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John Newsinger

Plumbing the depths

Some recent books on New Labour

(Summer 2000)

From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Richard Heffernan
New Labour and Thatcherism
Macmillan 2000, £42.50

Colin Hay
The Political Economy of New Labour
Manchester University Press 1999, £14.99

Norman Fairclough
New Labour, New Language?
Routledge 2000, £9.99

In an editorial on 24 April 2000, New Statesman warned its readers to beware of the notorious food voucher system New Labour is imposing on asylum seekers. We should all watch this scheme carefully, the magazine advised, because:

How governments treat refugees ... is how they would treat the rest of us. Nothing better illustrates the present meanness of mind and spirit than the food voucher scheme for asylum seekers which goes to elaborate lengths to avoid a few stray pennies falling into Albanian hands, and costs more to administer than a cash benefits scheme. Can it be very long before we have similar voucher schemes for the unemployed, single mothers and others on benefits? Our rulers may eventually get rid of the asylum seekers, but they will still want someone to kick around.

For a magazine close to New Labour to editorialise in these terms seems to indicate that disillusion with Blair and Co is complete. Even the New Labour government’s friends believe that it is capable of just about anything, that there is no policy initiative too reactionary for Blair, Straw, Brown, Blunkett and the rest of them, that while the interests of big business and the rich are sacrosanct the rest of us can be treated with thinly disguised contempt.

This is all a long way away from the great day of reckoning on 1 May 1997 when the Major government was decisively thrown out. Nevertheless, to be fair, it has to be admitted that Blair made it absolutely clear in the general election campaign that his government would be an uncompromisingly right wing government that looked more to Thatcher for inspiration than to Attlee or Wilson, or even Gaitskell and Crosland. New Labour’s perverse conclusions were that their electoral triumph derived not from the electorate’s rejection of Tory policies, but from New Labour’s embrace of those policies.

Despite Blair’s open conservatism, there were still some on the left who entertained serious illusions in the radical potential of a New Labour government. It seems almost cruel to recall some of the contributions to the 1998 Lawrence & Wishart volume, The Moderniser’s Dilemma: Radical Politics in the Age of Blair. Paul Richards, for example, enthused about New Labour’s embrace of ‘permanent revolution’ and prophesied that by 2007 New Labour ‘will be viewed as the natural party of government’. Tony Blair, still in charge, will be seen as ‘Britain’s most radical prime minister since Lloyd George’. Even more optimistically, he forecast that everyone would ‘remember the day they spent at Greenwich at the Millennium Experience for the rest of their lives’. For another contributor, Anne Showstack Sassoon, despite some reservations, Blair and New Labour were engaged in a Gramscian project. Indeed he might well be ‘a contemporary Gramscian Modern Prince’. In particular, she saw Gramsci’s influence as informing New Labour’s education policy! She identified New Labour’s links with the Demos think tank as of strategic importance, while another contributor, Geoff Andrews, acknowledged the extent to which Tony Blair was the Marxism Today candidate for Labour leader. A follow-up volume, perhaps entitled An Apology for the Moderniser’s Dilemma, would seem called for. [1]

Even a much more substantial commentator like Brian Simon, a lifelong Communist, Marxist historian and champion of comprehensive education, could write in his autobiography, A Life In Education (another Lawrence & Wishart book), of a new progressive consensus informing New Labour’s educational policy: ‘New Labour has hit the ground running. Early measures give new hope for the future.’ [2] What has followed has been a New Labour assault on everything Simon has spent his life in education fighting for. The abolition of student grants and the imposition of fees for higher education, the beginning of the privatisation of state school provision, performance related pay for teachers, the extension of the Conservatives’ regime of testing, covert selection and the reappointment of the much hated Chris Woodhead as chief inspector of schools revealed New Labour’s reactionary educational credentials. Presumably Simon was one of those who did not realise that David Blunkett was only joking when he told the Labour Party conference that there would be no selection under a Labour government. [3]

