Tuesday, 13 January 2015

New Labour or No Labour: a Crisis of Representation

by Jadon Buckeridge

Margaret Thatcher's
greatest achievement?
Eighteen years in opposition wasn't long enough to destroy Labour, but two decades of ruthless and relentless Thatcherism was enough to change the face of the party forever. Tony Blair was no Clement Attlee, and the raging revolution of the unionised working class in post war Britain had been pacified by its own people: New Labour was no Labour at all.

Margaret Thatcher, hero of the free market, vanquisher of the Labour Party and eternal nemesis of the trade union movement was asked to identify her greatest political achievement - her answer: "Tony Blair". In her eyes, the 'saviour' of Labour was a gift to the conservatives and a slap in the face for the trade unions. He and his bright ideas were living proof that Thatcherite Conservatism had, in her own words, "forced our opponents to change their minds". It's an astonishing achievement on her part, but even more astonishing is how poorly it reflects on today's lost Labour Party.

"We are all middle-class" boasted a pompous Tony Blair, midway through his lengthy and eventful premiership. It was a dark and gloomy moment in the history of the Labour Party, and an even darker day for the legacy of the Prime-Minister.  The party he led had been founded over a century ago to represent the working-classes of Britain to bring the people into politics. With six swift syllables, Blair had denied the existence of the very class he was there to represent.

Any shock was muted, any outrage was minimal, because this was no revelation: New Labour was confused, its ideologies were bewildered, and, frankly, the party stood for no one at all. The 'left-for-Labour, toffs-for-Tory' model was torn down by Labour's own lack of conviction. In the 21st century the Tories still hold the Right, but the Left is lost and Labour are stranded in of the 'soggy centre'.
   
Labour not only stumbled clumsily in to the realms of centralist strategy, but, having arrived on the scene, their record is demoralisingly bleak. We have one government to judge them by, and the legacy of said government is tarnished by the blackening brush of failure throughout: awash with political blunder and hypocrisy, the Blair/Brown administration was a calamity not only for Britain, but for Britain's working class.

Not only was New Labour not Labour; it didn't want to be either. One of the ways New Labour attempted to distinguish itself from Old Labour was to take a harder line on crime. But what started out as a well meaning 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' policy, quickly spiralled into a rather vindictive 'tough on crime, tougher on criminals' assault. Their flagship policy in this regard was the introduction of the ASBO - the anti-social behaviour order. Contrary to what they promised, Labour's new policy did nothing to address the causes of crime, but did everything to ruin the lives of a small group of unfortunate individuals, the majority of whom were working class. The nail in the coffin as far as this Labour initiative was concerned was a report published in 2005. Cries of outrage rippled through the population and the media alike when it was discovered that 40% of the ASBOs issued under Labour had been imposed on youths with mental health problems.

Housing represents another bout of Blairite back-peddling away from traditional Labour values. Before 1980, over 40% of the population lived in council housing: social residency was not only home turf for successive Labour governments, but a lifeline for many working class communities. However, whereas thirty years ago social residency was a popular  way of living for the hard-up and and the high-flyers alike, today council housing comes with a sense of social stigma: strings of deprivation and inherent poverty are firmly attached. Whereas today 70% of those in council housing are in the poorest two fifths of the population, thirty years ago over 20% of the richest tenth were inhabitants of social housing. It's little wonder why the 40% figure from 1980 has been slashed to 10% when you look at the changes in the political landscape.

You'd have been forgiven for expecting New Labour, after 18 long, demoralising years in opposition to make amends by halting the Thatcherite obsession with individual property ownership - a hard-line Tory policy that had ravaged the social housing scene for two decades - but you'd have been wrong. Blair didn't just fail to put out the flames Thatcher had started; he fuelled the very fire that was burning a hole in the pockets of the poorest people in Britain. Of the 2.3 million new homes overseen by Blair's government, an apologetic 13% were in the public sector. Given Thatcher's reputation, it's almost unthinkable that in his first twelve months of power, Blair could spend less on social housing than Thatcher had done in any year for the entirety of her time in office, but he did. Labour were gambling. If the mass privatisation of housing - accelerated by the 'Right to Buy' scheme- proved affordable for the working classes, Labour had killed two birds with one stone: financial stability for the poorest was under management, and pandering to the private sector could continue as usual. On the flip side, if private rents or crippling mortgages proved too much for families struggling to get by on the minimum wage, it wasn't really Labour's problem: after all, in the words of a senior adviser, Blair's attitude to 'Leftism' was "fine, but I don't need to worry about that". Heads, and Labour won big; tails, and Tony left to do 'business with Business', while the working classes grappled with another gift from the Labour government - unaffordable debt dumped on them by 'their own party'.

