ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, July 1998


Megan Trudell

New Labour, Old Conflicts:
The Story So Far


From International Socialism 2:79, July 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


D. Draper
Blair’s Hundred Days
Faber & Faber 1997, £7.99

D. Butler and D. Kavanagh
The British General Election of 1997
Macmillan 1997, £17.50

P. Anderson and N. Mann
Safety First: The Making of New Labour
Granta 1997, £9.99

L. Panitch and C. Leys
The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour
Verso 1997, £15

The weekend after the general election in May 1997 The Observer newspaper was emblazoned with the words ‘The paper for the new era’. For many liberal commentators, as for virtually everyone who voted for Labour in May, the end of 18 years of Tory government seemed to herald a change in priorities from a government whose policies slavishly bowed to market forces to a government with a social conscience which would improve people’s lives. Yet only five months later The Observer’s editor, Will Hutton, wrote that those who think the market should not be left to devastate lives unchecked face ‘the growing realisation ... that we may soon not be able to look to the Labour Party to represent what we believe’. [1] John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, wrote in January 1998, ‘Working people should be looking forward to 1998 as the best year in two decades ... Yet, as I go around the country, what I find is not joyous expectation but a mood of gloomy cynicism’. [2]

This shift in the popular conception of Labour comes too late to be included in the various books on Blair’s project and the general election that were published in the summer of 1997, but they nonetheless provide important insights into the development of Blairism and the potential problems the Labour government might face. The books range from Derek Draper’s uncritical eulogy of the Blair project, through Butler and Kavanagh’s examination of the election campaign, to the much more critical and useful books by Anderson and Mann, and Panitch and Leys. These last two attempt to deal with several fundamental questions: why Labour has shifted to the right; Labour’s relationship with business and with the unions; and the possibility of a left revival should Labour fail to deliver.

To take the least first, Derek Draper has written a glowing account of the first 100 days of the Blair government. His book, offering a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the reality at Millbank, is interesting gossip, but it carries very little in the way of criticism, which is what one would expect from someone who used to be an adviser to Peter Mandelson. This is not to say that the book is entirely without merit. Despite himself he occasionally provides real insights, as when he describes how the size of Labour’s majority sent expectations for change snowballing: ‘We were elected on a cautious programme but the size of the mandate leads people to want bigger and bolder change. They expect that a 179 majority at the end of four years will mean the education system, the NHS, crime and the state of society will have radically improved’. [3] And he argues that welfare ‘reform’ will not go down well: ‘In the short term, sticking plaster and good faith will do the trick; in the long term more money must be found. Or a crisis in the NHS could end up being Labour’s ERM’. [4] If the sheer authoritarianism and cult of the personality that Blair has established is still in question, Draper removes any last doubts. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that Blair responded to questions from the new intake of MPs by replying, ‘It is not your job to tell us what to do,’ but it is confirmation of the tight rein MPs are on. Similarly, the reactionary nature of much of Blairite ideology – as pushed by an assorted team of advisers – is pretty breathtaking, like campaign ‘wonk’ Peter Hyman’s inspired but rejected slogan, ‘Young thugs will be caged’. Draper gives us a fairly unpleasant insight into those who govern us but his book is too full of approval to probe beneath the surface of Blairism.

The other three books are much more satisfying in this respect. Butler and Kavanagh have written the latest book in a series on national elections, tracing the last months of the Major government, the road to New Labour, the election campaign, and providing an analysis of the results. The British General Election of 1997 is by definition concerned with the business of parliament and elections and it therefore provides masses of detail without much reference to the outside world. The analysis is standard psephological fare, but for statistics and opinion polls the book is invaluable.

Both Safety First and The End of Parliamentary Socialism have wider remits. In Safety First Anderson and Mann have written a very good account of the main players in the Labour administration and their road to the cabinet. In doing so they trace the history of the Labour Party from the Second World War in an accessible and informative way. Both authors write for Tribune and their critique of Blairism from the left is refreshing. The book by Panitch and Leys is a more academically written account, concentrating on the project of the ‘new left’ and Bennism. It is concerned primarily with the efforts during the late 1970s and early 1980s to democratise the Labour Party and, as such, often descends into the minutiae of conference resolutions and by-election details. Nonetheless, it is by far the most critical of the Blair project, and – especially read in conjunction with Safety First – provides a coherent account of Labour’s development since the early 1970s and a welcome call for socialist organisation. I have criticisms of both Safety First and The End of Parliamentary Socialism, but it is to their credit that they both attempt to discuss some fundamental questions about the New Labour government. Why did Blair shift to the right to such an extent and what form did that shift take? What is Labour’s relationship with business and the unions? And what possibility is there for left revival should Labour fail to match voters’ expectations?

