Socialist Worker

Does Brown back Old or New Labour?

Issue No. 1734

You can tell an election is on the way. Last Monday's Guardian signalled that Gordon Brown is planning a £3 billion package aimed at families with children. Some believe there's more to this than just the usual hustling for votes. Roy Hattersley argues the New Labour project was already dead before Peter Mandelson's fall:

'The notion that Labour could be elected only if it abandoned all its traditional values died with Gordon Brown's 2000 spending review. Tony Blair in Brighton last year, for the first time at a Labour conference, sounded like a Labour prime minister. Over the past couple of years Labour has found its ideological feet. Brown's ideas are now edging their way into the prime minister's speeches. Mandelson's theory that it was essential to ditch socialism was, like him, only briefly fashionable.'

According to Hattersley, the cause of Old Labour is safe in Gordon Brown's hands. This is a view quite widely shared by Labour supporters who loathe everything Mandelson represented but don't want to give up on the party he tried to transform.

Fellow Guardian columnist Hugo Young pointed out one difficulty with Hattersley's theory. On Wednesday of last week Brown hosted a seminar organised by the John Smith Institute in Number 11 Downing Street.

The keynote speaker was James Q Wilson, a leading figure of the American New Right and a supporter of imprisoning single mothers. Young reported:

'The professor's message is that modern social ills can only be cured by a revival of individual morality. He has examined the moral decline of the advanced societies, and makes a case for the intervention of voluntary agencies to revive the family and reverse the trend. Wilson's biggest recent triumph is the arrival of a former pupil at the head of George Bush's new programme of faith-based initiatives to restore 'values' to American society.'

But Young says that rather than dismiss Wilson as the reactionary old bigot he undoubtedly is, Brown 'spoke reverentially of Wilson as a towering authority whose books he had read with profit'.

Nor is this just a flash in the pan. Last month Brown made a speech suggesting a return to the Victorian policy of leaving much of the responsibility for providing social welfare to private charities and churches.

The ideology of the New Right under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan involved precisely this kind of celebration of traditional 'values'-family, church, monarchy, nation. This was combined with neo-liberal economics that scrapped constraints on the market.

Brown's first act as Chancellor of the Exchequer was to implement a longstanding neo-liberal demand by making the Bank of England independent. He is pressing for next month's European Union summit in Stockholm to push ahead with the deregulation of the energy and capital markets.

It's true Brown's spending review last July announced big increases in the amount of public money he plans to devote to the welfare state. But these will not even make up for the brutal squeeze he imposed during Labour's first three years in office.

Commenting on tax increases under New Labour, the Financial Times's free market columnist Martin Wolf wrote, 'This may look like a classic 'tax and spend' left of centre government. Appearances are deceiving. It has been a 'tax and not spend' government, instead. Over the parliament, government spending rose an average of only 1.2 percent a year, less than half the growth rate of the economy. This compares with 1.2 percent under Lady Thatcher and 2.6 percent under Mr Major.'

On Brown's own Treasury projections the share of public spending in national income at the end of the current spending review in 2004-5 will still be lower than it was during the last year that the Tories were in office.

Voters' growing disillusionment has forced the Blair government onto more traditional Labour territory. But this is a tactical retreat.

Brown, just as much as Blair himself, is committed to a project that is little more than Thatcherism with a human face. The idea that Brown is in his heart of hearts a socialist committed to Old Labour values is mere wishful thinking.

It is encouraged by Brown himself, since he hopes to have the left's support when he finally makes his bid for the leadership. By the same token it's an obstacle to building a real alternative to New Labour.

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Sat 10 Feb 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1734
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