Among some centrist Democrats, the response to the rise of the insurgent centre-left has been sputtering rage. In a widely-discussed op-ed published in the conservative Wall Street Journal, the leaders of the neoliberal think tank Third Way (whose very name is a reference to the “Third Way” movement of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) denounced de Blasio and Warren and warned that “populism” would lead the Democratic party back into the electoral wilderness. But while these sentiments find strong support among Democratic donors in the financial industry and the think tanks they fund, Democratic activists and voters are shifting to the relative left. Like the neoconservatives on the right, the neoliberals on the left may end up as an elite sect, a group that has funding and spokespeople but little or no voter support.
I thought Stephen Bush’s piece in Progress was provocative and well argued, so I also thought it warranted a quick reply.
His basic claim is that ‘Labour ended Thatcherism’.
This is patently not true – the Progress deity Tony Blair himself disagrees with it in numerous bits of writing and his own tributes. And he led the bloody thing, after all.
But neither is the idea that New Labour was exclusively Thatcherite, because although Stephen’s article goes too far in declaiming and end to Thatcherism, it does make some good points.
Much of what New Labour achieved was at odds with Thatcherism, if we take that to mean an unrelenting class struggle, where the cost of everything to the wealthy is the supreme decider. Blair spent a fair bit of money on schools and hospitals (though he does seem rather keen to blame all this ‘excess spending’ on ‘Old Labour’ Gordon Brown – a hilarious label – now that it’s after 2008 and Blair still has John Rentoul to please). Nevertheless, the value of this spending cannot be denied, nor the fact that the most obvious inheritors of Thatcher wanted to cut it. Blair also introduced limited trade union recognition rights and some basic employee protections, it should be remembered.
On the other hand, when you evaluate the whole strategic effect, the objective results of New Labour, the point remains – firstly it failed to reverse the tide when that was the real challenge. Secondly, it failed to build a sustainable project, i.e. one supported by movement as well as country. What has not yet been repealed or overcome is simply because of the lack of legislative time more than anything else.
Opinion in the population is soft against what Thatcher represented, because unlike the right, the left had few powerful advocates – most Labour politicians of the era spent their time arguing against the left instead of the right, because that’s where they saw the short term career gains. The long term and solid progress of Labour’s cultural values was not given strategic priority.
The root of Labour’s failure to ‘end’ Thatcherism does not lie in an enthusiastic embrace, but in a much more tacit acceptance – the refusal to discuss anything concerned with reversing it.
The validity of this, however partial you may consider it, can’t be denied.
Secondly, there certainly was some limited actual buy-in to proper Thatcherite modes of thinking. As one example, the mode of public service ‘reform’ was based on part-privatisation and consumer accountability, rather than democracy, localism or mutuality. This was prefigured upon the dual ideas firstly that the state has reached the limit of its efficiency and social contribution, and that the market was generally a preferable method of accountability and delivery to democratic structures. This assumes of course that this was all put together on the basis of accepting the policy premise rather than an opportunistic political one – not that this would detract from my point at all.
These notions satisfy two tests. Firstly, they are proactively Thatcherite. Secondly, they were pervasive under Labour in government, and general trends of direction – towards conservatism.
Together with the more pervasive tacit acceptance, this is Labour’s part in the continuing hegemony of Thatcherism, which endures despite Ed Miliband’s occasional attempts to edge the frame leftwards.
So I think it’s right to say that Thatcherism survived, albeit in a more humane form, for a very temporary period.
We still might not be in a position to roll the whole lot back. But given that in large part the industrial imbalances it created left us vulnerable to downturns, both the left and right of Labour can now find some unity over this key strategic plank, the rebalancing of industry.
How far Labour can go in rolling back the rest will depend if it can win an election, and what pressures are acting on its leadership if it does. Perhaps it’s time to critically engage, and set about creating a left conception of what ideas like a ‘One Nation’ society or ‘predistribution’ might look like in practice. God forbid that this is left to the party’s short-sighted and sectarian hard right.
Beyond that, we still have a philosophy to reverse, and need a viable and rooted one to replace it with.
