Monday, January 16, 2006

How the left was won (or why Labour is not right-wing)

If David Cameron is a conservative and Tony Blair is also right-of-centre then:

‘why…the Liberal Democrats should join them. It would be political suicide.’ By [making] ‘the Lib Dems a clone of the other two Tory parties’

So should the Lib Dems head into the ground left vacant by the Blairite Labour party? This would be a huge mistake because the Labour party is still within the grand sweep of the Labour movement. They appeared to move from their traditional stomping grounds for a reason – the reason why the Conservative party have elected as their party leader a smoothie drinking, baby-faced bloke with a pregnant wife rather than, say, this chap .

The Tories had two problems. Their interpretation of conservatism had become outdated. They were a party of "the country of long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers and - as George Orwell said - 'old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist' to quote John Major, when 81% of the English population live in cities. And (perhaps due to working on a vision of Britain circa 1950) they looked nasty - remember the survey where people stopped supporting a policy once it was shown to have been proposed by the Conservatives?

The Labour party pre-Blair also seemed outdated by the mid-1990s. It was still focused on the class war described by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 between the (usually Northern white male) heavy industry worker and his (exploitative) employer. Manufacturing by 1997 was somewhat less important as an employer than it was as late as the 1970s – employing 14 % of the British workforce compared to just under 1/3 and the jobs are higher skilled. The importance of mining, etc. has also declined The rise of the service industry has increased the size of the group that self-defines itself as middle-class with the growth of an unskilled underclass who experience longer-term unemployment. A second important change was the emergence between 1950s - 1970s of a political discourse about feminism, homosexuality and ethnicity (the latter due to immigration to fill labour shortages).

The result of these cultural and employment changes was that the classes Labour was founded to represent had fragmented and faded. Labour seemed was a party associated with flat caps, ferrets, Arthur Scargill and that wonderful Monty Python sketch set 'in the Third World... Yorkshire'. Blair made labour electable not by taking it 'right' but by reorientating the 'gut' sentiments of Labour to a new set of constituents.

So what are these 'gut' sentiments and how have they been redefined?

Traditional Labour aimed to use the government to improve the condition of the poor where improvement is defined in the economic sense. But the nationalisation of heavy industry was no longer a means by which the government could intervene to support the interests of a significant fraction of the 'hard-working' poor or which resonated with them. The poor are fragmented over a wide range of industries and jobs. New Labour's response was to dump Clause 4:

'To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.'

But New Labour still aims for the redistribution of wealth (not a 'right-wing' project as 'right-wing is usually defined):

"On average, people in the bottom 20% of the income distribution have gained over 11% per year more from the government [since 1997], and are £1,430 per year better off. Those in the top 10% of the income distribution have received about 4% less from the government, an average loss of £2,243."

New Labour have also introduced policies like Working Families Tax Credits and the minimum wage.

Old Labour had an instinctive attraction to centralisation and central planning without which it is difficult in practice to try to achieve equality of outcome. New Labour is also drawn to control through the centre. Labour's 'target culture' is a manifestation. New Labour's PFI agreements have been characterised by micro-management of their private sector partners. The result of overcentralisation is excessive complexity and errors which has impeded delivery of their policies. Simon Jenkins seems to enjoy highlighting this particular characteristic of New Labour (much as he doesn't have a clue about the Lib Dems).

Old Labour saw society as conflict between classes/groups, some who were the oppressed (the traditional working class) and some the oppressors. Labour is still fixated with traditional class divisions - banning fox hunting without addressing other animal welfare issues is an obvious example of 19th century class war. But 21st century Labour has also identified the oppressed groups (women, homosexuals, ethnic and religious minorities) who emerged into the political discourse 1950-1970. Labour's focus on people as clearly defined groups rather than individuals explains their enthusiasm for positive discrimination and quotas which focus on the number of a set 'type' of person rather than encouraging selection by individual circumstances and ability.

