• The Expense of New Labour

    As the scandal of MPs’ expenses unfolds, it threatens not only to expose individual sleaze but to create a crisis of confidence that will engulf the whole of the political class and Parliament as well.

    While it’s not surprising that Labour, as the party in power, is in the firing line, the Tories, and others, all have their skeletons in the cupboard too. But for Labour loyalists, it is not enough to say that others are equally culpable; we feel that we have the right to expect better from Labour.

    It is probably not too harsh to say that we don’t necessarily expect too much by way of principle from the Tories. They have always been a party of the self-interested. That self-interest is sometimes – in their better moments – tempered by a touch of noblesse oblige; but, in these days of the “self-made man”, there hasn’t been too much noblesse in evidence.

    Politics is, we know, a difficult business which demands compromise and the adjustment of principle to suit reality; but Labour politics has always seemed to enjoy – even in an era of aggressive individualism – the redeeming influence of a genuine concern for others and for the well-being of the whole community. So, how did we come to this? How did Labour embrace a culture of self-aggrandisement, pursued even against the interests of the disadvantaged in that society that we like to insist, pace Margaret Thatcher, does exist?

    It might be argued that we can’t indict the whole Labour Party because of the defalcations of a few. Well, that is indeed the question. Has New Labour’s “intense relaxation” about the “filthy rich” now been extended to ourselves? And does that indulgence cover the “filth” as well as the riches? Is this what New Labour now stands for in British politics?

    Is there, in other words, a recognisable connection between the politics of New Labour and the fall from grace of individual Labour standard-bearers? The first evidence of this was the emphasis placed by the New Labour project on doing whatever was necessary in order to win power, even if that meant the abandonment of principle. Opinions may differ on whether the junking of much that had been considered to be core Labour values was really required for electoral victory – and no one can doubt that the way in which those values should be applied to the issues of the twenty-first century was overdue for re-appraisal.

    But what was surprising about New Labour was the enthusiasm shown, not just for change and renewal, but for the positive adoption of a quite different agenda – one that had hitherto been seen, with its acceptance that the market should not be challenged and that growing inequality was the necessary condition for economic development, as the property of the right. The Labour Party found itself cut adrift from its traditional emphasis on the central role of government as defender of the weak, as a counter-force to an unfettered market and as a guarantor that everyone shared in growing prosperity.

    As it floated free from its traditional moorings, little wonder that a new generation of Labour leaders became confused about what they were in politics for. If policy dictated that unashamed greed was indeed the irreplaceable mainspring of economic advance, how could it be wrong to act on those same precepts in one’s own life?

    The whole thrust of the Blair government was, after all, that politics didn’t really matter, and indeed were best eschewed altogether. The Blair pitch was always that, if voters elected the right people (“pretty straight sort of guys”), they could safely forget about politics which would become nothing more than an annoying distraction – the domain of a few fanatics. The Labour Party was assured that it did not need political analysis or a programme for real reform.

    But without that analysis and programme, what was power for? The question matters little to the right; power for them is the means by which the pace and direction of change can be controlled and, at times, completely frustrated. But for the left, power is surely a means to an end, to a different and better society – one which shares its benefits with everyone.

    But that, too, was denied by New Labour. For them, the purpose of power was not to use it but to enjoy it and extend it. Power was a state of being, not a path to change. The over-riding priority of New Labour was always, from the first day of taking power, to retain it by winning the next election. Power as the instrument of change would be limited to those measures that did not alienate powerful interests and thereby jeopardise the perpetuation of power.

    That is why controlling the agenda through spin, why manipulating events through a mastery of the minutiae, of the often grubby day-to-day detail of politics, became the leit-motifs of New Labour government. They rarely bothered to lift their eyes to wider horizons or to re-connect with their core values. Tomorrow’s headlines were always their prime concern.

    Little wonder, then, that New Labour leaders lost their way. Short-term advantage, politically and personally, was all that mattered. The Labour Party is paying a heavy price for that distorted view of what left politics should be about.

    Bryan Gould

    12 May 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian (Comment Is Free) on 13 May