I had many axes to grind with New Labour, which I thought fell short in a lot of areas. Most of all was the idea that being in office was all – a notion itself founded on the preconception that being in office meant that Labour, and perhaps by extension the movement it was born to express in parliamentary form, was in power.
Obviously the equation of office and power is not generally true (see Clegg, 2010), and was certainly not true when so much of New Labour was about fighting people who wanted often achievable and effective left policies.
In short, New Labour saw itself as being in government because it accepted the core premises of Thatcherism – in other words, it accepted the leadership and domination on policy of the conservative project and a conservative common sense. In other words, by its own admission, New Labour was an admission of conservative leadership of ideas, and domination of ideas – it accepted the hegemony, therefore, of the conservative project.
And if that is so, it cannot be that it had any kind of project to build or assert a hegemony of the left.
If you want to make the case that it did, it’s particularly hard to do, as many of the key politicians involved defined themselves as being in the ‘centre’ – rather than the ‘centre-left’ favoured by Kinnock/Smith era social democrats, ‘democratic left’ favoured by Gramscians and other ‘broad leftists’, and the ‘Labour left’ favoured by partisan traditionalists of both the Benn/Briefing and Foot/Tribune varieties.
It proudly accepted conservative hegemony in many senses, as well as defined itself as the centre (a centre, it must be remembered, forged by Thatcher). It thus opposed broad structural hegemony for the left on two separate but related grounds.
Part of the reason that it was necessary for parts of the thinking left to be on the left of the party in the first place, therefore, was to ditch the strategy of New Labour not for some abstract failure of general policy, but for strategic reasons. It was necessary to move the party leftwards to ditch a disciplined, top down and self interested project that was counter-hegemonic for the left in the long term. Whether it had the strategy right for winning elections is one debate, but whatever the outcome, it had no strategy for winning the country, and even if it did, it would for winning the country to the centre (i.e the general balance of how it is already) rather than any permutation of the left.
It was necessary to ditch New Labour because as well as leaving left voters with nowhere to go by appropriating their natural party, it was against the interests of the whole movement within the country in the long term. It was not strategic to any structural end shared by the left.
So, I’m glad we have Ed Miliband, and I was glad to vote for him at the time. It’s good to see that others are too.
And after a bit of a educational non-debate with a friend on facebook (we both agreed with each other), I was left thinking about ‘predistribution’ – and how well it fits into a more ambitious, hegemonic style of social democracy.
First things first. The name. People don’t like it, because it’s a wonk word. But I feel that around half of the people who say that should simply go away. Why? Because they spent years plugging something called ‘public service reform’, including such populist notions as ‘foundation hospitals’ and ‘internal markets’. Something you always hear from people down the pub, no doubt.
None of these names are good, and that is certainly important for an idea to gain currency. It is a wonk word, and hardly an everyday topic. But I can’t think of a better one that is as general. So for now, ‘predistribution’ will do.
An idea with hegemonic potential
There are several advantages from the point of view of hegemonic strategy (and note at this point that I am reproducing facebook)…
Like the Scandinavian social democracy admired by the soft left, it firstly offers a way to transpose the institutions of the left into the economy, thus providing a fundamental change to the temporally immediate class structure of local capitalism, and increasing hegemonic potential – a dual benefit. Cooperatives. Unions. Management board modifications. Shareholder transparency.
But secondly, I think it underscores rather than diminishes the role of redistribution as well as predistribution more strongly than redistribution can itself (via discourse)… predistribution implies that there is something wrong about how we are paid and treated in a way that is not immediately evident to people simply because they pay progressive tax rates or receive working family tax credit. As well as offering the organising and material base as per the paragraph above, it also pushes the argument that capitalism produces unjust and inadequate outcomes right into our everyday lives. It forces people, especially those reliant on wages, to question the equity and suitability of their situation. This leads to emphasis on collective redistribution as much as it does predistribution itself.
As such, it has the potential to actively attack the current common sense around distributive justice, as well as having two different ways to embed a new one.
So for me, leaving aside the impact on party politics, there are three cultural and organisational reasons to see this as a really exciting intellectual project.
And it’s free.
And it means that some of the huge pile of corporate savings might be released back into the real economy.
Stuff Blue Labour, this is where it’s at.