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Respect and the London election results

By Nick Wrack and Alan Thornett, Socialist Resistance

May 6, 2008 -- The New Labour project is falling apart at the seams. Its local election results were the worst in 40 years, with only 24% of the vote and coming third behind the Liberal Democrats. This is a disastrous result for British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In London, the election of the Conservative Party's Boris Johnson as mayor and the presence of a far-right British National Party (BNP) member on the Greater London Assembly will disturb and depress all who value the multi-cultural diversity of the city.

The most immediate catalyst for the collapse of the Labour vote was the abolition of the 10% income tax rate (i.e. Labour attacking a large part of its core base), but looming large behind that is the economic crisis,­ the credit crunch, rising fuel and food prices, set against continuing low wages for a big section of society. Added to this was Brown's inability to spin the New Labour project in the way former Labour PM Tony Blair could do it. All of this raises the prospect of a further electoral disaster in the European elections in 2009, followed by a drubbing in the general election of 2010 and the possible election of a Tory [Conservative Party] government.

Against this background, what are the prospects and possibilities for building a left-wing alternative to New Labour's neoliberal policies. What is the terrain and what can be achieved?

First, nothing in the general political situation has fundamentally changed since the launching of Respect in 2004. Large numbers of traditional Labour voters remain alienated, disillusioned and demoralised by the right-wing policies of New Labour. Some seek solutions in a ``change'' and vote for the Tories. Many more abstain, casting a plague on both parties.

Such is the nature of party politics in Britain today, and the media coverage, that the rivalry between the main parties has become one of presentation and personalities. Ideological differences have been left far behind as all the establishment parties support neoliberalism to the hilt. Differences are miniscule, reflected by petty point scoring. In these circumstances voters can cast a vote for the opposition in order to register their dissatisfaction without, in fact, registering a vote for any fundamentally different policies.

At the same time, there is widespread anger at rising prices and the budget attacks on the poorest. There is opposition to privatisation and a fear about the future of the health service and education. The war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, although receding as an issue, remains of concern for millions.

Of course, not everything flows in the same direction. Fears about crime and the issue of immigration are factors used by the press and politicians to drum up support for right-wing views. In general, however, disillusioned working-class voters and the progressively minded sections of the middle class will not swing to the Tories. Some may be tempted by the social liberalism of the Liberal Democrats but most will withhold their votes unless and until they see a serious, viable, alternative. When the threat arises of a Tory win, most of these will vote once again for New Labour with a heavy heart and holding their noses whilst doing so. This was a significant feature of the [defeated London Mayor Ken] Livingstone's vote in the London mayoral election. Such an attitude will be played upon by the right-wing trade union leaders to argue against ``rocking the boat'', arguing that New Labour has to be supported to keep out the Tories.

Prospects for left alternative to Labour

In these circumstances, there are possibilities for building a left-wing alternative to New Labour but it will not be easy or swift. We may not like where we are starting from but every journey has to start from where you are.

The first point to register about the performance of the left parties in the recent elections is that they confirm that there is the basis of support for such a project. Although the experience was very limited, with only a few handfuls of good results outside of London, the results demonstrate that where consistent and patient work has been invested, support can be obtained for left-wing candidates.

Respect's results confirm this. In Birmingham Sparkbrook, Respect's Nahim Ullah Khan won 3,032 (42.64%) and became Respect's third councillor in the ward. Elsewhere in Birmingham, Respect polled 25% in Springfield, 17% in Nechells and just under 5% in Moseley and Kings Heath. These are extremely significant results. They indicate the possibilities of obtaining very good votes in elections and demonstrate that it is possible to win. They augur well for Respect's prospects in the city at the general election.

In Manchester's Cheetham Hill ward Kay Phillips polled 14.4% following an energetic campaign that built serious links with the local communities. In Moss Side, Respect polled 5.8% and in Wigan 6.7%. In Bradford Manningham ward Respect won 7.5% and in Walsall 7.6%. Of course, there were very few wards contested but they are small indications of what can be obtained in the first instance if there were forces to contest more widely.