The ‘modernisation’ of Labour

None of these books disagree on the impact the fourth election defeat in a row had on Labour in 1992. In looking at the modernisation project Anderson and Mann cite Blair, quoted in the aftermath of Kinnock’s defeat, drawing the lesson that Labour must ‘continue and intensify the process of change ... at the level of both ideas and organisation’. [5] They are clear that while Labour undoubtedly became ‘dramatically more pro-business, even keener on flexible labour markets and more resigned than ever before to the powerlessness of the state in the face of market forces ... if political leadership is to be judged in terms of policy rather than tone, Blair must be seen as a beneficiary of his predecessors’ efforts’. [6]

Blair’s ideological position, which he shared with the Labour right throughout the 1980s, was critical of Labour’s dependence on the working class and asserted the need for its policies and structures to be changed to take account of the impact of Thatcherism. Implicit in this is the belief that Thatcher had changed the face of British politics and that voters were more conservative and could only be won to Labour if its policies reflected this shift. [7] Labour’s ‘modernisation’ was an acceptance of the ideas that winning elections depended on appealing to ‘Middle England’, and that policies of renationalisation or ‘tax and spend’ would alienate Labour from the electorate. In other words, as increasing numbers of people were moving away from the Tories and rejecting their policies, Labour was embracing privatisation, low taxation and the free market. As Panitch and Leys point out, ‘The electorally crucial ideas were those of voters who must be won back to Labour, not those of voters who had suffered most under Conservative rule, most of whom would vote Labour in any case’. [8] However, as Butler and Kavanagh’s analysis of the general election shows, Labour is still dependent on the working class to get elected. In ‘working class’ seats in London the Tory vote fell by 16.5 percent, in the rest of the south east by 13.6 percent and elsewhere by 12.1 percent. In ‘middle class’ seats – i.e. those in which at least 19 percent of households include employers or managers – the respective figures were 15 percent, 13.1 percent and 11.4 percent. [9] They conclude, ‘There is little evidence to support the view that voters in predominantly middle class constituencies were more inclined to swing to New Labour than working class voters’. [10]

Nonetheless, Blair’s beliefs held sway in a party desperate for victory and in the run up to the election:

Across the fields of social and economy policy the party shifted towards acceptance of much that the [Major] government was doing. The Welfare to Work scheme aimed to shift the long term young unemployed into work and make receipt of benefits conditional on seeking work or receiving training. The 1992 election promises to upgrade child benefit and pensions, and to link future pension increases to rises in prices or earnings – whichever was higher – were abandoned. [11]

Restructuring the party itself fitted in with this view. Anderson and Mann, in discussing the moves to the greater centralisation of the party, cite the controversial 1995 strategy document from adviser Philip Gould, which called for a new ‘command structure’ involving ‘less but better people, a new culture and a new building’, with the leader as the ‘sole ultimate source of authority’. [12] Hence the move to Millbank, the establishment of the ‘rapid rebuttal unit’, the clique around Blair and the attacks on party democracy outlined in the Labour Into Power document.

The modernisers’ obsession with the media and its power to win or lose elections for Labour is also well illustrated in all three books. New Labour actively cultivated the tabloids and Blair met with News International executives prior to the election, and in the minds of the Blairites such moves bore fruit when The Sun declared for Labour in the election. In the spirit of quid pro quo, Labour dropped both its proposed ban on cross-media ownership and any talk of taking Rupert Murdoch before a Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry. For Blair ‘The Sun really did make a difference’. [13] Yet, as Butler and Kavanagh point out, Labour’s support increased in 1997 among readers of every national newspaper, and they argue convincingly that, ‘even if The Sun’s switch did impinge on its readers to a small extent, this effect was trivial in the overall context of the forces shaping Labour’s election victory ... like the rest of the press, The Sun was following opinion more than creating it’. [14] Labour’s War Book is more honest about the real reasons for Labour’s success than the modernisers are in public: ‘People still believe that the Conservatives do not deserve to be re-elected. Rejection of the Conservatives is so ingrained as to be almost visceral. People believe the country needs change’. [15]

