Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Current discontents

Margaret Thatcher once declared, when asked what she considered to be her greatest political achievement, that it was New Labour. And she was absolutely right. New Labour meant Thatcherite Labour; the electorate voted in 1997 to dispose of Thatcherism and what they got – apart from devolution, the minimum wage and some improvement in cultural repression – was Thatcherism intensified. As Jon Pilger has written, ‘Since Margaret Thatcher, British Parliamentary democracy has been progressively destroyed as the two main parties have converged into a single-ideology business state, each with almost identical social, economic and foreign policies’, or as Malcolm Burns put it, ‘they were voting against 18 years of dismal Tory misrule … they are now about to vote against 13 years of Labour misrule’. Labour and the Tories were not two distinct competing parties offering alternatives, they were different wings of the big-property party.

The Euro elections were not the predicted catastrophe – they were much worse. Only in one region, the North East did Labour come out ahead, though with a nine percent drop from 2004. In Cornwall they came out behind even the Cornish nationalists, and overall behind UKIP. The worst calamity of a calamitous night was that the collapse of the Labour vote permitted the successful election of two neonazis, even though those candidates’ vote was itself somewhat down on 2004. The prime minister’s survival, in question for some time, became even more so.

Not that any sympathy should be wasted on Gordon Brown, largely the author of his own misfortunes. Away back in the 1980s when Labour was still in opposition the leftist journal London Labour Briefing used to run a feature entitled ‘Class Traitor of the Month’ (which I thought at the time was rather absurd). On one occasion it treated Brown and Blair together and combined them into a cartoon animal with a head at either end. It was a perceptive insight. Much was made at the time of personal rivalries and explosive arguments between the pair, but in political outlook they were joined at the hip and Brown, despite occasional rhetorical flourishes pretending to distance himself, followed Blair in every particular in their descent into the lethal swamp of authoritarian unregulated global capitalism, dragging the Labour Party behind them.

His first action as Chancellor was to remove government control over the Bank of England, followed shortly thereafter by authorising cuts in benefit payments for single mothers. He set about piratising every amenity that Thatcher and Major had overlooked and which could be sold off. For those which couldn’t he went on to extend the Tory-invented PFI policy when public financing would have been immeasurably cheaper, thereby pouring unnecessary billions into the pockets of speculators, bankers, insurers and legal firms and saddling the said amenities with mountainous debt into the indefinite future. Above all, Brown was certainly the one individual in the country who, by threat of resignation, might have put a veto on Blair’s determination to drag the country into the Iraq war. If he had any reservations he kept quiet about them and instead set about organising the financial measures needed for the criminal act. Now he appoints the unelected Alan Sugar to his government. It is truly beyond parody

It has been suggested that Brown’s problem is that he is dour and Scottish, insufficiently salonfähig, therefore unacceptable as prime minister among the higher reaches of the British establishment. There is probably a measure of truth in this, but were he presiding over policies which favoured Labour’s natural constituency and the mass of middle-class electors rather than the super-wealthy, working to improve the infrastructure of public amenities and making them democratically answerable, then the crises besetting the country would be containable, establishment attitudes would be a matter of indifference and the BNP nowhere.

Instead, one insider is reported as saying that he lacks the qualities to appeal to ‘middle England’. It seems somewhat unlikely that middle England is panting for a NHS which is falling apart and its pieces being thrown to the financial wolves, mass closure of post offices and the end of a universal service, a rail system where the passengers are ripped off in order to rides in extreme discomfort, an educational structure being steadily removed from any vestige of democratic control, financial starvation of local authorities so that essential services are progressively run down, an extending Orwellian bureaucratic society and merciless persecution of unemployed and disabled people, to be treated as suspected criminals the moment they apply for benefits. At any rate if there have been mass demonstrations demanding the imposition of these things we haven’t noticed them. What we do have is mass voting abstention by an electorate which in 1997 saw its hopes at the time embodied in Labour and subsequently found utter disillusion.

A collapsed party with scarcely an activist to be found anywhere, the total squandering of the unprecedented public acclaim of twelve years ago, the worst electoral performance since the First World War, a lame duck prime minister dependent on the grace and favour of the unelected and toxic Mandelson, and certain electoral annihilation within the coming year – New Labour’s legacy.