Archive for May, 2010

Now that Gordon Brown has announced that he will step down as leader of the Labour Party, he will no doubt be looking forward to having more time for contemplation and reflection.  I imagine he might even have time for a little light reading.  Perhaps I could suggest the following:

The vision of the early socialists was of a society which had abolished for ever the dichotomy – the split personality caused by people’s unequal control over their social development – between man’s personal and collective existence, by substituting communal co-operation for the divisive forces of competition.  Today the logic of present economic development, in inflation and stagnation, and at the same time the demand for the fullest use of material resources, makes it increasingly impossible to manage the economy both for private profit and the needs of society as a whole.  Yet the long-standing paradox of Scottish politics has been the surging forward of working class industrial and political pressure (and in particular the loyal support given to Labour) and its containment through the accumulative failures of successive Labour Governments.   More than fifty years ago socialism was a qualitative concept, an urgently felt moral imperative, about social control (and not merely state control or more or less equality).  Today for many it means little more than a scheme for compensating the least fortunate in an unequal society.

The author?  It was written in 1975 by a young Scottish socialist called Gordon Brown (in his introduction to the Red Paper on Scotland).

This is not the first example of a political journey from workers’ champion to bankers’ friend (and it surely will not be the last).  I am reminded of former Trotskyist T. Dan Smith, another labour leader who believed he could use capitalism for the benefit of the working class.  That all ended in ignominy too.

The post-election spectacle of political elites negotiating, bluffing, spinning and intriguing to decide who will take up the offices of state has dominated the media since polling day.  The way in which it has progressed has been depressingly predictable: secret discussions by a cabal of the ‘political class’ while everyone waits passively for the outcome.

Media coverage has, as usual, been dominated by the superficial.  Politics as sport or soap.  Few commentators get beyond speculation on the likelihood or desirability of Clegg supporting either the Conservatives or Labour.  Those few who point out that, in reality, the outcome is unlikely to be very different either way are drowned out by the froth.  In today’s Guardian Gary Younge makes the obvious point that, whatever deals are done by the parties, it is the ‘markets’ that have the decisive hand.  The markets want a stable government to deliver austerity cuts to public spending and all the parties are willing to oblige with more or less enthusiasm.  The conservatives are obviously impatient to do to the country what Thatcher did to the miners, but Labour is more than willing to do whatever it takes to return to ‘business as usual’.

The question is not Which side are you on, Clegg, Labour or Conservative?  (I am sure he will be able to ditch any number of his principled positions in order to serve with Cameron in the ‘national interest’).  But rather, which side are they all on?  Perhaps when people see a coalition of the damned and desperate start to dismantle public services, sack workers (or “free them to the private sector” as it will be described) and deepen the recession they will be less inclined to put their trust in our dear leaders.

In his recent little rant in The Guardian, George Monbiot lists more than enough reasons for erstwhile Labour voters to withdraw their support at this election.  It includes the usual complaints from the left/centre-left over the growth in inequality, pro-business policies and authoritarian social policies inflicted or tolerated by Labour since 1997.  This criticism, though damning enough, is not sufficient to convince a lot of committed (if unhappy) Labour supporters – in his blog David Osler has consistently argued the case for the left to stick with Labour, if not uncritically.  This view combines two elements: first that all the likely alternatives would be worse, and secondly that the Labour Party can be renewed in either its old social democratic form or a more radical, left guise while maintaining its working class base.

The first argument, as well as being speculative, tends to exaggerate the differences between the three ‘main’ parties.  In their joint determination to see the recent economic crisis and subsequent recession as simply a Minsky Moment which can be eased back to ‘business as usual’ by more regulation of financial services and (a little) more restraint by bankers, they surely are the three wise monkeys of capitalism.  As I suspected would be the case, this election campaign has revealed very little in the way of significant differences between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats, whether on the economy, civil liberties or the environment.

The second argument ignores the way in which all votes cast for Labour have explicitly been used as evidence of positive support for the New Labour project.  Also it does not address the limitations of reformist parties which lack clear objectives or mass popular support or both.

The unpalatable truth is, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed, non of the parties is being honest about just how severe the coming public sector cuts are likely to be.  But to challenge the consensus for this among the ‘political class’ of politicians, commentators and experts means challenging the system of capital accumulation itself.  New Labour, as boosters for globalised monopoly finance capital, are surely part of the problem not the solution. The Labour left, though, is still wedded to a feeble ‘state socialism’ based on a centralised state delivering welfare services to a passive, dis-empowered electorate which is funded by redistribution within a growing ‘mixed economy’.

Anyone concerned with substantially changing a system that is based on notions of economic growth that are unsustainable, that creates poverty, and promotes inequality, must look outside the Labour Party even to be able to debate these issues.