A few of the results for the Left List [the Socialist Workers Party-led split away from Respect] also demonstrated the same potential for the left. They received a very good 37% and 25% in Preston and Sheffield respectively, to 12% and 10% in Manchester. It is worth mentioning that the result in Preston and Sheffield are the products of work over a long period of time with a commitment from the core activists to the building of a broad electoral left alternative; a completely different approach from that of the SWP leadership.

In London the most impressive result was the vote for Hanif Abdulmuhit in the City and East constituency. Here, Respect came third, polling 26,760 votes (14.59%), an increase of 7,085 (36%) against the background of a polarisation of the vote between Labour and Conservatives. This was a tremendous vote, beating the BNP and consolidating Respect's position in its east London stronghold.

Across London Respect's vote did not fare so well. Respect did not stand any candidate for mayor or in any other constituency apart from City and East.

Respect polled 59,721 (2.43%) in the London-wide list, a disappointment to the many Respect supporters who had hoped to win at least one seat on the Greater London Assembly by obtaining the minimum 5% required. Notwithstanding the high profile of George Galloway this was always going to be difficult in the circumstances. However there is no doubt that the response to Respect's campaign, albeit limited by a lack of resources and any real presence in large swathes of the capital, confirmed the potential to build outwards from the success in east London.

This was not a bad result in the circumstances. There was a massive polarisation in London around the mayoral election which no doubt squeezed smaller parties. Perhaps more importantly, the war no longer featured to anything like the same degree as in 2004. Although Respect has a broad array of policies covering the breadth of the issues facing the electorate it is probable that most people still see Respect as the anti-war party. This needs to be addressed. What exactly is Respect and what does it stand for?

There is no doubt that the split in Respect damaged the party's prospects, both in terms of voters seeing Respect as damaged goods and weakening the party's ability to campaign across London.

We did not have a mayoral candidate, which meant that we did not get an entry into the booklet which went to every household in London. Nor did we have an election broadcast.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Newham and Tower Hamlets, Southwark, and some pockets in North London and elsewhere, Respect does not exist as an active force with an organisation on the ground. This is a consequence of four years of neglect, compounded by the split last year. The lesson of last year's Southall by-election demonstrated again in these elections that Respect cannot expect to get significant support unless it carries out regular, consistent work in an area.

Respect was not able to overcome these difficulties. It shows that Respect has to be built across the capital, with branches in every borough, if we want to become a real force in London. The vote in City and East, however, demonstrates that we can build in other areas by developing an active base carrying out regular and consistent work within the local community. Of course, our priority areas are Tower Hamlets and Newham in the east where we have to continue to build and consolidate, but no national party can be built on the basis of support limited to two or three areas.

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The London results

Neither the victory for the Conservatives, nor the election of a BNP member to the London Assembly, contradict the argument that there is a need and a realistic possibility of building a left-wing alternative to New Labour. In fact, the election results demonstrate the need for such a party more than ever. The neoliberal policies of New Labour will lead some to try out the Tories and will even drive some working-class whites into the arms of the racist and fascist BNP. A party espousing policies that benefit working-class people, rather than big business, is the only way to cauterise that flow.

An election is only a snapshot of political developments and these results should not be seen as a generalised move to the right. Given the absence of any authoritative left-wing party it is not surprising that many voters plump for the ``other'' party in the hope that things may improve marginally.

But the vast majority of traditional Labour voters still vote Labour or abstain. There is a sizable proportion of working-class voters, especially newer immigrants in low-paid jobs, who no longer have any allegiance to Labour.

Notwithstanding the election of Johnson and the election of one BNP member, the London elections show that the situation is much more complicated than simply being a reflection of a shift to the right. Livingstone's 1st preference vote increased by 208,336. His combined 1st and 2nd preference vote increased by 340,358. While there was massive discontent with New Labour's policies and with Livingstone's own performance, the fear of Johnson winning drove Livingstone's supporters out in massively increased numbers. Unfortunately, this increased turnout for Livingstone could not match the increased Tory turnout, which added over half a million votes to their 2004 result.