Of course, if Blunkett’s deliberate and calculated lie could pass as a joke, then Peter Hain’s 1995 volume, Ayes To The Left: A Future for Socialism (yet another Lawrence & Wishart book), is one of the great contemporary comic novels. Appealing to William Morris and Tom Mann, to Noam Chomsky, to Ralph Miliband and Antonio Gramsci, Hain warned that the next Labour government would be ‘considerably constrained by hostile "extra-parliamentary" forces in the City, the currency markets, the civil service and other parts of the state apparatus including ... the judiciary, the intelligence services and the military’. To counter this, New Labour would have to ‘generate support through popular mobilisation and campaigning for socialist ideas’. Blair and Co needed, according to Hain, to ‘embark upon a consistent and continuous programme of discussion, highlighting the nature of power in a capitalist society, and working together for an alternative’. Above all else, he warned, New Labour must avoid ‘being identified as the establishment’. Particularly hilarious was his categorical assertion that New Labour ‘should be a microcosm of a libertarian socialist society, pre-figuring it through its own practice’. [4] Only two years later this socialist prince was to have made the magical transformation into New Labour frog, from extra-parliamentary radical into one of Blair’s courtier apparatchiks. From being a starry eyed advocate of inner party democracy, Hain moved to being one of the cynical architects of the Welsh Labour Party stitch-up, imposing Alun Michael on a party and electorate who wanted Rhodri Morgan. Indeed, according to fellow Labour MP Paul Flynn, Hain’s remarkable abilities have led to him being compared with ‘Odo, Star Trek’s shapeshifter who liquefies at the end of each day and sleeps in a bucket, then emerges later in any shape he wishes’. [5] Lightweight, heavyweight, opportunist, all saw New Labour, despite the evidence, as a vehicle for their hopes and dreams, in itself a tribute to the power of spin.

How to explain New Labour’s dramatic shift to the right? There are two preliminary points to be made here. First, it is necessary to be clear about how right wing previous Labour governments have been, strikebreaking, attacking working class living standards in the interests of capital, suppressing colonial unrest. An understanding of the Thatcherite character of New Labour politics should not be allowed to foster illusions in the performance of previous Labour governments. Second, the Blairite domination of the Labour Party is not the triumph of the revisionist wing of the party, of the traditional Labour right wing. Anthony Crosland, for example, looks like a dangerous leftist set alongside Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as indeed do Denis Healey, Roy Hattersley and even the likes of Ted Heath, the former Conservative leader. On the contrary, what we have with New Labour is a government that has embraced Thatcherism and in a number of areas (education, welfare, privatisation) is actually carrying Thatcherism further than the Conservatives ever dared.

This is not to say that the Labour Party itself has become a Thatcherite party, although this certainly seems to be Blair’s ambition. The growing revolt exemplified by the downfall of Alun Michael and the victory of Ken Livingstone is evidence of this. Rather the Labour leadership have embraced Thatcherism as the only way that they will be allowed to run the country. Of course for Blair, Peter Mandelson and their closest allies in the New Labour leadership this is the way they actually prefer to run the country. Indeed, as a number of commentators have pointed out, they have effectively repudiated Labour’s past, even to the extent of regarding the party’s establishment as a mistake.

Two related factors explain New Labour’s embrace of Thatcherism; developments in the global economy and their working out in Britain, and the shift in the balance of class forces within Britain that took place in the 1980s. Overwhelmingly, discussion (usually misleading) of New Labour has focused on the first, with the second, the terrain of class conflict, being either passed over or ignored. In fact, for the purposes of this discussion it is the balance of class forces that is decisive.

The 1980s saw not only a number of historic defeats being inflicted on the working class (the return of mass unemployment, the miners’ strike of 1984–1985, Wapping, the consolidation of draconian anti trade union legislation), but an accompanying aggrandisement of capital. Crucial in this respect were a whole range of Conservative initiatives designed to redistribute wealth and power into the hands of big business and the rich. Deregulation and privatisation brought a significant increase in the wealth and power of the capitalist class in Britain accompanied by a weakening of the position of the working class. The balance of forces shifted. This is not an abstract proposition but is reflected in people’s everyday lives, in what they have to put up with at work, at the job centre, in life generally. While inequality and poverty, exploitation and injustice all increased and worsened under the Conservatives, the response of New Labour in the 1990s was to embrace the neo-liberal agenda of the victors in this latest round of the class war. In essence, what we have with Blair is a recognition that the Labour Party would only be allowed into government by the capitalist class if it was prepared to continue with the Thatcherite agenda, that New Labour had to become ‘the party of business’. This explains the paradox whereby New Labour came to power as a result of popular rejection of Conservative policies, but, at the same time, embraced those policies.

