How New Labour Emerged from 1970s Labour Leftism

New Labour: The Radish Road

by Gwydion M. Williams

The present Labour leadership are in power because they followed the ‘Radish Road’: red outside, white inside. They were leftists when this was the path to office, helping to defeat the authentic moderates of the Social Democrats, who were eventually absorbed by the ineffective and small-minded Liberals. The ‘radishes’ seemed very red back then, they showed their real characters later on. New Labour has capitulated to New Right ideas in the way the Social Democrats never did, become enthusiasts at a time when the Tories were feeling doubts.

Lots of people have noticed that New Labour have all along been Control Freaks, more interested in being in charge than in getting the job done well. This helped them flourish under a shoddy ideology and in incoherent times. Thus when there was every chance for a peaceful world in the 1990s, Blair showed himself more interested in pursuing a vendetta against Saddam Hussein. Tough on peace, tough on the cause of peace

What happened in the 1960s and 1970s was a breaking-down of old social moralities, plus an incoherent, incomplete and unfinished attempt to build new ones. In the days of Harold Wilson’s leadership, Incomes Policy was an attempt to extend socialisation. So was Barbara Castle’s In Place Of Strife, the attempt to extending law into trade union matters. It could and should have been the next stage of socialism. But most of the left was 100% against In Place Of Strife—some because they thought it wouldn’t work, but more because they feared it would succeed. For all of the anti-Stalin rhetoric, they didn’t want to let workers run their own lives without ideological direction and without a repudiation of the evils of capitalism.

The left’s fear of ‘corporatism’ and a belief that strife would make a better world paved the way for Thatcherism and the New Right, much more at home in a world of endless strife. But it wasn’t just a matter of bad ideology, what was happening at the same time was the collapse of sexual and family norms that had been established by the first farmers back in the Neolithic. The fact that there wasn’t much more family property to be passed on to legitimate offspring changed the basis of human life. Suddenly the bulk of the population were free wage workers, with private property as a useful extra rather than a necessity.

The freeing of labour from land or small workshops permitted and encouraged a sexual revolution that went far beyond the once-radical notions of the 1917 Bolsheviks. The last quarter of the 20th century has seen socialist ideas about sex and family become the mainstream, even as there were setbacks on the economic front. It was maybe a bit unlikely that both transitions could happen at the same time and in the same society: both individual anarchic choice on sexual matters and an advance of social control for socialist ends.

Unlikely is not quite the same as impossible. Feasible left-wing economic and political options did exist in the 1960s and 1970s. As working class and middle class came together into a merged ‘working mainstream’, there was some interest in Workers Control and greater social consensus. But many of the same people who are now New Labour were then against a modest advance that fell short of overthrowing Capitalism.

It was bad tactics that caused defeat, plus the deep social transitions that absorbed a lot of the radical energies that the society contained. But the major changes have now happened, and people are discovering that individual anarchic choice on sexual matters creates a host of new difficulties. We should stop pretending that ‘stable relationships’ can work in the same way as traditional family structures. Recognise, in fact, that the state has to do a great deal more, and that it will cost money. You no longer have half of the human race centred on children, and the unpaid labour of women in stable family structures has to be replaced somehow.

We’ve overdosed on freedom, and need to ease up a little. I’m not looking for a return to Victorian values (which were lousy values in a cruel and often very damaging social structure). Nor to 1950s morality, definitely not. John Major’s feeble efforts at restoring tradition were squelched easily enough, and it was only much later that we found out that it was ‘Back To Basics, Front To Edwina Currie’. We need not go back to past certainties, and probably could not anyway. But we must establish new limits on freedom, in line with what we’re now willing to enforce. And such a progressive rebuilding of society is only thinkable once you have dropped the liberal-enlightenment notion that people will spontaneously fall into a particular pattern, become a contented herd of The Individual where everyone thinks the same thing without coercion.

Actual living people are not inclined to be a contented herd of The Individual, nor should they be asked to. We must keep alive a ‘right to be wrong’, the ability for people to be different from the perfect modern model of a modern Individualist. But a ‘right to be wrong’ also means that some will go too far, damage others as well as themselves, so some coercion is necessary. A society can only operate by a series of compromises between people with different viewpoints. There’s no need to say that these are equally legitimate: just that they have a right to exist as part of the richness of life. (Richness of life is quite different from material wealth, of course, and material wealth is also quite different from money. Standardised Individualism generates wealth but impoverishes life and can leave people prosperous but deeply unhappy.)