Following the election of David Cameron as [national] leader, the Tories have cynically repositioned themselves towards the centre ground of politics to increase their appeal, particularly to a new generation which did not know Thatcherism. Alongside this the selection of Johnson as mayoral candidate has seen a confidence returning to the Tory supporters, especially in the suburbs. Livingstone appeared jaded, grey and on the back foot in the campaign and the Tories scented a huge scalp. They turned out in force to take it. This produced a fairly narrow Tory victory for mayor. This shows that, notwithstanding the increasingly personal nature of political contest in Britain, there was still a clear left-right contest taking place. Voters for the most part understood this. No matter the serious concerns that many on the left would have with Livingstone, it was clearly understood that Johnson had to be beaten.

Whilst the vote for Livingstone went up in the inner-city areas it could not compensate for the doubling of the Tory vote in some of the suburban constituencies. The mayoral election was overwhelmingly a class vote. There was a clear ideological aspect to the vote, fuelled by the massive attacks on Livingstone led by the Tory-supporting *Evening Standard*. It was understood that the multicultural nature of London and its public services were seriously at risk. Johnson's victory will demonstrate very quickly how justified that fear was. It was a huge victory for the Tories and a defeat not only for New Labour but also for all those to its left, particularly when taking into account that the BNP are now on the assembly.

Part of a wider trend

New Labour's defeat came directly out of the New Labour project itself. It is part of a wider and more fundamental picture involving the direction of social democracy at the European level. Over the last two decades European social democracy, without exception, has abandoned its traditional roots and adopted the full neoliberal agenda. Now, one after another, these parties are suffering the backlash from this and falling into disarray. Italy is the most recent example where social democracy, after a disastrous period of coalition with a centre-right Prodi administration, has collapsed and now we have a Berlusconi government and a fascist mayor of Rome. France is another example of a centre-left government opening the door to the right, bringing Sarkozy to power. In Germany, at an earlier stage it resulted in the election of Angela Merkel.

Right across Europe social democratic parties have moved to the centre ground and the ideological difference between them and the centre-right parties has disappeared. Politics are reduced to sound bites and spin. In Britain, New Labour comprehensively rejected its traditional electoral base and, initially, successfully reached out to middle England -- to win three elections with such support. But such support can disappear as fast as it comes. Unless governments rest on ideologically based core support they are continually vulnerable to the latest twists and turns of the political situation or stunts pulled by their opponents.

Does this mean the end of new Labour? No. It might mean the end of this particular phase of New Labour in the sense that they are heading from office at a rate of knots. But any idea that they might draw the conclusion that the neoliberal path has been wrong and that they should now turn back towards some kind of old Labour model is unlikely to materialise. This will become clear enough when the new policy review is published in the next week or two. They are more likely to conclude that they have not gone far enough and the way to get their voters back from the Tory Party is to embrace the market even more.

The response of the left to all this right across Europe should be clear enough. The need to build broad parties of the left, based on broad socialist policies, designed to embrace all those looking for a political alternative could not be more sharply posed. This is not an easy project. It requires determination, élan, openness, patience and consistency. But it has to be done.

The way forwards after the election

The basis for a broad pluralist party clearly exists, despite the current divisions on the left and despite a reduced vote in the London elections. If we take the very good results in Birmingham and East London, along with some of the other results outside of London and the 3.6% won by the various left parties on the London list, there is clearly the basis for a much bigger party of the left than has been built up until now.

Respect therefore has a two-fold task in the post-election situation: to consolidate the important and central bases in Birmingham and East London and start to extend outwards into other areas with the objective of establishing a national spread for the organisation.

This requires a rapid turn back from election work to party-building work through patient but energetic and lively local activity together with strengthening our national profile. We need to recruit and consolidate new members and build branches where they don't yet exist. The structures of Respect must be strengthened. The Respect newspaper should be utilised to win more supporters and sympathisers. We should begin to prepare for a conference in the early autumn which can consolidate the organisation and reach out to others.