Nonetheless, the overriding message from these accounts is that Blair and the modernisers in New Labour are convinced that the key job of government is to stay in power. Their belief in their own spin, that it was ‘Middle England’ who voted and mattered, and that ‘it was New Labour wot won it’, or as Mandelson rather ludicrously put it, ‘Without New Labour the Conservatives could have won again’ [16], shapes the political choices they make and the intellectual justifications for them. Blair, speaking in 1994 just after his election as party leader, bends theory to fit practice quite breathtakingly: ‘The socialism of Marx, of centralised state control of industry and production, is dead... By contrast, socialism as defined by certain key values and beliefs is not merely alive, it has an historic opportunity now to give leadership ... Once being radical is defined as having a central vision, based around principle but liberated from particular policy prescriptions that have become confused with principle, then being radical is the route to electability’. [17] Or, as one adviser put it rather more directly, ‘In the mass media age, policy is there to win elections’. [18]

New Labour and the economy

For New Labour the policies that win elections appear to be those which continue the Thatcher project, and Blair’s admiration of Thatcher is well documented. According to Draper, the now infamous meeting between the two on 22 May at Downing Street was about more than the impending European summit, ‘spending most time on the issue of welfare reform, particularly for single mothers’. Blair explained the relationship saying that ‘New Labour is not about turning the clock back but about taking forward Thatcher’s record based on New Labour’s distinct principles’. [19] This ‘taking forward’ of Thatcherism underlies much of the Blairite rhetoric. For instance, he is quoted as aiming for the sort of consensus politics that emerged during the 1945–1951 Attlee government: ‘The ways of achieving [a different vision of society] must change. Those should and will cross the old boundaries between left and right, progressive and conservative’. [20]

The difficulty is, as Panitch and Leys put it, ‘“New Labour” lacked at least two crucial assets which the government of 1945 possessed: a coherent project for social reform, distilled by several generations of socialist thinkers ... and endorsed by a large majority of the public as a result of bitter experience; and a world trade and investment regime of the kind laid down at Bretton Woods’. [21] They touch on an important truth: that the British economy is not entering a period of long boom. They suggest that, however much a large majority of the public want real reform, it is difficult to realise without eating into the profits of business. The consensus Blair is looking for is far more likely to be one based on the Thatcherite ethic of the free market than one based on substantial government spending – which doesn’t offer much in the way of a different vision.

New Labour makes no secret of its inclination towards complete deregulation of the market. In January 1997 Brown committed Labour to the Tories’ spending plans for two years and ruled out any increase in the top rate of tax: ‘Our first budget will not reopen overall spending allocations for the 1997–8 financial year ...’ New Labour was to stick to ‘already announced departmental budgets ... reordered to meet Labour’s priorities’. [22] Brown’s acceptance of Tory spending limits and income tax rates in 1997 are an extension of the rejection of the tax and spending commitments in the 1992 election manifesto and exemplify Labour’s categoric abandonment of Keynesian economics.

It is important to understand the context of this ideological shift: The post-war consensus on Keynesianism had crumbled in the mid-1970s with the onset of stagflation (and therefore the theory’s failure to offset rising inflation by lowering unemployment). The early 1970s had seen increased public spending leading to increased growth, but when recession bit – exacerbated by the 1973 oil price rises – and unemployment rose, the same policies led to a rise in inflation. By 1976 the Labour government was forced to apply to the IMF for loans and the 1976 Labour conference saw Callaghan formally accept monetarism. However, the centrality of Keynesianism to Labour’s economics revived after the 1979 election defeat. Labour’s 1983 manifesto adhered to policies of expanded public ownership and a return to government intervention in the economy.

But Labour’s defeat in the 1983 general election meant this strategy was never pursued, and it is probable that it never would have been. In defeat, Labour began the ten year process of ditching any mention of widespread nationalisation and significant increases in public spending to reduce unemployment. The dominance of monetarist theory and policy under the Tories – given added impetus by the collapse of state capitalism in the Eastern bloc and by the idea that globalisation precluded government intervention even if it were desirable – became reflected, by the aftermath of the 1992 defeat, in Labour theory and policy.

Thus Brown stated in 1995 that in line with the ‘golden rule’ of balancing the budget over the economic cycle, ‘Brown’s law is that the government will only borrow to invest, public debt will remain stable and the cost effectiveness of public spending must be proved...nobody should doubt my iron resolve for stability and fiscal prudence’. [23] In other words, government debt will not be allowed to rise in response to short term factors, like unemployment rising or the pound staying strong. The potential impact of ‘Brown’s law’ on the working class is, in the area of social security, a move away from universal provision towards a ‘safety net’ for the very worst off, couched in language that plays to prejudices over fraud and over rising welfare costs while paying lip service to protecting the poor.