The greatest ever welfare reform - our NHS - sets the bar of expectation high for any Labour government when it comes to the welfare state. Unfortunately, New Labour's endeavours to reach these lofty heights failed spectacularly. In the hope of achieving a reputation for economic prudence, Blair's government went to extreme lengths and the welfare state was a point of particular focus. However, far from standing up for the working classes, Labour targeted them. Benefits became unacceptable giveaways, and the government was looking for a better deal. One of the most radical ideas - which fortunately never made it into a white paper - was James Purnell's proposal to assign work to those on benefits, so they'd effectively pay their way. At the time,  Job Seekers Allowance was  little more than £60 per week - that would have worked out at £1.50 an hour for a 40 hour week. The fact a welfare minister was suggesting paying the very poorest in society less than a third of the minimum wage for their work epitomises the crisis of representation that faced - and is facing - the working classes.

The government's next welfare waltz came enshrined in the daunting complexities of tax credits. A concept conceived by Gordon Brown, tax credits were designed to give money back to the poorest in order to sustain reasonable standards of living. The reality was very different. So poor was the administration on the part of the Treasury that millions received the credits late or not at all. Many more received excessive overpayments, only to receive bills from the Treasury at the end of the year demanding repayment. Swathes of the population already crippled by poverty were left digging their way out of mounting debts piled on top of them by another Labour catastrophe. When the project reached its belated and inevitable demise, the cost to the tax payer from excess payments was over £2 billion. The winds had once again turned on Labour, the policy had sunk, and the poorest in society were left drowning in the wreckage.

If you were sat in a working class community for the duration of Blair's premiership, the sun didn't shine on the economy either. Manufacturing and industry have historically been at the heart of working class communities, and the investment provided lifeline employment for millions. Labour like to channel the anger created by the collapse of these industries in the direction of Thatcher: 'she is responsible for the deprivation, the social diseases ravaging old mining communities, and the widespread poverty throughout', they say. Seldom is it mentioned that not only did the New Labour government fail drastically to reverse this trend of industrial collapse, but they actually sped it up. Blair began his premiership with manufacturing making up over 20% of the British economy. On his watch, this figure was slashed in half by 2010. Once again, Labour had betrayed the voiceless working class.

An interesting question to ask in the light of such failed representation is: 'who are Labour?' Before you turn on the individuals, the rhetoric itself is disconcerting. 'Business with Business' was at the forefront of the New Labour movement. While company profits spun out of control, the wages of the working classes were stagnating, and in some cases actually deteriorating. Another worrying piece of Labour propaganda came from Blair's successor, Gordon Brown. In the run up to the 2010 general election, Brown decided it was necessary to build a 'Bigger middle class than ever before'. What was he doing? Labour had gone from denying the presence of a working class under Tony Blair to actually discouraging its existence under Gordon Brown.

The crisis Labour face - and the crisis which faces all working class communities - screams of cultural disconnect. The top no longer understands the bottom, and the rungs on the social ladder are slipping further and further apart. In the last Labour-led government, only one in twenty MPs came from a 'blue collar background', and, even now,  in the run up to the general election, Ed Milliband is hardly jack the lad. The financial fiasco overseen by Gordon Brown paints its own picture, but, however you look at it, Labour were trampling on the working classes to get a better view of the 'big business' they'd come to worship.

Old Labour had some ungainly trademarks: a reputation as blasé borrowers and active repellents of 'big business' certainly did them no favours amongst  the 'bourgeoise' in the electorate. But Old Labour had principles: they fought for the workers and battled the roots of inequality at the heart of society. New Labour have no such principles. Incredibly, while the Blairite government was cozying up to corporations, inequality - as recorded by the World Bank- would rise to levels significantly higher than those at the end of Thatcher's premiership.

How did this happen? Unsurprisingly, as the credit bubble grew in the financial sector, swathes of investment flooded into the City. But the bubble burst and the economy slumped into one of the worst periods of economic decline in recent history. Miraculously, two years later the collective wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain had undergone a 30% hike in one year  - the greatest increase ever on record. The extent to which workers' wages and executive pay checks diverged in value under the Labour government  was also perverse. At the turn of the millennium, executives earned 47 times the average worker's wage; when Blair and Brown had successfully stagnated any progression in pay packets for the poorest, that ratio had doubled. It was also on Labour's watch that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the financial services sector in the UK boomed to the largest level of any G7 economy. This is particularly astonishing given the size of the manufacturing industry (as a proportion of GDP) - the industry at the heart of many working class communities- experienced the fastest decline on record during this same period.