We must renew our approach to all those people in the communities with whom we have been working during the election but also find new areas to work in.

We must reiterate our commitment to reach out to and work with all others on the left who want to build a left alternative -- the young people of the environmental movement, those opposing racism and islamophobia, and local community activists. This also means approaching trade unionists and other sections of the left to argue for a regroupment broader than Respect, which can reflect the full potential available to the left and which can more adequately address the crisis of working-class representation. We should participate in initiatives like the ``Convention of the left''.

Forging links with serious organisations on the left will not come easily or quickly, but we must show ourselves committed to the project of working with others to build a bigger, united left-wing party.

In the meantime, we work to build our support in an open and inclusive way.

[This article first appeared on the Socialist Resistance website at http://socialistresistance.org/]

Comments

London: Election analysis from the Left List

May 5, 2008

http://www.respectcoalition.org/?ite=1933

This was a watershed election. For the first time since the New Labour election landslide of 1997 the Tories are in the ascendant. The result of the London Mayoral contest demonstrates that New Labour is now in meltdown.

The reaction of the soft left Compass group around John Cruddas, though doubtless an exaggeration, tells us a deal about the likely reaction among old Labour sections of the movement:

"New Labour is now dead. The strategy that saw the Party continually triangulate interests and concerns, tacking endlessly to the right, doing what the Tories would do only doing it first, fixating on a mythical middle England and denying that free market policies are having a damaging effect on society is now finished."

Like the late 1970s an exhausted and socially conservative Labour government is presiding over an attack on working class living standards. Unlike the late 1970s the extra-parliamentary and industrial struggle is not on the retreat.

But if we are to exploit this contradiction to strengthen the left and face new challenges from the Tory and fascist right we need to understand clearly what happened to the left in these elections.

The failure of the Livingstone strategy

Livingstone has moved progressively to the right since he first ran as Mayor as an independent eight years ago. He moved right when he rejoined Labour four years ago - and his vote went down. In this election he moved even closer to the Blair-Brown-City axis - and he lost.

Livingstone's residual left wing reputation meant that his vote was higher than the New Labour vote for the Assembly and his polling figures were higher than the government's rating but he was too closely associated with New Labour to be able to effectively combat the Tory tide.

Moreover, Livingstone's own regime in City Hall was part of the problem not part of the solution. Livingstone had no independent base in the labour movement. Indeed when he had the chance to build one out of his independent campaign eight years ago he deliberately refused to do so.

Consequently, the City Hall developed its own version of triangulation - combining left wing statements on racism and the Iraq war (which cost nothing) and City friendly policies on property development, the Olympics and privatisation (where a left wing policy would cost money).

The Livingstone campaign tried to reproduce this approach by constructing a huge cross party bloc stretching all the way from Blair and Brown to the Greens and George Galloway.

This failed in the face of a hard-line Tory candidate who mostly kept quiet and let New Labour's unpopularity with its own working class supporters do his work.

The Left and Livingstone

Livingtone's own clientist approach to the ethnic communities in London and the rest of the left reduced the impact of a really independent radical left. The Greens and Galloway claimed to be critical of Livingstone's neo-liberal economic policy and his loving up to the City, Brown and Blair~but infact have run campaigns that have traded largely uncritical support for Ken in return for his patronage.

This failed for Livingstone, but it also failed for the Greens and Galloway as well.

The Greens got massive publicity in return for calling for a second preference vote for Ken, but their vote stayed the same and they returned the same two GLA members.

Galloway got even less. A sectarian rally held in the middle of the 100,000 Love Music Hate Racism just a mile away at the end of Brick Lane drew less than 200 people to hear Livingstone give a less than explicit plug for Galloway. This was reported in the local press but then repudiated on polling day by local Labour candidate John Biggs.

Other than that the only fruit of this pact was a front organsiation, Operation Bangla Vote, which issued a leaflet with Livingstone and Galloway's picture on it.

The Left List took a different approach. The Left List argued that while we prefer Labour to the Tories we will not stop defending working people from New Labour's neo-liberal policies simply because Labour has made itself unpopular with working people. This approach stressed the need to organise independently of New Labour and Livingstone and not to simply to jump on to a sinking ship.

