The Labour Party came to power in 1997 with high hopes riding on it.
They were all disappointed.
Twelve years of Labour government has brought us war, privatisation and a continuation of Tory polices.
Labour: A Party of War
The war in Iraq was only the most shocking action of the Blair government. It didn’t just tail the Bush administration’s war mongering, it was in the vanguard.
The result was hundreds of thousands of deaths and the destruction of a nation.
This followed on from participation in wars in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia before that.
The war against Yugoslavia has been all but forgotten now, but the folly of the war in Afghanistan has grown to become one of the more intractable problems of the last days of Brown’s premiership.
The foreign wars fought by New Labour should have come as surprise. They were no aberration. The party has fundamentally moved to the right.
At home it has carried on the privatising policies of the Tories. It has even carried privatisation into the very heart of the welfare state. Large parts of the NHS, local government and other public services have now been effectively privatised.
The result is that ever more public money is turned into profit for big business and the wages and conditions of workers are eroded.
Labour: A Party of Inequality
Inequality has grown under Labour. Our rulers have acquired wealth beyond their wildest dreams and the country has become a magnet for the super-rich from around the world.
Yet life has become more difficult for most people. Few households can survive without two working adults. Buying a home and establishing a household in the first place has become a near impossibility for a whole generation. The “property owning democracy” turned into a casino where homes were bought and sold for profit rather than need.
All this was disguised by a flood of cheap goods and cheap credit from East Asia. But the bubble burst and we have been left with a massive hang over from the riches’ partying.
Everywhere you look, behind every aspect of Labour’s policies you find the same beliefs, an abject belief in the power of the market.
But while on one front the state has been “rolled back” on others it has been pushed forward.
There has been a continuous erosion of civil liberties. From ASBOs to anti terrorist laws to ID cards and DNA databases the state has grown more interventionist and authoritarian.
The victims of the system have increasingly stigmatised and criminalised. Those that contest this have found that the right to protest has been steadily whittled away.
Those bodies that are meant to protect ordinary working people, the trade unions, have mostly been reduced to a state of impotence.
Labour has done nothing to get rid of the Tory anti union laws, and have used them itself against strikes. Union leaders, afraid of rocking the boat, have collaborated with the government to stop effective industrial action.
That is not to say that the government has not done anything progressive. But what it has done has just been sticking-plasters, a sop to its traditional supporters, whilst all the time steadily shifting the balance of power away form ordinary people and towards big business.
No Turning Back
The reaction to the banking crisis and the recession tells you everything you need to know about where Labour has ended up.
Billions was put into the banking system to prop it up. Banks were “nationalised” but no public control was taken over them. The bankers have continued to make millions and live in luxury whilst the banks are fattened up to sell back to the people who wrecked them in the first place. State owned Northern Rock has been repossessing homes at a higher rate than any other British lender.
In the meantime millions have lost the their jobs and into a benefits system that has s become meaner and more coercive than it ever was under the Tories.
Some have fooled themselves that Brown is making a turn back to Social Democratic values, that he has rediscovered the lost virtues of Keynesianism. This was just what was said would happen when he succeeded Blair; misplaced hopes quickly shattered.
Yet the nationalised banks are run just as before; the stimulus package at 1% of GDP was just about the smallest in the developed world; the money “printed” was shovelled into banks who used it to recapitalise themselves rather than passing it on to consumers and a desperate hunt has gone on in the state’s attic to find any leftovers that can be flogged for cash. It’s been business as usual for neo-liberalism.
And if Labour wins the general elections, they plan a massive round of public spending cuts the like of which have not been seen for thirty years, just as the Tories do. Faced with a choice of raising taxes for the rich and big business and slashing services, Labour has chosen the latter.
The People’s Party No More?
The Labour Party likes to think of itself as “The People’s Party”, established by the trade unions to represent the working class.
But as we have seen the party has spent most of the last twelve years undermining the gains made by the working people over the last century.
Labour has attacked the working class before in times of crisis, but never before have its claims to be a working class party seemed so threadbare.
Its electoral base has become steadily eroded as millions of working class people either vote for other parties of stay at home.
Its organisational base in working class communities is disintegrating as local parties have become moribund. Most activists have either left or been driven out. In many areas the party has effectively ceased to exist.
There are practically no democratic structures left. All decisions are made at the top of the party. The annual conference has been turned into an American style rally, a showcase for television.
The trade unions that created the party have no influence. The party leaders prefer to hob knob with big business. Yet the unions still provide most of the party’s money, money for which they get nothing in return.
A Party of Neo-Liberalism
Politically the party has now completely surrendered to neo-liberalism. It has always been committed to running the system rather than overthrowing it. But at least there was the idea that capitalism is an unfair system. It believed that the state should be used to even things up and give workers some of the wealth of society.
Its record in practise has been mixed, to say the least. That is not something that can be said anymore.
In the 1970s capitalism went into crisis. The reaction by the ruling class was to abandon the post-war consensus on the welfare state. The free market was to be let rip and the role of the state became to ensure that nothing got in the way of making profit. If the working class gained anything then it would be because wealth would “trickle down” from the rich.