Blair’s courting of Rupert Murdoch exemplifies New Labour’s relationship with the capitalist class. One recent account has described how this courtship operated at a number of levels:

First, Rupert Murdoch himself was wooed like a beautiful woman. When he came to town, Blair and his lieutenants would drop everything to have dinner with him. After Blair’s annual party conference speech, the Labour leader’s first priority was to speak to Murdoch. He would allay his concerns on some issues, highlight political movement in others; always courteous, deferential and eager to learn Murdoch’s own opinion ... This process of intensive cultivation reached its crowning moment in the summer of 1995 when the Labour leader flew halfway across the world to address a meeting of News International executives on Hayman Island, just off the Queensland coast. Blair’s decision to embark on this 25,000 mile round trip...was an extraordinary act of fealty.

Murdoch required three things of Blair: no repeal of the anti-union laws, no privacy legislation and no interference with cross-media ownership. New Labour obliged. [6]

The fact that Blair listens more to Murdoch than to the leaders of the TUC is not just a matter of his personal preference for the rich (although this is certainly the case), but rather of the shift in the balance of class forces accomplished by the Thatcher government. From this point of view, the defeat of the print unions at Wapping was one of the preconditions for New Labour.

New Labour’s embrace of a whole raft of big business leaders (Martin Taylor of Barclays Bank, David Simon of British Petroleum, Peter Davies of Prudential Insurance, Dennis Stevenson of Pearson, Bob Ayling late of British Airways and, of course, Lord Sainsbury, the second richest man in Britain) is part of this attempt to consolidate New Labour as the party of business. The private finance initiatives are all intended to have a similar effect: to reward business, to fill their mouths with gold, so that they come to identify the New Labour government as their government. Similarly with New Labour’s conversion to privatisation, a conversion that extends, so far, to air traffic control, state education, job centres, prisons and detention centres. Higher education is on the list for future sell-offs. What is particularly interesting about privatisation is that it is unpopular with the great majority of voters, but really popular with New Labour’s real target constituency: big business. It is only a matter of time before we have a former New Labour Home Office minister joining the board of a private prison corporation.

One last point is worth making before we move on to examine the books by Heffernan, Hay and Fairclough: Gordon Brown’s so called socialism by stealth. While only Polly Toynbee of The Guardian is really taken in by this, it is worth noticing a significant difference between the New Labour and Conservative strategies on welfare. New Labour has decisively resurrected the categories of deserving and undeserving poor. There are benefits for those in work (deserving), while for those out of work (undeserving) there is an increasingly punitive regime derived from US workfare. Brown has in the past floated everyday signing on as a way forward and one suspects that, if they think they can get away with it, food vouchers will prove irresistible as a way of stigmatising claimants and coercing people off the dole. The test of these measures will come when there is an increase in unemployment and large numbers of new claimants discover at first hand the real nature of New Labour’s reforms.

Let us look at Richard Heffernan’s New Labour and Thatcherism. As the co-author (with Mike Marqusee) of a useful book on Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party, Defeat From the Jaws of Victory, Heffernan’s new study was something to look forward to. Unfortunately it promises considerably more than it delivers. One of the reasons for this is quite simply that it is written as a contribution to academic debate rather than activist discussion, considering the transformation from Old Labour to New Labour, in terms of bourgeois political science rather than of class struggle and class politics. On the plus side, Heffernan has no hesitation in establishing New Labour’s Thatcherite credentials. He emphasises that the scale of the transformation ‘cannot be underestimated’ and then goes on to give shape to that transformation:

As leader, Blair made clear his commitments to the enterprise society fashioned in the 1980s and made no secret of his determination to both win the endorsement of businessmen and to forge a partnership with business: ‘The deal is this: we leave intact the main changes of the 1980s in industrial relations and enterprise. And now, together we address a new agenda for the 21st century: education, welfare reform, infrastructure, and leadership in Europe.’ ‘In pursuing this ‘accord’ with business, Labour’s unwillingness to closely associate with trade union rights was almost worn as a badge of courage. In a piece written for the Daily Mail in March 1997 Blair argued: ‘Even after the changes the Labour Party is proposing in this area, Britain will remain with the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world.’ Blair made clear that Labour would encourage, rather than limit, flexible labour markets: ‘Our proposals for change, including the minimum wage, would amount to less labour market regulation than in the US.’

Such is Tony Blair’s willingness to closely associate himself with business interests as part of his preparedness to embrace Thatcherite politics, New Labour has reached out well to the right of the Old Labour constituency. This has won Blair the warm private praise of Margaret Thatcher who has declared the country ‘safe in his hands’.