Anyone who remembers the decay of the Labour government in the late 1970s knows how essential it is to create the widest possible left able to organise independently of the pressure to collapse all points of principle in response to the Tory threat.

The Left List vote was disappointing but the campaign did demonstrate a number of important points:

1. The Left List mounted the only genuinely London-wide left wing campaign. We are the only left force that was able to mobilise enough supporters and raise enough money to stand in the Mayoral race, in all the constituencies and on the London wide list.

2. The Left List campaign was the only campaign that has been able through mass leafleting, canvassing, our entry in the Mayoral booklet, and TV and radio broadcasts to put a left argument to millions of Londoners.

3. In a dramatic final full week of campaigning we were the only force able to effectively intervene in the great joint union demonstration on the 24th of April and in the 100,000 strong Love Music Hate Racism carnival.

4. In husting after husting Lindsey German and our other candidates were able to pull the whole debate to the left. Here is how one contribution to the Guardian online discussion put it:

"Whenever Lindsey German's been invited to speak, she has quickly become a point of reference: At NO2ID hustings she gave Boris a torrid time. At University of London Union hustings Paddick started mimicking her line on Council Housing. At ULU and Stonewall Livingstone has lied about the name of her organisation to create a naughty confusion between her and former friends. At LSE and Goldsmith College other candidates all used the phrase "as Lindsey said...." at least once."

We've made more impact on the press than any other left candidate, including Galloway who lost out because of the strategic decision not to run a Mayoral candidate at the urging of Livingstone supporters in his group. The Left List appeared on BBC London TV news four times, on ITN news, in the Independent, the Guardian, The Times, BBC radio, BBC News 24, Radio 4's Today programme, The Evening Standard, the Pink Paper, in local papers, local radio stations and in online broadcasts.

5. The Left List candidates are the only really diverse candidate list in the elections. The Greens only had 3 non-white candidates. In contrast to the unfulfilled promise Galloway made to produce a 'broad list' it was actually the Left List that had a mix of trade unionist, Afro-Caribbean, Turkish, gay and lesbian, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, young and old candidates.

The Left Vote

All the left from Livingstone to the Left List were overwhelmed by the massive rejection of New Labour that benefited the Tories and, even more worryingly, the BNP.

The Left List suffered from having a new name. This led to confusion which benefited Galloway. We know that a number of our supporters voted for Respect by mistake. So some of the difference between our 1.3 percent in the Assembly constituencies and the Galloway 2.3 percent on the Assembly list is down to confusion and electoral inertia.

And because voters could vote for the Left List for Mayor, in the constituencies and on the London-wide list the total number of people voting Left List was higher than the total in any one of these categories (ie voters gave us one of three votes).

The Left List Mayoral vote was massively squeezed by the 'stop Boris' vote for Ken. But it is worth noting that in 2004 we gained 61,000 first preferences and about the same number of second preferences giving a total of 120,000 first and second preferences. This year the second preferences were much higher than the 16,000 first preferences giving a total of 51,000.

The Left List vote was more evenly distributed across London, while Galloway's vote was an East London centric vote. Although even here the constituency vote for Hanif Abdulmuhit (the only Galloway constituency candidate) was down slightly from 15 percent to 14.5 percent. And Galloway's own Assembly list vote fell to 11 percent.

Nationally, the Left List is the only organisation with anything like a countrywide presence and the election results were as good, or nearly as good, as anything the old Respect achieved. In Preston we got 37 percent and missed electing a second councillor by 70 votes. In Sheffield we came second with 25 percent of the vote. In Manchester we won 12 percent and, in a newly contested ward, nearly 10 percent. In Cambridge and Bolton the vote was around 15 percent.

And although Salma Yaqoob's Sparkbrook ward returned another councillor the vote went down in the neighbouring Sparkhill and Kings Heath wards, both of which would need to see increased votes for her to win the whole parliamentary constituency of which they are a part.