Old Labour focuses on collective action and the benefits to the many rather than the rights of the few. There are numerous examples of New Labour's collectivism. A good example is their rough-shod ride over civil liberties in the interest of the safety of society as a whole from terrorism (I'll ignore the practical problems with New Labour's policies in this area). Or the rhetoric on crime where they set themselves against namby-pamby middle-class people shying away from the [usually headline grabbing, insubstantial and poorly thought out] measures needed to protect the working class suffering on the front line. I'm semi-paraphrasing a tirade from Hain (I think it was either Hain or Reid). Unfortunately, I can't find a link... However, Tony Blair writes (more politely) on this subject:

'Our critics, who usually do not live in the communities most affected by crime and anti-social behaviour, often describe these measures as overly punitive and a threat to basic legal principles. '

Finally, Old Labour was paternalist towards the working class. New Labour also has 'nanny state' tendencies. Examples include obesity (a class/income issue) and smoking.

So why is Labour so commonly seen as right-wing? Well, the word ‘right’ is a tarnished term that in British politics today has become indistinguishable from ‘evil’. Being right-wing is something that causes a mieu of distaste at dinner parties – it makes you mad, bad and dangerous to know like having sex in the back of a Robin Reliant used to be. If ‘right-wing’ is a term of abuse then it follows that if the Labour government is doing something you don’t like (being authoritarian if you're a liberal) then they’re a bunch of 'right-wingers'.


  • At 7:34 pm , Blogger Simon said...

    On some things Labour are certainly authoritarian (ID cards etc), usually associated with being right-wing in British political terms (though, obviously, Stalin might have something to say about the right having a monopoly on this dubbious quality). Similarly, Labour's foreign policy can be characterised as neo-Conservative, (certainly hawkish) and possibly right-wing - though equally it can be described as a kind of ultra-liberal interventionist.

    On the whole though, you are right. Labour are still the party of the statist centre-left. I think there is a lesson in that somewhere....

  • At 11:56 pm , Blogger MatGB said...

    Simon; I think the only way to distinguish the British polity is to use the 4-way plot used by Mori and, wherein you hae economic left/right and authoritarian/liberal(libertarian) axes.

    On that, I personally think Labour are authoritarian/slightly left-of-centre, which has forced the Tories down the axes, towards us, and into libertarian(with centrist/statist remnants and tendencies)/Right(ish) politics.

    LibDems, broadly, remain Liberal (naturally), and probably slightly left of centre if you're looking at safety net/redistribution economics, and right of centre if you're looking at market/command control economics.

    Overall Ms Femme, a good post, mostly agree; I think Labour's cosying up to business and PFI shows centrist/right wing tendencies though, do you not?

  • At 8:25 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    My theory is tied up with the rejection of Clause IV. The purpose of bringing into state control the means of production (heavy industries like coal) was producer rather than consumer interests. Once large numbers of the 'hard-working poor' were not in heavy manufacturing/mining then nationalisation of manufacturing industry was no longer a core part of a statist left-wing agenda.

    This is why people are confused over what 'left' and 'right' now mean.

    For Labour, the focus then shifted to trying to deliver good quality public services whilst avoiding high taxation (which was an unideological decision to escape from their unelectability) and keeping tight centralised control. This required using the private sector for extra capital in public services. I think the methods of the private sector are fascinating to New Labour (a traditionally right-wing position) but their *intent* is entirely to do with providing for the poorest (which is a left-wing agenda).

  • At 8:59 pm , Blogger Meaders said...

    V. quick comment, but...

    The rise of the service industry has increased the size of the group that self-defines itself as middle-class...

    ...if that's true, why do the British Social Attitudes surveys report more and more respondents defining themselves as "working class"?

    (See also:

  • At 4:21 pm , Blogger Tristan said...

    Great post.
    Its something which has been occupying my mind somewhat.

    The other thing, the left in the sense of the labour movement and socialism have always been authoritarian. Its the only way to implement their policies. The only difference is they've used the terms of freedom and liberalism to describe what they're doing and significantly muddied the water.
    ID cards are as much a tool of the left as of the right in this sense.

  • At 7:59 pm , Blogger El Tom said...

    fantastic post. I think though that there are a plurality of 'Labour's at work, doing different things to each other, saying different things also.

    That's what government does to ya!


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