Social Democracy and the Labour Zombie

For the author of the piece, Byron Sheldrick, the Labour Party, as constituted in 1918, has always been marked by a dichotomy between Parliamentarianism and labour, with Parliamentarianism – the centralised ideology of winning elections – undoubtedly in control of the party for the overwhelming majority of its existence…Byron Sheldrick describes an unhappy, atrophied organisation, suffering from a ‘profound lack of confidence and independence’ where one of the most notable characteristics is a ‘pathology to conform.’ 

A compelling, and timely, analysis of the modern Labour Party and its failure to offer any significant opposition or alternative to the neoliberal project. Timely because of this piece by David Miliband and Douglas Alexander and today’s TUC speech by Ed Balls. The former is neatly torn apart here – note also that it continues the “contemptuous put-downs” of Occupy referred to in the New Left Project piece. Miliband and Alexander were, of course, leading figures during the Blair/Brown years and their piece is a disingenuous obfuscation which can be summarised as ‘more of the same, please’. Indeed, the notion that we have anything to learn from American party politics is risible, it being the one developed country where inequality, social mobility, violence, imprisonment and mental illness are at their worst. Yet you will hear neither candidate for President facing this reality. In fact, the ‘left’ candidate pushes the notion of the:

fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.

Obama spoke of running for President because he saw this ‘basic bargain slipping away’ – yet social mobility in America has been all but dead for decades rather than being a product of the Bush era. This is the politics offered in America: two parties and two candidates positioning themselves on minutely different areas of a lie. It is ironic that Miliband/Alexander bemoan the fact that “the Republicans are so aggressively wrong on issues of gay rights, women’s rights and minority rights”, as these areas are the real battlegrounds of American politics, masking the truth that both parties offer subtly different takes on the same economic base of society. There are no grand competing visions, no real clash of ideologies – merely middle-managers squabbling over who can best manage the account book.

This is not to say that the United Kingdom has much to boast about with regards to these issues, but our politics can certainly boast more diversity and pluralism (not least because of devolution). Yet at Westminster, certainly, the ideological torpidity is remarkable. What is noticeable, however, is how this is almost entirely to be found on the ‘left’. The Conservative Party, in a coalition with the ostensibly left-leaning (at least in 2010) Liberal Democrats, wasted no time in pursuing an ideologically-driven programme which serves its natural interests. They have attacked the post-war consensus of the welfare state, National Health Service, comprehensive education and employment rights with a ferocity which would make Thatcher blush. Contrast this with Tony Blair in 1997 – despite a poll lead over the Tory government frequently reaching 20% or more in the preceding three years, Labour pledged to match their spending plans for their first 2 years in office. Despite two landslide elections in a row, Labour’s time in office was marked by a dogged conservatism, a fear of rocking the boat too much. From rail privatisation to anti-union legislation, much of the worst excesses of Thatcherism remained; with policies such as tuition fees, they went further than Thatcher had dared. Redistribution was attempted in the most hesitant, apologetic manner imaginable while rhetoric attacking asylum seekers and benefits claimants remained high on the agenda. This is undoubtedly the powerful influence of Parliamentarianism – of a party more interested in winning power than in meaningfully wielding it (and perceiving the path to power through the filter of a right-wing media.)

This brings us to Ed Ball’s speech today. Balls built his campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party around his belief that there was a real alternative to austerity. He argued that spending cuts actively harmed the recovery. He commented that we should:

be wary of any British economic policy-maker or media commentator who tells you that there is no alternative or that something has to be done because the markets demand it. 

Today, he told us that “we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts”. He supported Osborne’s public sector pay freeze and warned against strikes, continuing the government’s own rhetoric blaming public sector recklessness and profligacy for the financial crisis. He also ruled out the hugely popular policy of rail renationalisation on the basis that it would cost ‘billions’ and that spending ‘on that scale’ would not be a priority when faced with a deficit (a claim tackled here). Yet Balls spoke of his desire for a Robin Hood tax – a policy which alone could raise £20 billion. Policies advocated by unions and groups like UK Uncut would pay to restore the cuts, renationalise the railway and more, still leaving many billions to pay towards the deficit. The fact is that these things are choices – always choices. Balls has done a complete 180 on his 2010 speech and now wants us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. 

Predictably, Balls spoke of ‘tough choices’. When a Labour politician uses this phrase, you can be certain they mean ‘policies which punish what should be our natural constituency’ – workers, the poor, the ordinary. There is nothing ‘tough’ about doggedly pursuing neoliberalism when it has undeniably failed around the world. There is nothing ‘tough’ in placing the burden for the financial crisis at the doors of society’s poorest while the rich continue to get richer. The ‘tough’ thing to do would be to break from this failed dogma and pursue a genuinely social democratic path. Indeed, Balls began his speech by praising the Olympics/Paralympics – yet in telling the gathered workers that there was no money left, wouldn’t the ‘tough’ (brave) thing to do have been to note that the £12-£24 billion of public money which went on these mega-events (much of it flowing into the coffers of private companies such as G4S and property developers) didn’t materialise from thin air? It was real money which could have been spent elsewhere. It was a choice to spend it on the Olympics in a time of austerity. It can be a choice to do things differently.

Ed Miliband was not elected as Labour leader because people wanted more of the same. He was always clearly less media-friendly than David Miliband. By continuing the uber-cautious path of being ‘The Tories, but nicer‘ he is inspiring absolutely no-one. It is not for nothing that his personal ratings reached their highest when he took on Murdoch over the phone-hacking scandal – a clear and decisive break from a previously unquestioned consensus. I’d argue that people want to be engaged and inspired by politicians again – they do not want to be patronised with the ‘there is no alternative’ lie. They know that there are always choices and they want to, are ready to, hear them. The chorus of boos for Cameron and Osbourne testify to that. On the strength of Balls’ speech today, however, Labour are far from ready to rise to the challenge – and the Labour Zombie will continue to stagger on ineffectually.

Social Democracy and the Labour Zombie

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