The political marriage between David Cameron and Nick Clegg in a ceremony in the garden at the back of Downing Street yesterday is not simply the result of a general election that failed to produce a party with an overall majority. Britain’s first coalition government for 70 years also shows that the process that produced New Labour is still at work.
In 1995, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown persuaded their party to ditch Clause IV of its constitution, which aspired to common ownership of the means of production and popular administration of the economy. Adopted in 1918, the clause was anathema to the “modernisers” who were busily creating “New” Labour.
The Blairites were adapting to a new world order summed up in the term “globalisation”. Where the Tories were divided on the issue, revealed in the splits over Europe, New Labour would embrace the free movement of capital, deregulation, public-private partnerships, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation and promote an “enterprise economy”.
Even before New Labour’s loss of nearly 100 seats last week, voters were turning their back on a government that had created vast inequality, put an end to social mobility and encouraged a casino economy. When a globalisation driven by the banks and corporations finally crashed in 2008, the die was cast and the raison d'être for New Labour was terminated.
With the Tory Party deeply divided between a right-wing that believes that anything not purely Anglo-Saxon is suspicious and “modernisers” who understand the world has changed, the electorate understandably failed to give them a mandate to govern alone when they went to the polls on May 8.
Cameron is astute enough to recognise that the old-style bourgeois party politics – based on some worked-out framework and an ideology related to things purely British – is dying. No single party seems likely to win an overall majority again. The election deadlock propelled this understanding into a swift and dramatic realignment with the Lib Dems. This is, in effect, Cameron’s Clause IV moment.
He and Clegg have in practice staged an audacious joint coup against their own parties, ignoring dissent and rumblings from rank-and-file members who only last week were at each other’s throats as they fought for votes. In some respects, the logic of their alliance might even signal the end of their parties in the shape that we know them now.
Both the prime minister and his deputy, for example, say they have put party politics to one side to govern in the “national interest”. In other words, they have taken the politics out of politics, a process that began with Blair and Brown who reduced government to a grinding form of managerialism.
The spurious “national interest”, as we know, is a not-so-clever mask for the interests that really count. These have everything to do with what the financial markets are demanding and nothing to do with those on the dole and the millions who will join them as Lib-Tory cuts and tax rises get going. New Labour saddled all households with £135,000 in debts. Cameron-Clegg's role is to make sure we make the payments.
As we pointed out yesterday, the global financial meltdown is visiting one country after another. In Spain, the Socialist Party government yesterday rushed through a ruthless cuts package to appease the money markets. Greece’s government – also claiming to be “socialist” – did so last week. Given half a chance, New Labour would have done the same.
In Britain, we now face what amounts to a “government of national emergency”. How will long will it before we are told that all opposition to the cuts is anti-patriotic behaviour? The new boys in Downing Street are a ruthless duo yet their bonhomie cannot disguise their relative weakness and isolation from their own parties. That is what lies behind the rapid march away from what is left of parliamentary democracy with a five-year, fixed term for the government and raising the bar for a no-confidence vote to 55%.
We certainly need a “new politics” and that’s the subject of our May 22 conference, Taking the Revolutionary Road.