Labour justifies cutting social security by arguing that welfare leads to poverty, and that spiralling welfare bills make Britain less competitive. Will Hutton has argued against this view:

Britain has simultaneously one of the highest proportions of people living in poverty and high labour market participation rates. Mr Blair is ill-advised to argue that the explanation of widespread poverty is a high non-working population; this is factually wrong. Nor is social security spending high and out of control. After 18 years of Conservative governments it is low and increasing below the average rate of economic growth. [24]

In fact Britain spends less on social security as a proportion of GDP – a mere 13 percent – than other EU states. And the projected nominal increase in that spending is slightly more than 1 percent a year for the next five years, which represents a cut in real terms. And ‘Britain’s state spending on old-age cash benefits, accounting for nearly half the total social security budget, is towards the bottom for the developed world’. [25] In the area of unemployment legislation the impact of limiting public expenditure to investment in reality means limiting measures to cheap ‘flexible’ labour, training, and minimal rights for workers in place of real job creation.

There is wealth in the economy now. The context within which ‘Brown’s law’ was established was that of a British economy expanding by almost 4 percent a year – higher than the long term average of around 2.25 percent. It seems likely that when the economy does enter recession workers will be asked to pay a higher and higher price for Labour’s cuts in public spending. In spring 1998 the British economy faced a squeeze on exports due to the strength of the pound – likely to be further hit by the shrinking East Asian markets – as well as high interest rates. The economy slowed down in the first 3 months of 1998. The Financial Times reported that the January–March growth was the slowest for a quarter since April–June 1995 at 4 percent; trimming the annual rate to 2.8 percent. [26] The TUC in April 1998 predicted the loss of 200,000 jobs by the end of 1999, and an independent forecast by the Centre for Economics and Business Research said that Britain was heading for a ‘mini-recession’. The centre’s report said that the strength of the pound was ‘having a major impact on competitiveness’ and estimated unemployment would rise by 350,000 by 2000, ‘wiping out any gains from Welfare to Work measures in the budget’. [27]

The question then is, what happens to New Labour’s balancing act of claiming that fairness to all in society is also efficient economically within the constraints of Tory spending limits? As one writer has asked:

What if, in the short run, deflation means a rise in unemployment? What if objectives conflict ... in the real world, when the crunch comes, as it so often does soon after a Labour government takes office, it will, like its forbears, have to confront the problem of how best to deploy scarce resources among competing ends ... In such circumstances and with no clearly articulated priorities and with the crucial levers of power in the hands of others, the danger is that it will move along the line of least resistance, the deflationary line which provokes least resistance from the City, the IMF, the US Federal Reserve and the US Treasury. [28]

New Labour, business and the unions

Tony Blair told The Guardian in 1991, ‘You can measure how well you’re doing by the number of invitations you get to address businessmen’. [29] And in the 1997 election campaign Labour’s first broadcast claimed it was a ‘party business can do business with’. The signals suggested that if there was a clash between the interests of the business community and provision for ordinary people, every effort would be made to appease the former. As Andrew Rawnsley put it in The Observer in November 1997, the ‘government will not do anything to be popular. Rather, it will do anything to avoid being unpopular with the well-connected, the well-organised and the well-heeled’. [30]

Anderson and Mann describe the launch of the Commission on Public Policy and British Business in 1997, an initiative set up ‘to investigate the competitive position of the British economy and the role that public policy should play in it’. The commission’s report ‘backed a host of New Labour policies: a (low) minimum wage, tougher competition policy, improvements in education and training ... tax incentives for long-term investment and strict adherence to a tight fiscal and monetary regime ... it gave wholehearted endorsement to the Tory market liberalisations of the 1980s’. [31] At the launch, Blair’s speech made his position clear:

Today I offer business a new deal for the future. The deal is this: we leave intact the main changes of the 1980s in industrial relations and enterprise ... Our proposals for change, including the minimum wage, would amount to less labour market regulation than in the USA. Our aim is not to create inflexible labour markets ... In the USA it would never occur to question the commitment of the Democrats to business. It should be the same here with New Labour. [32]