The one point of continuity among the ‘Radishes’ has been an inability to distinguish between compromise and betrayal. This attitude was publicised by Trotskyism, but it went wider than Trotskyites. Trotsky himself had been unscrupulously ingenious when in power, though you would never guess it from his writings. But after Lenin died, Trotsky must have decided that he didn’t have it in him to successfully manage a complex society in a complex world. He backed away from power and became more concerned with posturing in the mirror of history than actually producing positive results. And in this respect, his followers have been wonderfully loyal to him. In all of its decades of existence and with all of the talented people it has absorbed, what has Trotskyism actually achieved?

My own past is Maoist rather than Trotskyist, and I think that helps. The concept of ‘radishes’ is one I’ve borrowed from Maoism, and I make no apology for it. Maoism is dead now, but it was an alternative path out of 1950s politics, something that could have happened if some local struggles had done better—the Maoists of South Arabia, for instance, who did successfully kick the British out of Aden and hastened the end of colonialism. It was the existence of radicals who could have created an alternative 21st century that got the sex-drugs-pop radicals cherished as a cosy alternative to serious youth-rebellion. And Mao’s view of his ‘Capitalist-Road’ rivals was vindicated by events, except that they have successfully continued the main aim of a strong and self-sufficient China, not so far capitulating to New Right ignorance.

If the highly talented individuals who constituted the various Trotskyist sects had been Maoist instead, history would have gone differently. Only Maoists ever came close to actual revolution, in South Arabia and Peru and a continuing rebellion in Nepal, which has successfully changed the old order even if it may never actually win. Meanwhile Trotskyism remains a considerable hold-out, but can only criticise the present from the viewpoint of the past. It resists new ideas, and new ideas are essential to make sense of events since the 1960s.

Trotskyism is however just one of whole school of don’t-take-yes-for-an-answer ideologies that emerged in the 1960s. Trotskyism has retained elements of realism from its Leninist past, rival creeds are even more extreme. Feminism managed to discredit itself while achieving most of its original demands. Something similar is happening right now with the Ecological or Green movement.

The New Right won by default, teaming up with existing power when the left was more keen to prove its purity by refusal to compromise. Considered intellectually, New Right policies are a crazy mix of libertarian and authoritarian policies. Considered as a cover for the rise of an Overclass quite different from the old governing classes, it all suddenly makes sense. The rhetoric let ordinary people think that they were just about to be translated up into the Overclass and that their actual conditions of life were not something they needed to worry about or defend.

Some of the New Right also call themselves ‘Conservatives’, but if they are conservatives, then I’m an astronauts. You identity is based on what you actually do, not what you might abstractly have wished to do. The reality of the 1980s was the demolition of a great deal that had survived earlier radical pressures, and functional conservatism hardly got a look in, just briefly and feebly under John Major. New Labour is in many ways a better vehicle for Overclass aspirations: New Labour can quite openly preach the merits of uprooting anything old without the troublesome need to put anything better in its place. What ‘Neo-Conservatives’ were unable to do, New Labour need not pretend it wants to do.

During the 1980s, the old governing class thought it was in control and recovering its ‘natural’ position. The late Dennis Thatcher was typical of British business, which has been generally substandard in the actual process of wealth creation. And very effective at blaming everyone except themselves. Their main success while Mrs Thatcher was fronting for right-wing policies was to manage to bring Western Europe down to British and American rates of growth. Britain and America did slightly worse in the era 1975 to 2000 than they had in 1950-1975, the era of Keynesianism. Western Europe was catching up fast, but since the 1970s have stopped closing the gap. Britain’s skilled workforce and ingenious inventors still get wasted by a useless business class.

The suggested answer is Americanisation, and it’s a damn stupid answer. For one thing, it is much easier to copy American vices than American virtues, which is based on the existence of a mass of Standardised Individualists who will plug themselves into whatever portion of the US military-industrial machine offers them the most satisfaction. Individual Britons can slot themselves into this same social structure if they wish, but Britons as a whole cannot reinvent itself as if fourteen centuries of Englishness had never existed, nor can we forget that we do have local identities that mean a lot more than the difference between New York, Texas or California.

