Socialist Worker

Labour is losing its ideological grip

New Labour’s adoration of the market could cause some unexpected problems for the rich and powerful, writes Michael Rosen

Issue No. 1995

Illustration: Tim Sanders

Illustration: Tim Sanders

I don’t suppose that sitting in the New Labour cabinet is one of the most comfortable places to park your backside at the moment. I have a sense that they’re losing the one thing that the real rulers of the country want them to have—ideological control.

Put it this way: most of the decisions that affect our standard of living are made by the people who own the great mass of property, whether that’s through buildings, land, shares or currency.

These owners not only want a government that enables them to do this without undue expense arising out of such trivial things as workers’ health and safety, a fair tax system or a reasonable minimum wage.

They also want a government that most of the population believes in.

It horrifies them when the party they turn to naturally—the Tories—collapses through a mix of incompetence, corruption and scandal.

It’s at moments like these they turn to a left of centre party, whose social programmes for health, housing, education and transport have to sound sufficiently appealing to us and not unduly threatening to the big owners.

None of those nasty ideas about redistributing income and overcoming inequality, thank you very much.

So pretty well all Labour governments (perhaps with the exception of the extraordinary post-war government of 1945) come in to shore up what was becoming dangerous—a collapse of faith in the system.

Just before a Labour government takes power, a set of phrases start to become common currency. On one side there are “fat cats”, “fingers in the till”, the “super-rich”, “tax exiles” and the like. On the other there are “pensioners dying in winter”, “not enough places in schools and hospitals” and “poverty pay”.

It’s as if the system starts to lose its mask. We’re not all in the same boat, then? Inequality isn’t caused by poor people being stupid and spendthrift, but perhaps is a result of rich people having the money instead? Perhaps society could be run in another way...

So, Labour governments come in benefiting from this kind of talk.

And many on the left feel that “their party” is going to deliver a change—that the social policies will bring in better schools, healthcare, housing and transport and that some kind of redistribution of income will happen.

But all we ever get from Labour governments is the tiny margin gained if, by chance, they’re in power during a time of economic upturn.

Meanwhile, capital gets bigger in relation to labour, and, during the first years of a smooth running Labour government, all that horrid class talk about fat cats and poverty disappears from the front pages.

That’s what I mean by “ideological control”. Most people start to believe in the system again. It feels as if it’s our guys in charge, a nice “classless” mix of “ordinary” people—former teachers, lawyers, line managers and the odd blokey bloke who once peeled potatoes or swabbed a deck.

This control is crucial when the big owners find themselves doing battle with a section of the working class. So, as capital starts to demand smoother hire-and-fire arrangements, more flexi-time working, less interference with unequal and illegal employment arrangements, it comes into conflict with groups of workers who resist.

It’s at moments like these that capital screams out for a Labour government to undermine any support one group of workers might get from any other group. And it’s vital at moments like these that a Labour government has some credibility, trust and support in its ideological kitty.

That’s why I think we’ve reached a particularly interesting moment.

Unlike many previous Labour governments, this one hasn’t broken its back on an economic crisis.

It is fanatical in its slavish delivery of what capital could only have dreamed of squeezing out of the previously publicly owned part of the economy—our schools, health system, transport and housing.

But it has lost ideological control. The war in Iraq has decimated this government’s credibility. The mix of lying, mass murder, expense and hypocrisy has chewed up the smooth exteriors of the Labour cabinet.

And now, the same old routine of backhanders and cronyism has dragged “our guys” into the slush and swill that they once claimed was typically Tory.

Now, if there were no battles that capital needed to win in the coming period, perhaps Labour could get away with it. But the opposite is the case.

Capital is desperate to cut its pensions bill. As far as capital is concerned pensions are unproductive. It’s our livelihood, but to them it’s pay without labour. To win this one, capital needs a government that we believe in.

But capital hasn’t got that with New Labour any more. Meanwhile, there’s a Tory party that’s on the same side in the Iraq war and swilling around in the same cronyism game. There could not be a better time to take on the fights over pensions and the privatisation of the NHS, schools and housing.

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Sat 8 Apr 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1995
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