Hand in hand with Blair’s wooing of business interests went his attempts to distance the Labour Party from its ties to the trade union bureaucracy. His speech to the Commission on Public Policy and British Business dovetailed with his statement during the election campaign that ‘trade unions will have no special or privileged place within the Labour Party’. [33] The reduction of the voice of the union bureaucracy within the party as part of the battle to ‘reform’ Labour was crucial to the modernisers. In 1984 Neil Kinnock first proposed a change in the way parliamentary candidates were selected – to one member one vote, known as OMOV. Panitch and Leys argue that behind Kinnock’s rhetoric about reducing the trade union block vote to ‘increase activism in the party’ lay the real desire for ‘a new source of inactivist (and hence “moderate”) support for the leadership in the shape of a wider membership who could be directly consulted through postal votes’. [34] Eventually passed under John Smith in 1993, OMOV reduced the union block vote at conference and impaired the ability of the unions to get sympathetic candidates selected – which may partly account for today’s lowest ever percentage of Labour MPs with a manual working class background, at 13 percent. [35]

As Panitch and Leys point out, ‘As the unions’ weight in party decision making was progressively reduced, the party’s remaining policy commitments to them were also watered down’. [36] They cite the dilution of legislation on the minimum wage, union recognition and the right of public sector workers to take strike action as examples. The political victory for the modernisers does not at all mean that Labour cannot be influenced by the union leadership – almost all the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are union members – but it removed the stigma of being in thrall to the unions. The campaign to replace Clause Four of Labour’s constitution was similarly symbolic. In the desire to convince business that nationalisation was a thing of the past, despite the majority of the population supporting the return of the privatised utilities to public ownership, the new clause embraced the vision of a ‘dynamic economy, rigour of competition and enterprise of the market’.

In addition, ‘between 1986 and 1996 the union contributions to party funds declined from three-quarters to a half of the total. According to one insider, private business provided some £15 million for the party over a nine month period from June 1996’. [37] Figures from the election itself, however, indicate Labour’s continuing reliance on union money. UNISON alone spent £1,112,000 on pro-Labour advertising, over an eighth of the total Labour advertising expenditure. [38] John Edmonds described the trade union contribution to the election campaign: ‘We set up the general election fund which paid the bills. We funded the bright new Labour Party campaign centre. We paid agents in the key seats so that a sustained campaign was fought over three years and not just three weeks’. [39] A Labour victory mattered a great deal to the trade union leadership. According to Anderson and Mann, Labour’s defeat in 1987 made the unions more ready to compromise with the Labour leadership. The Thatcher years, and its own complacency in the face of Tory attacks, led the trade union bureaucracy to a position of ‘new realism’ – an acceptance that Thatcherism had destroyed much of Britain’s manufacturing base, emasculated the unions and wrought a sea change in working class attitudes.

The relationship between the acceptance of Tory anti-union laws and the electability of Labour after its third defeat is described by Lewis Minkin, who saw ‘virtually complete agreement among TUC officials, and among a growing number of union leaders...that the Conservative government legislation on union industrial action had built upon and consolidated a more or less permanent body of opinion among union members and in the centre ground of the electorate. The Labour Party could no longer be saddled with a blanket commitment to repeal the entire legislation’. [40] However, such desperation to get Labour elected generates high expectations once it is in office. John Edmonds declared his belief in New Labour after the election when he said, ‘Let us trust that, in the years ahead, every time a Labour MP walks through the House of Commons, they remember the help they received from the GMB and so many other trade unions’. [41] It may be difficult for Labour to continue to marginalise the bureaucracy. As Anderson and Mann rightly predicted, ‘There are plenty of problems ahead for the unions’ relations with the Blair government, most obviously public sector pay and the minimum wage, although there is also likely to be friction at some point over Labour’s promised employment rights legislation’. [42]

Statutory union recognition is a manifesto commitment for Labour but the CBI is demanding that small firms are exempt, that at least 40 percent of the workforce must want recognition before a ballot can take place, and that recognition should only be granted if a majority of those eligible to vote is established, rather than a majority of those who actually vote. In addition, they want strikes to attain union recognition – like those on the Jubilee Line extension in 1997 and at Noon’s in early 1998 – outlawed. Several of the key business leaders advising the government are seasoned anti-union employers: Sir Peter Davis who derecognised unions at the publishing house Reed Elsevier; Sir Terence Conran, advising the government on business policy, who derecognised the union at his Design Museum; Lord Hollick who advises Margaret Beckett at the DTI and has not recognised the unions at United Newspapers and of course the notorious and seasoned union buster Rupert Murdoch.