The Left and the decline of New Labour

The crisis will produce two main reactions. New Labour loyalists, not just in the government but in the leadership of unions like UNISON, will argue that we can't rock the boat and must all stand behind the government or we'll get the Tories back just as we have done in London. Some of the left will go along or compromise with this view, just as they did with Livingstone (although it will be harder to carry this argument with no left wing banner bearer in Labour). No doubt if we get the Tories back this lot will argue we shouldn't rock the boat or Labour won't be re-elected!

The Left List must be part of that grouping on the left, which will contain many Labour party members, who think that fighting neo-liberalism is the best chance of reviving the left's fortunes irrespective of what the Labour leadership say.

There are some important developments that have been part of the picture of the last few weeks that show that this approach will have an echo. Teachers, lecturers, civil servants, RMT members are very open to this argument~as the united union demonstrations and strikes on 24th April showed.

In London the challenges that a Tory Mayor will throw down to the unions and the left may well provoke struggles on a higher plane than those of recent years - especially as the economic crisis continues to eat into working class living standards.

The LMHR Carnival showed that tens of thousands have already been mobilised against the Nazis - and will be ready to fight a threat that has become even more real in the last week.

Beyond this the anti-war movement remains in strong shape and will need to be deepened as the US presidential race concludes the interregnum in the Washington's imperial project.

The Left List can become part of this growing opposition to New Labour and play an important part in regrouping the left in the debates that are bound to attend the crisis of the New Labour government.

Tariq Ali on British Labour Party

New Labour is dead

Power can't shape truth forever

Tariq Ali

Counterpunch, 5 May 2008

Español

http://www.tni.org/detail_page.phtml?act_id=18235&menu=11f

New Labour has suffered a crushing defeat. The Blair project of promoting and implementing right-wing policies in the knowledge that traditional working class voters would remain solid died on 1 May 2008. Labour’s vote in the local elections dropped to 24 percent, a point below the Liberal Democrats and twenty points less than the Conservatives (44 percent). Given the scale of the catstrophe, It seems unlikely that Gordon Brown can win the next general election.

Awestruck by Margaret Thatcher, Blair and Brown aped her achievements within their own party, squeezing old social-democratic ideas out of themselves, drop by drop. They were all market fundamentalists now. Deregulation and privatisation became a mantra and over the last ten years the social divide in the country between rich and poor increased more than even under Thatcher. Redistribution of wealth was no longer on Labour’s agenda.

As the market suffered a series of shocks---the collapse of a debt-ridden British bank, Northern Rock, led to state intervention in the form of nationalisation. No lessons were learnt. Helping the rich by further tax-cuts, abandoning (under pressure from the Financial Times) plans to tax non-domiciled billionaires symbolised the regime. The neo-liberal model atomised social and political life, weakened democratic accountability and drastically reduced the margins of reformist possibilities within the system. After 9/11 civil liberties were seriously eroded. A fdew weeks ago Brown and his ministers were arguing for increasing the detention of suspects to 42-days without trial. The Conservatives and police chiefs opposed this as draconian.

The British electoral system helped to conceal the relentless ebbing of popular support for the Blairite agenda. No longer. The New Labour Emperor is now revealed without any clothes. Power can shape ‘truth’, but not forever. That is the lesson of the New Labour defeat.

In London the choice was clear. A Conservative celebrity who carefully cultivates an ultra-reactionary image, Boris Johnson, is a star of TV comedy shows. Given the way that politics has gone to the dogs in so many parts of the democratic world, its hardly surprising that celebrity status and wealth have taken centre stage. A somewhat pathetic and ineffectual ex-policeman stood for the Liberal Democrats or Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate. Even though Livingstone first won as an independent against New Labour, he subsequently made his peace with Blair and rejoined the party, while preserving an independent stance on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and developing his own foreign policy by inviting Hugo Chavez to visit London.

