where we draw our "red lines" and sustaining a world order defined by Bush.

We have supported Blair's leadership. We were never uncritical Blairites, but we did think that Blair would open up spaces to renew social democracy. We were wrong. That promise of a new politics has receded and it is obvious there is no point waiting for a better Blair.

The stakes are simply too high to accept that there is no alternative for Labour supporters. What is at stake is not just the radical intent of a third term, and therefore victory at a fourth election, but the viability of the party. Recent events echo the collapse of the Tories: first you lose your members, then your councillor base; and finally after an epiphany (such as Black Wednesday) the fall among the wider public is frighteningly fast. Frustrated by years of neglect, clearer threats of disengagement are being made from within the unions. When sensible left-of-centre figures such as Kevin Curran of the GMB prophesy a break, we have to take notice.

The party and its supporters must ask themselves: Is this as good as it gets? The leadership's answer is "Yes - what is not on offer is the Labour government of your dreams". But it's not a dream we want: just a better Labour government.

The future may or not be bright, but will it be Brown? The social democratic successes of this government belong primarily to Gordon. If he becomes leader, then the party will be more at ease with itself, the pace of redistribution could increase and the public sector will be safer from privatisation. But questions remain. Much of the caution, particularly over Europe, is down to him. There have been few signs that Brown will embrace a new politics. If he simply takes us on a path of more coherent Blairism, then the motive for change is greatly diminished. But Gordon does have the potential to be more radical. Britain is not necessarily a conservative country - rather its people, like those of every country, have the potential to be either conservative or radical, progressive or regressive. What matters is the political leadership and the ambition to shift the centre of gravity to the left.

Labour needs a new direction, not just a new leader. Social democracy and capitalism cannot be triangulated - more of one means less of the other. The job of social democratic governments is to draw and redraw the lines between democracy and the market, the individual and the collective, the public and the private. If we give in to the principle of market supremacy then we won't know where or how to draw those lines. Worse still, we end up not knowing that lines have to be drawn at all.

Social democracy cannot take root in the shadow cast by neo-liberalism. Ultimately we have to define our own agenda for a realisable radical transfor mation. If others offer an alternative leadership, then we want to hear their ideas. If the party is to survive, it must relearn the habits of critical debate.

Behind the scenes, the next manifesto is being posed by Downing Street as consolidators (read Brownites) v radical reformers (read Blairites). The battleground is choice, but the initial one is to be made by the party and movement. Are we prepared to risk defeat with the bogus radicalism and burned-out legitimacy of the New Labour project, or can we remarshall our forces around a genuine social democratic programme?

Neal Lawson and Paul Thompson are editors of the Labour journal Renewal; this is an extract from the next editorial and was written with the collaboration of fellow editor Sue Goss

neal@renewal.org.uk