These policies were pioneered by Thatcher’s government here, hence the label of Thatcherism. But the example was been copied throughout the western world, and it acquired a new name, neo-liberalism.
It was this philosophy that New Labour took to its heart.
Labour effectively abandoned any idea that there was an alternative way to run society. It abandoned the idea that there is an alternative to neo-liberalism. It has become just one of three main parties advocating neo-liberalism.
It is rapidly moving away from the idea that it might be a party of the working class. It has done much to cut away at its roots in the working class.
Has the party become a full-blown party of the ruling class, or does it still retain some vestiges of socials democracy? This is debateable. But we are steadily moving towards the position where we were in a hundred years ago when politics was dominated by two bosses’ parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. Blair himself has publicly regretted the split with the Liberals.
The economic crisis has proved beyond doubt that the neo-liberal way is not the best to run society. The countries that went furthest down that road, Britain and the US, are the western economies that have suffered most in the slump.
It has also proved beyond any reasonable doubt that class is still the most important division in society.
We have not all become middle class. Millions who thought this have been disabused of this illusion as they lose their jobs and see the younger generation growing up poorer than their parents.
Yet just at the moment when the working class needs a party to defend it, and speak for it, it finds itself voiceless.
There is no major force on the left to express the things that millions still believe, that wealth and power is unequally distributed, and that the market is not the best way of organising society.
They have no one to speak for them. They are isolated from each other with no place where they can come together.
The vacuum left as working class people give up on Labour, disillusioned by years of betrayal has opened the door to the fascists of the BNP. The dying days of Labour has seen them make a bigger breakthrough than they have ever previously managed in this country.
A Difficult Hill to Climb
More and more people, especially in the unions, are coming around to the idea that Labour is a dead end, that it cannot be “reclaimed”.
Yet progress towards a new party has been fitful. There have been a number of false starts.
The electoral system in Britain is one of the most difficult to break into. This has been a big disadvantage.
But there are other deeper reasons.
The Labour Party has had an almost total monopoly on the political representation of the working class since the 1920s. Breaking workers from it was never going to easy.
The working class has had its belief in itself, and the idea of an independent working class politics eroded by the decade of defeat in the eighties and the capitalist truimphalsim of the 90s. Politics and public debate ahs become completely stifled by the almost complete consensus for neo-liberalism. There has little space for other ideas.
The expectation that a chunk of the Labour Party would break off has not been played out. This is reflection of the advanced state of decay of the Labour Party and the political retreat of socialism in this country.
And there have been mistakes. The left outside of the Labour party is relatively small and divided, a consequence of Labour’s long domination of the working class. Building a new mass workers’ party in a period when there is little industrial action is a rather different project to than one the left has been undertaking since the Sixties. Mistakes were bound to be made.
Some of those mistakes have now hopefully been learnt form.
What Kind of Party?
The complete collapse of the Labour party in the face of the recession, its failure to turn away from the neo-liberal policies of the last twelve years, and the growing threat form the forces of fascism, has given new urgency to the project of a new party.
A new party needs to be built that brings together all those who believe that the most important division in society is class and that the workers needs a party that is politically independent from the parties of neo-liberalism.
It needs a party that stands on the ideas of socialism, the only creed that explains why workers have different and opposite interests to the ruling class. It is also the philosophy that teaches that the electoral field is just one front in the battle, that it is in every struggle that ruling class ideas need to be fought and their control of society challenged.
The party would ideally be united, having a single membership and open and democratic structures, and in which all are free to advocate their ideas. The working class movement has always had within it more than one conception of socialism and how to get there. But this should not be bar to working together. The relative merits of the different approaches should be tested out in practise and debated together in the common political endeavour of building a mass party. It should be a discussion that takes place involving whole new layers of the working class. This process of clarification will then be rooted in the real experiences of the class rather than being as an academic debate between abstract philosophies.
Starting From Where We Are
Such a party cannot just be declared. It will not just brought into existence by an act of will of the left.
It will come about though as a result of conscious decisions. History teaches us that if there is a need it doesn’t mean it will necessarily be satisfied. We could end up in a situation like the US where there is no working class party. This could be a consequence of the cost of too many mistakes. This stands as an urgent warning to us.
But we can, and must, take steps now towards building a new party.
In the forthcoming general election there will be huge numbers of people who will not be able to take themselves to the polls to vote for Labour.
There will be many more who do so with gritted teeth as a vote for the lesser evil.
The left has to offer these people an alternative.
Whoever is in office after the election the working class will face massive attacks. This could also be in the context of a crushing defeat for Labour and the confusion and demoralisation that will follow in its wake.
If the left does not raise its flag in the election bringing together all those who want to fight then doing so after the election will be that much harder.
The proposed coalition to fight the general election is a start. We can use it to unite the largest number of people who believe in class politics and a different vision of society.
We do not know how successful it will be until the election itself. We do know that if we throw ourselves into building it now we can build a stronger base from which to face the challenges of the future.