Heffernan’s focus is on how and why this transformation took place, and to this end he puts forward a sadly impoverished theory of party competition with Labour playing the role of catch-up party embracing a new consensus. What passes for theory here describes rather than explains, and leaves all the important questions unasked, let alone unanswered. Moreover, his approach is actually disabling. Heffernan’s focus is so determinedly electoral that, despite his very evident hostility towards Blairism, the book contributes nothing to the fight against it.

Early on he reveals the limitations of his analysis when discussing the structural and contextual constraints within which political parties operate. He identifies two levels: the economic – domestic fiscal constraints, the globalised economy, international capital markets and international institutions. This account of the economic actually involves accepting the neo-liberal account of the modern capitalist economy. Once you start from this premise, then New Labour really was inevitable and resistance, as they say, is futile. Even more problematic is his political level – electoral demands, electoral outcomes, governmental and administrative structures and international policy agendas. Here we have a narrow academic definition of the political without the capitalist class, without the working class, without class conflict. Indeed, these phenomena make no appearance in a book that pretends to explain political change in contemporary Britain. The weakness of this approach is best demonstrated by this one reference to the 1984–1985 miners’ strike. It is mentioned in the context of Neil Kinnock’s efforts to defeat the Labour left and consolidate his control over the party. And that is it. One of the great class battles of the 20th century is reduced to a minor problem for the Labour leadership, temporarily interrupting their efforts to shift the party to the right, rather than being recognised as a decisive factor in making that shift possible. There is no recognition of the increasing power and wealth of the capitalist class as the necessary context for New Labour because, of course, academic political science does not acknowledge the existence of a capitalist ruling class. Heffernan, in the best traditions of academic discourse, is studying the echo of the class struggle rather than the class struggle itself. [7]

More interesting is Colin Hay’s The Political Economy of New Labour, although this volume too has serious political weaknesses. Hay sets out to demonstrate that the Labour Party had in the early 1990s ‘ceased effectively to be a social democratic party’ and had instead committed itself to ‘a pervasive neo-liberal economic orthodoxy’ and to ‘a basic acceptance of the legacy of the Thatcher years’. If New Labour is revisionist it is not social democracy it is revising, but Thatcherism. Proof of this is provided by Blair’s endorsement of Conservative anti trade union laws and Brown’s support for workfare (Hay writes of New Labour’s ‘surprisingly punitive reforms’ which go further ‘than anything attempted by the Conservatives’). Where the Blairites are correct is in recognising that there can be no going back to the days of Old Labour, that the world has moved on and the Keynesian welfare state is no more. The left has to adapt. Hay sees people like himself, ‘the organic intellectuals of a resurgent and renewed left’, as having an important contribution to make in this respect. This is where the problems begin.

Hay has a party competition explanation for New Labour’s Thatcherism, which, at times almost reduces it to mere political opportunism. This is the conventional wisdom of academic political science. Once again, as with Heffernan, there is no recognition of the way that the change in the balance of class forces in the 1980s provided the necessary context for New Labour. Blair’s determination to make New Labour the party of business was not about winning votes, not an electoral strategy, but rather a recognition of the aggrandisement of the capitalist class, of their increased wealth and power. The traditional Labour government role of mediating between big business and the trade unions was no longer viable because of the increased strength of big business and the weakening of the trade unions. If Labour could not play this mediating role then it would have to become the party of business if it was to be allowed to govern. The way that Blair, Mandelson and Co have treated the trade union leaders makes this absolutely clear. Whereas Hay seems to think that it will be possible to persuade Blair that there are better policies, dare one say ‘organic policies’, for New Labour to introduce, the real task is to defeat them. The role of ‘organic intellectuals’ is to contribute to the rebuilding of the working class movement so that it can defeat New Labour’s attempts to continue the transformation of Britain into a Thatcherite paradise.

One of the most interesting sections of Hay’s book is his discussion of New Labour’s failure to come up with an industrial policy, with a strategy for safeguarding, let alone rebuilding, Britain’s shrunken manufacturing base. This seems particularly pertinent today, especially as I was reading that chapter when BMW first announced the closure of Rover. Certainly his criticisms of New Labour in this regard seem absolutely spot on. What he proposes as the role for socialist intellectuals confronted with this situation amounts to their convincing New Labour of an alternative economic policy fostering indigenous investment which will be better for British capital in the longer term. In effect, he proposes that the job for socialists is to try and save British capitalism from itself. Not only is such an enterprise absolutely futile, but it also detracts from the struggle to defeat New Labour, from the fight for jobs. [8]

This brings us to Norman Fairclough’s New Labour, New Language? – a book that seeks ‘to illuminate New Labour politics and government through a focus on language’. Of course, Fairclough is not the first person to notice the peculiar phenomenon of New Labourspeak. Peter Oborne, in his biography of Alistair Campbell, one of Blair’s right hand men, noticed the emergence of a New Labour prose style that was:

… a strange mixture of the gushing platitudes of Hello! magazine and those steely tributes to heroes of the Russian working class that used to appear in Soviet Weekly during the Stalinist years ... the stark use of words, the absence of humour, the poverty of language, the lack of interest in ideas, the sense of impatience with other points of view, the bustling determination to make everything appear in the best possible light.

