• How Has Labour Done?

    My friend and colleague, Austin Mitchell MP, asked me a month or two ago to write a short piece for the House Magazine on the state of the Labour government. He was kind enough to publish it on his own website but I reproduce it here for visitors to this site.

    “What is the role of the Left in an advanced democracy like Britain? What can reasonably be expected of a Labour Government? And these two questions prompt a third. Does the Labour Party still represent the Left in British politics?

    My answer to these questions (which were often raised with me by Labour Party members on my recent visit to Britain) is a personal one and starts with a proposition. In every society, power – unless checked – tends to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Britain is no exception. The powerful will always use their power to make themselves more powerful. The role of the Left in a properly functioning democracy is, surely, to counteract that concentration of power. The true business of Left politics, in other words, is (pace Mrs Thatcher) the diffusion of power throughout society.

    If that is to be achieved, the less-than-powerful majority must use their democratic political power to put in place a government that will achieve that purpose. That is what they think they are doing – even if not articulated – when they elect a Labour government.

    The expectation of a Labour government is, therefore, that it will restrict the growth of untrammelled economic power, especially in sensitive areas like the media. It will ensure that political power is equally shared – that the democratic process is maintained in good shape and that human and civil rights are protected. It will allow less powerful people to organise themselves so that their collective strength can protect them against the economic force of powerful individuals and groupings. It will guarantee the basic decencies of life to all in society, irrespective of their power or lack of it in the market-place, so that their life-chances are not arbitrarily restricted. It will develop the cohesion of society so that communities as well as individuals have a role to play and enjoy a stake in its success.

    None of this means that Left politics must always act against the powerful. Nor does it mean that the undoubted and unique benefits of market operations must be eschewed. It takes no account of other important requirements of good government, of which basic competence and good sense would rank high on the list and where the Labour government has, arguably, scored well. But it does mean that Left politics, and a government of the Left, should be distinguished by their willingness to restrain the powerful and to ensure that the less powerful are not overlooked or ground down and are, on the contrary, encouraged and liberated.

    This is not, it should be noted, a revolutionary agenda. It owes little or nothing to Marxism. It is, on the contrary, a sober, careful and non-ideological statement of what might reasonably be expected to distinguish a government of the Left from that of any other persuasion.

    So, how much of this can we see in today’s politics? And how does the Labour government measure up?

    The answers are – not much and not well. We see a Labour government which pays excessive attention to the powerful, both internationally and domestically, and which apparently believes that nothing can or should be done without their support. We see a Labour government that is prepared to endanger the democratic process and civil liberties by placing the interests of government and other big players ahead of those of ordinary people. We see a Labour government that has pursued an economic policy that favours asset-holders but jeopardises the jobs of those who make and sell things, a government that has – in areas like education – re-introduced unwelcome and unnecessary divisions, a government that apparently distrusts the idea of community and collective organisation, and prefers to entrust the functioning of society to the unchallenged market-place.

    If I am right in identifying a gap between what a Left government might reasonably be expected to do and what a Labour government has actually done, we might begin to make sense of the current political landscape. That gap means that there is a void in British politics – a hugely significant part of the political spectrum is no longer represented in the politics of power. This is more than just a deficiency, or an absence. The democratic Left, which has been the wellspring of so much that is progressive, innovative and reforming in Britain, finds that it is not only unrepresented but has actually been supplanted by what it thought was its own instrument – that, instead of what should be its voice, a different and contrary voice is heard.

    This in turn explains the sense of disappointment, even of betrayal, that I found so often expressed. Left activists and supporters are at best bewildered and apathetic, at worst angry but impotent, at what has happened. There is a powerful sense of lost opportunity. The thoughtful realise that the opportunity presented by an overwhelming popular mandate for change, the intellectual bankruptcy and debilitating divisions of the Right, and a consequent period of virtually unchallenged power in government, is unlikely to be repeated.

    They know that, while the Tory party may still – under an unproven leader who has yet to demonstrate any substance – lose the next election, there is a palpable sense that the balance of political advantage is shifting. David Cameron is at least succeeding in drawing a line under the disintegration of the past fifteen years and signalling that a new Tory Party is ready to contest for power. The risk to Labour is compounded not only by the cumulative failures that attend the progress of any government but by the loss of trust and sense of disappointment on the part of its own natural supporters.

    As the Blair period draws to an end, and an unparalleled window of opportunity closes, an alleged government of the Left will not only have wasted a unique chance of promoting real change. They will have achieved the reverse of what many of its supporters expected. They will have presided over, even engineered, an entrenchment of power for the powerful. Gordon Brown may well find that his inheritance is worth little more than a mess of pottage.”

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