The humiliating results for New Labour at last week’s local and London elections amount to much more than just a swing to the Tories by people fed up with government policies. The scale of the defeat is a measure of the break-up of a party that once fondly imagined it would rule for decades.
New Labour came into existence in the mid-1990s through destroying its own history and Labour Party origins and by repudiating any notion that it would challenge the economic and financial power of globalised capitalism. In fact, it dedicated itself to managing the market economy in favour of corporate power. It declared that class interests were a thing of the past and that everyone would benefit from globalisation.
In government, New Labour increasingly merged with the state machine and turned itself into a kind of business organisation rather than a party. There is no longer any internal democracy or opportunity for the rank and file (or, for that matter, the trade unions which founded Labour) to influence what happens. Membership has more than halved and few activists have remained in what is essentially a capitalist party in outlook and organisation. Voters began to turn their back on New Labour, as turnout fell to a record low of 60%. At the last election, in the wake of the illegal and monstrous attack on Iraq, only one in four of registered voters gave their support to New Labour.
Now the chickens have come to roost. For New Labour’s disintegration in turn reflects the impact on ordinary people of a growing crisis in the global economy, expressed in the “credit crunch”. That’s why Gordon Brown’s party only polled 24% of the vote last week, compared with 44% for the Tories (who, of course, would fare no better in the current climate).
The “wonder years” of economic prosperity have turned out to be a major con trick and illusion for millions of people. Prices of basic foods are soaring, along with the cost of the petrol they need to drive their cars to work. Public services have declined in quality, milked dry by the private sector, while the government is holding wages down below the level of inflation for teachers and civil servants.
Voters have seen the government offering tens of billions to the banks, who themselves are responsible for the financial crisis now engulfing Britain and other countries while, at the same time, hitting the lower paid by abolishing the 10p income tax band. No wonder some New Labour MPs reported that voters were thrusting April’s wage slips in their face on the eve of the elections. At the same time, increasing numbers are facing repossession, unable to meet the payments on their homes and drowning in the debt they were encouraged to take on.
We are now entering the unknown in political terms. Tens of millions of voters hate the Tories and what they stand for; many voted New Labour in the past in the hope things would be different. But Blair and Brown made sure they didn’t turn out that way. As a result, these voters are effectively disenfranchised and disillusioned, denied a chance to exercise their vote in any meaningful way. A few have deserted to the Tories in the mistaken belief that David Cameron’s toffs will solve their problems. Many, many more have stayed at home, feeling that there is nothing in it for them at the ballot box. In the end, only 35% voted in the council elections while 55% of Londoners chose not to vote.
Taken together, these political and economic processes amount to a crisis of the existing parliamentary state system of government in Britain. Clearly, the current state is unable to deliver on basic questions like housing, education, transport and pensions or on wider issues like climate change. Its response is increasingly authoritarian and repressive, as if locking up more and more people will “solve” crime, especially among young people, or detaining people without charge for 42 days will tackle the threat of terrorism. As the decades of credit-driven consumption unravel, the prospects of large-scale unemployment and growing poverty will overwhelm whichever party is in government.
New Labour’s impending demise is not the result of a massive rush to Toryism or a grand triumph of the right, as those who cannot see beyond parliamentarism would have it. Nor is it a defeat for anyone except the careerists and opportunists who have hitched their fortunes to New Labour. Public sector trade unionists and others like the refinery workers in Scotland are ready to defend their conditions through industrial action and rightly don’t give a fig for New Labour’s fortunes. The challenge before us is to build a movement around a leadership that is prepared to challenge and go beyond the capitalist economy as well the market state, to create a democratic sustainable future. A great first step in this direction would be to strengthen the influence of A World to Win by becoming a member today.
AWTW communications editor