According to Oborne, Campbell has invented a whole new way of lying and misleading, a new rhetoric of distortion, that has spread like ‘a disease’. He actually forecasts that this is a significant enough phenomenon to attract a future PhD student. [9] He was not far wrong because Norman Fairclough, Professor of Language in Social Life, has stepped forward to subject New Labour English to an extremely enjoyable academic (in the best sense of the word) dissection.

Fairclough makes his position absolutely clear:

The crucial starting point for the politics of New Labour is acceptance of the new international economic liberalism – ‘the new global economy’ in its own terms – as an inevitable and unquestionable fact of life upon which politics and government are to be premised. My interest in the politics and language of New Labour starts from my view that it is profoundly dangerous for my fellow human beings for this new form of capitalism to develop unchecked both because it dramatically increases inequality (and therefore injustice and suffering) and because it threatens to make life on earth ecologically unsustainable.

What he proceeds to do is show the way that New Labour’s language contrives to conceal what the New Labour government is actually about. The most important part of his argument concerns the way that New Labour constructs neo-liberalism and globalisation as givens. These are accomplished facts of life that are as far as possible taken for granted, assumed, seen as no more susceptible to human agency than the weather. Moreover, the role of multinational companies is rendered invisible. When New Labour politicians talk about the economy they talk about a mechanism that runs itself, where power is never exercised and profit is realised without any human intervention. Multinational companies are the ghost in this machine, an unspoken presence to which New Labour pays obsequious fealty but never publicly even acknowledges the existence of. This is particularly telling.

Fairclough’s conclusion is that for New Labour’s distinctively promotional style of government the management of perception has been particularly important. While the Conservative government certainly attempted this, it is more crucial to New Labour. Why should this be so? Certainly one likely reason is that, while we have a Thatcherite government, the membership of the Labour Party and the people who voted for it have certainly not embraced Thatcherism – indeed 1 May 1997 was a decisive rejection of Thatcherite policies which have had to be repackaged as the ‘Third Way’. Workfare becomes welfare to work and privatisation becomes the private finance initiative. Of course, it is already clear that no amount of perception management can indefinitely cover up what is really going on. New Labour’s current troubles derive from their implementation of the same policies that destroyed the Major government. [10]


1. A. Coddington and M. Perryman, The Moderniser’s Dilemma: Radical Politics in the Age of Blair (Lawrence & Wishart 1998), pp. 43, 45, 56, 160 and 166.

2. B. Simon, A Life In Education (Lawrence & Wishart 1998), p. 126.

3. Writing in New Statesman on 24 April 2000 Francis Beckett captured David Blunkett’s serial duplicity beautifully: ‘A reporter called Nicolas Barnard of The Times Educational Supplement phoned the anti 11-plus campaigners in Trafford (near Manchester). They mentioned a statement in their support from the education secretary, David Blunkett, which they’d been given by their local MP, Bev Hughes. Barnard – surprised because Blunkett, in office at least, has always refused to help the anti-selection campaigners – rang Hughes. She was furious. How did Barnard know about the statement? It was only for local newspapers, not for national papers. Blunkett wanted to keep local supporters sweet, but he didn’t want anyone in London to know about it.’

4. P. Hain, Ayes To The Left: A Future For Socialism (Lawrence & Wishart 1995), pp. 34, 234.

5. P. Flynn, Dragons Led by Poodles: The Inside Story of a New Labour Stitch-up (Politico’s Publishing 1999), p. 11.

6. P. Oborne, Alistair Campbell: New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class (Aurum Press 1999), p. 141.

7. R. Heffernan, New Labour and Thatcherism: Political Change in Britain (Macmillan 2000), pp. 14, 23–24.

8. C. Hay, The Political Economy of New Labour (Manchester University Press 1999), pp. 71, 121.

9. P. Oborne, op. cit., p. 173

10. N. Fairclough, New Labour, New Language? (Routledge 2000), p. 15.

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