While union leaders like John Edmonds dismiss the idea that Labour will betray the unions as rumour-mongering [43], all the signs point to Labour listening to its business allies above all others. Peter Mandelson has been quoted as saying, ‘Trade union recognition of part of a company should not cut across or devalue other arrangements for employee communication which already exist’. [44] Five weeks before polling day Blair gave an interview to the Daily Mail stating, ‘Even after the changes the Labour Party is proposing in this area [union rights], Britain will remain with the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the Western world’. [45] However, potential resistance from the unions could make the outcome of the union rights issue less restrictive than Blair wants.

Public sector pay is another potential source of conflict between Labour and the unions. The pay review bodies recommended in January 1998 an average pay rise of 3.8 percent – roughly equivalent to the rate of inflation in autumn 1997. However, Gordon Brown’s pre-budget report in November 1997 indicated a target rate of inflation of 2.5 percent, and a matching pay policy. The report stated, ‘The worst form of short-termism would be to pay ourselves more today at the cost of fewer jobs tomorrow and lower living standards in the very near future’. [46] The Treasury response to the review bodies was therefore to accept the awards but to phase them in, restricting the awards for the first eight months of the financial year to 2 percent. Brown is trying to avoid an increase in interest rates triggered by Bank of England fears of inflation rising if the pay bill rises too high:

Average earnings ... are rising at an annual rate of 4.75 percent. However, workers across the economy become more productive each year – their output increases by between 2 and 2.25 percent.

As such, the real increase in the pay bill – after adjustment for the productivity growth factor – is around 2.5 percent – smack in line with the government’s inflation target. But any further increase in earnings – to 5 percent or beyond – and the Bank would be concerned that inflation would rise above its target figures. [47]

However, it is doubtful that public sector pay can be held down indefinitely. As Larry Elliott and Seumas Milne observed in January 1998, ‘Official figures show that in the year to November 1997, average earnings in the public sector rose by about 2.6 percent while in the private sector the figure was around 5 percent. Public sector employees have seen their average earnings fall behind the private sector by 16 percent since 1982, and pay deals have been achieved by shedding 250,000 jobs since the freeze was imposed in 1993’. [48] Rodney Bickerstaffe of UNISON protested, ‘The rich are still getting richer and the poor poorer – and if the economy is in good shape, what better time is there for the government to tackle some of the most deserving cases?’ [49]

Union leaders are likely to come under increasing pressure to defend their members as, in Elliott and Milne’s words:

This ... crisis between public and private fields is now certain to become more difficult to live with as the labour market tightens and inflation is forecast to rise in the months to come. At the same time, the change of government has raised expectations among some four million workers still in the public sector. The speculation in both government and union circles is when, rather than if, the dam will break. [50]

Is there a left alternative to New Labour?

According to the modernisers, the blame for Labour’s continued electoral defeat prior to 1997 lay in part with the attempts to shift the party to the left after Thatcher’s election in 1979. The emergence of the ‘new left’ in the Labour Party was a response to the defeat of the Callaghan government, which had moved sharply to the right in office, introducing the Social Contract, implementing monetarist policies that entailed swingeing public sector cuts, and overseeing a rising unemployment rate.

The Labour left project was primarily concerned with democratising the party’s structures to make the PLP accountable to the party as a whole. It also advanced an economic programme that returned the party to policies of government intervention, and called for withdrawal from the EEC and for unilateral nuclear disarmament. It reached its zenith with the deputy leadership election in 1981 in which Tony Benn narrowly lost to Denis Healey. A full discussion of Bennism is not possible here, but suffice to say that Benn’s support was exaggerated by the left, to the extent that the split from Labour by the ‘Gang of Four’ to form the SDP was viewed by some – including Benn – as a move that would shift the whole Labour party leftwards. In fact, as Panitch and Leys point out, ‘the split in the parliamentary party occasioned by the Social Democrats’ Limehouse Declaration at the end of January 1981 actually had the effect of tilting the balance in the Labour Party further against the new left’. [51]

The 1983 election defeat, in which the SDP-Liberal Alliance polled 25.4 percent of the vote compared to Labour’s 27.6 percent, galvanised the right in the party. Under the ‘dream ticket’ of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, Labour set about rolling back the public ownership promises of the 1983 manifesto and witch hunted the left in the party. The Independent columnist Ian Aitken, in a review of The End of Parliamentary Socialism, speaks the same language as the Labour right when he argues, ‘Tony Benn and his allies ... helped to keep [the Labour Party] out of office for so long that, in desperation, it swung all the way back in the opposite direction. If New Labour has now dumped even the remaining shreds of the Keynesian-style socialism it once espoused, and pretends to be enthusiastic about the global free market, that is the direct result of the Hard Left’s disastrous crusade in the 80s’. [52] Anderson and Mann make concessions to the same argument, for example they write, ‘In terms of party reform, expelling Militant ... removed an anti-democratic virus from the party.’ In fact, it led to the dominance of the right wing inside the party.