The rhetoric from New Labour in terms of banking and wealth creation sounded positively Conservative. Peter Mandelson, orchestrator of Tony Blair's charm offensive, told the media: "We are intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich ... as long as they pay their taxes." That same year the taxpayer forfeited over £50 billion as a consequence of tax evasion. So powerful was Brown's own attraction to business in the private sector, that he made one of the most reckless gambles with public money in decades: the PPP - public private partnership - structure he implemented for the revival of the London Underground. In 1998 he plunged billions of pounds of public money into private contracts on a hunch they'd be the more efficient option, and with the added incentive of looking pro-business. As usual, the house beat the gambler: Brown's speculation backfired and what was the estimated cost to the treasury? £30 billion.

Time told the story of economic management under New Labour. They jumped into bed with 'Middle England', and the party for the people left the people with nothing. When Brown had put the icing on his cake of inequality, the poorest half of the population were grudgingly left with a slither worth only 6%, while the richest 1% feasted on 23% of the nation's wealth.

The crisis itself is simple: Labour were shaken after five years of Thatcherism, bruised after ten, and battered beyond recognition by the end of her supremacy. Labour roots - welfare for the masses, wages for the working class, voices for the voiceless - have been torn from the ground. Where Nye Bevan, son of a coal miner, and founder of the NHS used to stand towering over social injustice, the power of the unions behind him, Tony Blair, and now Ed Milliband, cower in his shadow. Blair is the first-ever Labour leader to come out on the right of the political spectrum in terms of public perception, so his legacy is fitting. Where Labour governments in the 1960s boosted the wages of the poorest decile by 13% more than the real wage increases across the rest of the population, Blair managed to oversee wage deflation for the working classes in 2005, despite the fact corporate profits were the highest in history during that same period.

Those at the bottom fighting to climb the ladders of our market economy were not just left to fend for themselves: the routes to the top were wrenched from their grasp by the Blairite centralist regime. The union movement is a good example: slashed from thirteen million in 1979 to seven million in 2010, trade unions were in desperate need of revival during Blair's supremacy. However, having welcomed friendship and funding with open arms, he refused to repeal Tory legislation limiting the powers of the unions which, in his words, were some of 'the most restrictive' in the western world.
   
Labour's failings have had consequences. By 2010, the only other EU nations whose workers suffered longer hours than those in the UK were Romania and Bulgaria hardly fighting the corner of the working class. On a similar note, only four countries within the EU suffered higher levels of poverty than the UK at this stage - hard facts grounded in Labour's shambolic shortcomings when it came to dealing with distorted distributions of income inherent in our population.

UKIP, the BNP, the SNP and Plaid Cymru are four living consequences of Labours desertion of the working classes. All four parties draw on sections of the electorate that are broadly working class the sorts of people left behind when Labour vanished and Tony Blair's wealth-worshipping mob snatched the throne. The BNP alone secured 61% of its electoral successes in 2010, limited though they were, from  working class voters. At the same election, the electoral backlash for Labour's betrayal not only punished them at the polls, but significantly damaged democracy. Between 1997 and 2010 the party lost four times more working class voters than middle class voters, and this was reflected in the overall turnout: polling participation in the poorest three social categories was 17% lower than in the rest of the population.

The future is not bright. Labour have already announced plans to retain the Tory freeze on public sector pay after the general election, and Emily Thornberry's dismissal for disrespecting the electorate in Rochester typifies Labour's dilemma: who they are, and who they should be, are diverging rapidly. Larry Elliot, a left wing columnist in the Guardian observed the party's 'growing contempt' for the working class, but New Labour takes the credit for its own legacy: the voices of the people have been lost, and the working classes are being slowly silenced.

       

2 comments:

  1. I am passing on to you a comment from Mr Robinson (Head of Mathematics):

    "Congratulations on your article concerning the demise of the Labour party, Jadon. It is well written and sums up the sorry, sad state of the present party led by apparatchiks, who have forgotten the aims and founding ideals of Labour."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Spot on, Jadon!

    ReplyDelete

Comments with names are more likely to be published.