As well as this, US growth figures are presented in a misleading way. The USA had still got huge unpopulated regions (land taken after slaughtering the Native Americans) and so they can let in large numbers of immigrants. Taking the best and brightest from overseas means that the US economy grows faster than Europe—but growth per individual is much the same. And since we could not possibly let in vast new populations in the way the USA has done, nor run the massive trade deficits and budget deficits that the US gets away with, the notion of junking ‘Old Europe’ and becoming a flourishing Almost-America is a non-starter.

On this point, New Labour might be honestly mistaken. But they must know that US wealth has gone to the top 10% since the 1970s, after being distributed evenly to most people before that. Traditional distinctions between working class, middle class and ruling class have been eroded, instead you have a rich ‘Overclass’ that borrows its culture from all over. But the bulk of us belong in the Working Mainstream, people who may own some property but basically depend on paid work to live.

The ‘underclass’ are a mixed bunch, mostly not involved in wealth creation, but including both petty criminals and gentle people who live quietly without harming others. Its defining feature is a detachment from the society, people who are poor but have no self-identity. Coherent groups of poor people do also still exist, they are widespread, numerous and interesting.   But all of them are under attack and will eventually be de-socialised or ‘lumpenised’, unless the balance of the society is changed radically.

Like the ‘underclass’, the new ruling class are detached and short on self-identity. The Overclass retain the ruling-class right to control other people’s work, but have dropped whatever was left of social responsibility. Meantime the Working Mainstream are mostly producing a definite item that other people need, rather than deriving their power and position from controlling the work or wealth of others. This including the unpaid work of raising the next generation, which however gets defined as a ‘burden’, hence the pressure to cut back on state-funded education and a reluctance to spend more on childcare.

A society might theoretically slaughter its old people as soon as they stopped being productive. But the actual material wealth of a society is totally dependent on raising more people to do the work. If you assessed the process in terms of what you’d spend if people were marketable commodities, you see how fantastically wasteful the whole process is. Money spent on childcare may not generate profits from a cost-accounting point of view. But money spent on children’s needs will result in vastly more material wealth for the whole society in the long run, quite apart from benefits to quality of life. It was the German and US investment in their children that ensured that they were catching up with Britain in the years before 1914, and the same pattern is broadly true today.

To the New Right, of course, wealth cannot exist except by grace of market forces. This makes it hard to understand how wealth has been created in other ways—why in the pre-industrial world, Egypt’s theocratic monarchy made it the richest country in the Mediterranean basin, and why bureaucratic China was the world’s most populous state and the source of inventions such as paper, block-printing, the windmill, compass, wheelbarrow, gunpowder etc.

Civilisation is a prison we entered in order to become free. That’s the only conclusion I could come to, when I cut loose from existing ideas and tried to figure out what had actually happened. The unknown societies of the early neolithic were succeeded by small states with a prototype bureaucracy. And only in those states did progress occur to a more advanced human condition, mostly under ‘enlightened despots’ who were despotic rather than enlightened when it came to defending their own privileges. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle had been satisfactory to those who lived it, is still very satisfactory to the small number who’ve hung onto it, but it could do nothing to raise people above the level of clever animals.

Trade occurred where there was a state machine strong enough to make it a sensible idea to carry a mass of valuable and stealable goods into a crowd of people who were basically strangers. Trade and warfare were close companions, not alternatives: some societies were warlike without an interest in trade, as the Spartans were, but none took an interest in trade without discovering that wars of conquest made lots of new customers.

The New Right story of heroic progressive merchants versus smothering state machines is no more true than the adventures of Batman or The Incredible Hulk. Various tricks are used to avoid unsuitable facts. The New Right hold both that their system has always existed, and that it has never existed till maybe the 1980s. If it’s good, they’ll take the credit: if it’s bad, they’re not to blame.

Some unsuccessful national economies have practiced protectionism. But so have almost all of the highly successful economies, including Japan, South Korea after World War Two, the USA in the 19th century and Britain during its Industrial Revolution. The New Right conclude that the unsuccessful economies failed because of protectionism, whereas the successes succeeded despite protectionism. It’s pure ‘Enronism’, taking a variable view of the facts according to the case you are making.

Taking a variable view of the facts according to the case you are making is also normal for barristers, which is Tony Blair’s background. It’s called ‘trickery’ when done in ordinary life, but within the legal profession, it is deemed to be a transcendental source of justice.

Applied to politics, and jazzed up with trendy and populist language, it becomes ‘spin’. The particular character of particular individuals is not the important issue: it is a logical outcome of wider social trends.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2003.

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