The parliamentary left, after the defeat of Bennism, either capitulated completely or became demoralised. As a result, many accept, as Anderson and Mann do, elements of the modernisers’ project: ‘One member one vote internal party elections were a long overdue democratisation as well as a useful symbolic victory for John Smith over the unions and the left’. [53] Panitch and Leys, however, differ. Their premise is that, while the defeat of the left led to New Labour, the attempt to pull Labour to the left was not in itself to blame. They argue it was the right who split the party and drove Labour further to the right. They suggest that the right were prepared to lose the 1983 election in order to destroy the left. Michael Meacher (then a left winger) is quoted as saying, ‘There was never less than half a page of vitriol in the press per day and the source was the right wing of the Labour Party ... even though it did cataclysmic damage to the Labour Party. It was like a bombing raid flattening everything in sight. It was more a cause of the defeat in 1983 than the Falklands’. [54]

Panitch and Leys are right about this, but their treatment of Bennism is inadequate. They rightly see that the new left project was obsessed with tinkering with Labour Party structures and failed to engage with forces in the wider working class, but they do not take account of the contradiction Benn was caught in. They identify with the political upturn that Benn was the main beneficiary of, without noticing that the working class was demoralised – by the previous Labour government’s attacks. In such circumstances the strategy of starting from the Labour Party and hoping to generalise left ideas out into the class was mistaken. The strategy of electoralism led the left, and the workers who did follow them, away from collective struggle in the working class, which could have provided a real base for left wing policies inside Labour.

Panitch and Leys are ultimately naive about the capacity of a parliamentary left’s ability to transform the party as a whole, and from there to create democratic structures in wider society. This is in part because they see Labour as having been potentially a genuine socialist organisation, and in part due to their relegation of the organised working class to simply one of a number of interest groups in society. This is a pity given that, within their own pages, they give examples of the limitations of fighting for fundamental change within the bounds of parliamentarianism. They do not draw the necessary conclusions that even an electorally successful left Labour Party would thus come into conflict with the unelected state.

Both Safety First and The End of Parliamentary Socialism are written by people disillusioned or ready to be disillusioned with New Labour’s wholehearted embrace of untrammelled capitalism, yet they continue to cling to the possibility of a form of parliamentary socialism. Anderson and Mann were not quite ready to write Blair off in July 1997, with the government still in the first flush of victory: ‘It seems rather churlish for anyone on the left to raise doubts about New Labour’. [55] But if Blair does not deliver, they are aware that the parliamentary left is very weak, disorganised and has no unifying ideological position. They reject revolutionary socialism, arguing that it is time for a new politics of the left. Unfortunately, it is a politics that yet again relies on parliamentary activity to change people’s lives, albeit in a different guise than that offered by the Labour Party

The End of Parliamentary Socialism sets its sights somewhat higher, arguing for a socialism that can offer people a vision of the future: ‘The essence of the socialist project – the idea of a social order capable of transcending the alienation and escalating risks of capitalist accumulation – is anything but finished; it seems more likely that it is just beginning to come into view again as a necessity ...’ [56] The authors conclude convincingly that operating purely within the Labour Party is a dead end for the left and that extra-parliamentary activity is crucial to the socialist project. But their proposals about what form of organisation such activity should take place with are vague. Ultimately, their prognosis is of a long, slow rebuilding of socialist organisation that can embrace organised labour without alienating the middle class – an organisation that widens its remit from class struggle and involves the entire ‘community’ collectively, combining parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity. Such commitment to ending capitalism and fighting for socialism is to be welcomed, yet an acceptance of the notion that class struggle and the Leninist party are outmoded, and that parliament can be used in the interests of fundamental change, leaves them, as it leaves Anderson and Mann, unable to offer a clear direction forward.

