By Paul Feldman
While the Tories plough on with a series of state interventions associated with their spurious “levelling up” agenda, lacing them with a heavy dose of authoritarian, populist measures aimed at protesters, migrants, voters and judges, Labour staggers from pillar to post.
The party is now consumed by what it has always excelled at – plotting, factionalism, briefing and counter-briefing. All to what avail? You may well ask at a time when real, effective opposition to the Tories is sorely needed.
After 15 months of a global pandemic, with chaotic responses by the Johnson government leading to unnecessary deaths, billions spent on failed track-and-trace programmes and contracts handed out with little if any due diligence, you would have thought Labour would be making hay.
Instead, the party is floundering, lacking any coherence and direction and losing traditional supporters in towns like Hartlepool and regions like the West Midlands, while in Scotland Labour is in third place behind the SNP and the Tories. Without winning seats in Scotland, it is almost impossible for Labour to form a government at Westminster.
Not only did Labour lose seats to the Tories at the local elections, they also conceded a substantial number to the Green Party and Liberal Democrats. With boundary changes which will benefit the Tories certain before the next general election, Labour is facing a bleak future.
Naturally, it’s easier for parties directly connected to the capitalist system to make adjustments as and when required. The Johnson government has become a spend, spend government, printing money like there is no tomorrow to shore up an economy shuttered by the pandemic.
That is precisely what the capitalist state is for. It steps in when capitalists themselves cannot keep the show on the road. It did so in 2008 when New Labour was in government and had to bail out the banks (after deregulating their operations, thus contributing to the crisis).
The real question is beyond Labour’s own willingness to contemplate, namely is there political space for a reformist, parliamentary-type of social democratic party to be effective in a period of globalised capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form?
New Labour was a conscious adaptation to the neoliberal period. The Blairites took the politics out of politics and turned government into the board of directors of Britain PLC. Their “theory” was that the wealth of a constantly expanding economy would “trickle down” to poorer classes.
When the financial crash arrived, followed by severe Tory-driven austerity, the reality was that of a more grossly unequal country, with large areas of the UK left without stable jobs, minimum wages, poor services, weakened trade unions and no voice.
This was a consequence of how neoliberal capitalism functions, then and now
The backlash began with the rise of the independence movement in Scotland, then Brexit, which gave ignored workers the opportunity to say “no” to the existing order, and then with Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader.
However, Labour failed to grasp what was going on, whoever the leader. On Scotland, all wings of the party remain – like the Tories – committed to a union created in 1707 that is undemocratic and no longer works in place of campaigning for self-determination for all the countries of the UK. On Brexit, Labour joined with the mainstream parties to urge remain. The party then proved incapable of endorsing the referendum result, leading to Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide to “get Brexit done”.
Keir Starmer epitomises this appalling lack of depth in social democratic thinking and practice in the context of the challenges posed by neoliberal capitalism.
He tail-ends the Tories because the alternative, as they say, is too awful to contemplate. As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, he is also a safe pair of hands as far as the state is concerned.
Radically altering capitalism using the mechanism of the capitalist state was never a practical proposition in the first place. However, while there was a nationally-based capitalism of sorts, allowing scope for a strong welfare state and economic tinkering, Labour might make headway when in office.
That economic and political space no longer exists. Global capital is footloose, pays little in the way of taxes and sets the conditions for government policies and practice. State power is increasingly fragmented and in intimate relationships with business and finance. Which is why social democratic parties have withered on the vine.
There’s a fundamental shift going on. The German SPD is kaput (13% of the vote at the last election) while the French Socialists are down at 5.68%, the Italian PD at 18.8% and in Greece, the once powerful Pasok recorded 8.1% last time out.
What these trends clearly indicate is a lingering death of the parliamentary system of government, based on representation, that allows the status quo of capitalism to remain in place. Within the shell of the old, we are witnessing the consolidation of capitalist power in the hands of right-wing parties who embrace populism and lead the shift towards authoritarian rule.
In their new legislative programme, the Tories announced plans to press ahead with curbs on protests, deepen the challenges facing migrants, restrict the right to vote with photo ID requirements and challenge the rule of law by limiting the scope for judicial reviews of government decisions.
Faced with this challenge, the left in the Labour Party have a responsibility to stick it to Starmer and his Blairite coterie in a creative way. They should throw all their weight behind the creation of a citizens-led convention on the constitution and power as a concrete way of relating to voters who have given up on the party.
Given a real push, such an initiative would mobilise the voiceless and disenfranchised behind proposals for a truly transformed, democratic system where economic and political power is finally in their hands. The alternative is to turn inwards while the existing system descends further into something quite threatening.