The Taint – Time to Detoxify New Labour

April 24, 2013


There still remains a quaint mythology about the Labour Party in Britain. With the awfulness of the Coalition government plain for all on the Left to see, some people still seem to believe that at the next election a progressive alternative can be elected that will not just neutralise, but roll back many of this government’s transgressions against social democracy.

This may be true, but the current Labour Party will not fulfil this role. That’s not just because they do not want to, but because they cannot. The electorate are not going to vote in a party which remains unreconstructed after twelve years of what many people regard as odious failure. In any case, although the Labour Party still refuses to release a coherent policy review, under Ed Miliband it seems wedded to a very slight deviation from the Tory/Lib Dem response to capitalist crisis.

Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labour Party acquired a fatal taint which damns its prospects of winning any kind of mandate in the 2015 election. It failed to significantly dent child poverty, despite claiming to be waging a war against it.  The party left a legacy of high unemployment, stagnant wages and public and private debt crises. It waged an unncessary and illegal war in Iraq, and continued a pointless and murderous war in Afghanistan with no exit plan. It presided over the further wholesale corruption of the Houses of Parliament culminating in the expenses scandal. Youth unemployment rose by 50% during New Labour’s tenure. The “revolving door” between ministerial office or the civil service and private arms, energy or health care companies merely turned faster. Manufacturing continued to decline, falling faster as a share of GDP then under the Thatcher government. Financial regulation was deliberately left to atrophy, with incompetent adminstrators drafted in to implement toothless regulations directed at firms that the government bent over backwards to protect from scrutiny. The NHS was dissected and marketised more than ever before. Academies multiplied, reducing the accountability of schools and injecting the prospect of privatization into education. Income at the top rocketed. Income at the bottom slowed. That’s not surprising when the party of social democracy trumpeted its “intense relaxation” about the “filthy rich” getting richer and, presumably, filthier.

This is not a litany of sins against socialism, designed to raise the ire of marxist-leninists across the land. Instead, this is actually a list of the kind of issues that real people hold against the Labour Party. You can add the party’s inability to get to grips with immigration as well, for some sections of the population, although the effects of this “failure” were exacerbated by the inability of the Party to raise living standards in marginalised communities and to dent economic inequality.

The truth is that people do not see the Labour Party as capable of providing an alternative to Cameron and Clegg’s toxic brand of neo-Thatcherism. With good reason, they see the three parties as part of an elite that is out of touch with everyday concerns. With even better reason, they see the clique around Ed Miliband as tainted by the crimes (yes, crimes) and misdemeanours perpetrated under Brown and Blair. Men like Ed Balls, despite his admmirable fortitude in marathon running, are widely despised. Every time he rails against the failures of George Osbourne, people remember his own failures as a member of Gordon Brown’s economic team. This is made all the worse by his refusal to apologize or otherwise recognize that New Labour made economic mistakes.

When people hear Miliband, Balls or others like Liam Byrne stating their pride in New Labour’s achievements, they hear suited career politicians boasting about wars, inequality, corruption and incompetence. Why, then, would they vote for Labour in 2015?

I am not a Labour Party member. But despite this, I am keen to see progressive forces win in any election, and it is with this in mind that I offer a little sage advice to the Labour leadership. Ditch anyone who played any role in any New Labour cabinet and think long and hard about any junior ministers as well.

This may lead to a loss of experienced operators. Good. The kind of experience that shadow cabinet members like Balls, Douglas Alexander, Andy Burnham or Liam Byrne have acquired is viewed as pestilent by the electorate. Promote new figures to become nationally visible spokespeople. People like Chuka Umunna or Rachel Reeves are not widely known, but uncontaminated by membership in the bumbling governments of Brown and Blair. Reward MPs like Stella Creasy who make the effort to represent local concerns about exploitative money lenders. Give a place to younger members like Lisa Nandy who has experience of working with childrens charities. Emphasise their independence from the New Labour brand and apologize for past indiscretions.

As I say, I am not a Labour Party member, and one of the reasons why is because changes like this are inconceivable. With an electorate who still associates Labour with the financial collapse and the parliamentary expenses scandal, and will not forget the Iraq War, it is almost inconceivable that this Labour Party will deliver a workable majority at the next election. And even if it did, such a majority would be a victory for cynical triangulation. A mandate for a party positioned just the the left of the Tories, and one step further towards the self-implosion of British politics. In itself, of course, that may be no bad thing as it would let the rest of us get on with building a more democratic replacement.


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