This lack of a coherent strategy on the left does not mean revival is not possible. Yet there is no reason to believe that another attempt to shift Labour to the left would succeed where the last failed. Although such a move would be welcomed by socialists and by those workers already alienated from Blair, history is not reassuring about the possibility of a successful assault on the priorities of capitalism through parliamentary means. There are indications that New Labour will be under pressure to adopt more redistributive policies. Some mainstream commentators have already raised the spectre of Marxism. For example, Peter Kellner wrote:

One hundred and fifty years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s ... underlying diagnosis holds up. Unbridled capitalism provokes inequality and insecurity; it shatters traditional social bonds; it denies people and even countries the power to control their own destiny ... [Blair’s] strategy towards the better-off should be not to reduce their benefits but to raise their taxes. [57]

Concretely, the Commons vote on proposals to cut single parent benefit in December was won easily – but 47 Labour MPs voted against. The revolt was muted but telling nonetheless. And the expulsion of Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr from the PLP for speaking out against Labour’s plans for welfare highlighted the feelings of betrayal among many Labour activists. As The Observer editorial put it in December 1997, ‘The row over disablement and the Kerr/Coates departures are not events to be shrugged off as the death pangs of Old Labour. They betray fundamental fractures in [Blair’s] party that, unless mended, will threaten the success of his government’. [58]

In Hutton’s words, ‘Labour’s refusal to analyse the facts, think straight, stop kowtowing to a defunct Conservatism and recognise its own distinct traditions and philosophy is leading it into a political crisis of the first magnitude’. [59] The difficulty in predicting the nature of such a crisis is obvious – New Labour is a moving target. What can be said with some confidence is that the class tensions and the ideological ferment will become greater as Labour tries to implement its policies. The prospects for independent socialist organisation under these circumstances are good – provided that its intervention in the working class involves both building protests against Labour’s attacks and an ideological battle to win workers away from acceptance of Blair’s ideas and from looking to parliamentary solutions as a whole.


1. The Observer, 5 October 1997.

2. Tribune, 2 January 1998.

3. D. Draper, Blair’s Hundred Days (Faber & Faber 1997), p. 73.

4. Ibid., p. 69.

5. P. Anderson and N. Mann, Safety First (Granta 1997), p. 22.

6. Ibid., p. 385.

7. The extent to which Thatcher had transformed the political landscape in Britain was greatly overstated, not least by the left. Even Ivor Crewe, the veteran pollster, admitted this in 1989: ‘Quite simply, there has been no Thatcherite transformation of attitudes or behaviour among the British public. If anything, the British have edged further away from Thatcherite positions as the decade has progressed.’ For a general discussion of this see D. Kavanagh and C. Seldon (eds.), The Thatcher Effect – A Decade of Change (Macmillan, 1989).

8. L. Panitch and C. Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism (Verso 1997), p. 241.

9. D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1997 (Macmillian 1997), p. 250.

10. Ibid., p. 251.

11. Ibid., p. 52.

12. P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 53.

13. D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, op. cit., p. 184.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 67.

16. Ibid., p. 232.

17. Quoted in P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 25.

18. Ibid., p. 61.

19. D. Draper, op. cit., pp. 75–76.

20. Quoted in L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 250.

21. Ibid.

22. Quoted in P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 104.

23. Quoted in L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 250.

24. The Observer, 9 November 1998.

25. The Observer, 18 January 1998.

26. The Financial Times, 25–26 April 1998.

27. The Sunday Telegraph, 5 April 1998.

28. Quoted in L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 253.

29. P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 26.

30. The Observer, ? November 1997.

31. P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 40.

32. Quoted in P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 40.

33. Ibid., p. 323.

34. L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 224.

35. D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, op. cit., p. 206.

36. L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 254.

37. Ibid..

38. D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, op. cit., p. 242.

39. Quoted in P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 304.

40. P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 317.

41. Ibid., p. 304.

42. Ibid., p. 326.

43. Tribune, 2 January 1998.

44. The Observer, 14 December 1997.

45. P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 325.

46. The Guardian, 28 January 1998.

47. Ibid.

48. The Guardian, 28 January 1998.

49. The Guardian, 17 January 1998.

50. The Guardian, 28 January 1998.

51. L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 193.

52. London Review of Books, 19 February 1998.

53. P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 387.

54. L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 197.

55. P. Anderson and N. Mann, op. cit., p. 389.

56. L. Panitch and C. Leys, op. cit., p. 262.

57. The Observer, 18 January 1998.

58. The Observer, 28 December 1997.

59. The Observer, 9 November 1997.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 23.4.2012