The elections for the Mayor of London reflected the national mood. That Livingstone made mistakes is obvious. The biggest error was not in receiving an eccentric Muslim cleric and annjoying the right-wing press, but re-entering the Labour fold. The basis of his popularity had rested on the fact that he was not a confected New Labour politician. The fact that margin of his defeat appears to be less than the national average reflected this fact, but was not enough to save him. The official result has yet to be declared, but New Labour commentators on TV have accepted defeat. He suffered because he was associated with an unpopular New Labour government. Had he remained an independent and lacerated the Blair and Brown regimes, instead of being photographed with them he would have been home and dry.

A city in which 70% of the citizens oppose the British presence in Iraq will now be represented by a pro-war mayor. Who cares if a million Iraqis have died since the occupation of their country, three million have become refugees and millions in that suffering country face the most horrendous conditions in their everyday lives. Anything associated with New Labour was punished.

Hilary Wainwright on New Labour's London loss

Reaping what they have sown

Hilary Wainwright

The Guardian, 6 May 2008While the radical left are in no position to say ’I told you so’, reviving public service values and practices is the only way to renew the Labour Party

The collapse of Labour ’s vote in these local elections is about something more than New Labour ’s Daily Mail electoral tactics and the stay-at-home revolt of Labour’s traditional supporters. Though this continues to be a factor – reinforced by the 10 per cent tax ’mistake’. But there’s something deeper going on and it’s less easy to reverse. New Labour is now reaping what it has sown: a cumulative weakening in values of social solidarity, public service and altruism which provide the invisible bedrock on which the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party ultimately depend. New Labour has lived electorally off the legacy of earlier eras of Labour politics without renewing it and it’s a renewal that has been direly needed.

From Mandelson’s celebration of the ’filthy rich’ and Blair ’s contempt for public sector workers to Gordon Brown’s present refusal to properly reward public servants and the contracting out of services to private business means self-seeking individualism has been valorised and public service ethics denigrated. In his first few months as prime minister, Brown appeared to acknowledge the need to explicitly advocate social democratic value but it wasn’t reflected in significant policy shifts. And he now seems to have abandoned even this relatively superficial effort to shift Labour’s presentational tone.

Brown’s strategy (the economic foundations of New Labour) has been to make Britain a fast growing economy competing on the terms set by finance-led global capitalism and to stealthily engineer a trickle down to the deserving poor. As we all know by now, this has meant being soft on the super rich and a micro redistribution from the lower end of the top 10 per cent highest earners to low income families.

This formula could more or less appear to work when the economy was buoyant but as soon as this speculation-led growth began to falter New Labour ’s uncritical attachment to the priorities of the City was visibly paralysing. As growth slows the government has less money to spend on tackling poverty or investing in services and it dare not borrow more or tax the wealthy because this will torpedo the Thatcherite economic model they inherited and developed. They’ve been outflanked by the Governor of the Bank of England who last week made the kind of statement attacking city pay and incompetence that we should have been hearing from Labour’s front benches .

Even Mayor Johnson expostulates about the growing ’inequality between rich and poor’. (It will be interesting to see whether he sticks by his commitment to London Citizens to maintain Livingstone’s use of the GLA’s power as employer and purchaser to implement a living wage of £7.50 an hour).We are seeing a new Tory rhetoric of fairness combined with a strong anti-statism aimed at a caricature of Gordon Brown’s ‘top-down government’. The combination has an appeal which New Labour is finding difficult to answer because it has neither a strategy for social justice nor a confident vision of the positive role of the state.

The two go together. Seriously redistributive and now green taxation is only politically possible if the state has real legitimacy; if there’s a popular belief grounded in experience, that it responds to people’s needs and the money paid in taxes is returned in responsive services which users feel are theirs.

Back to the future

The British state won this legitimacy throughout the post-war decades of reconstruction, building the welfare state and enjoying its first benefits. The result was a 20-year or so social democratic consensus legitimating taxation and redistribution. The administration and delivery of these social benefits, however, was via an unreformed mandarin state whose administrative hierarchies were imitated throughout the pubic sector and whose most powerful links with civil society were predominantly with business . The result was a daily experiences of state institutions - from universities and the education system through to local government and even the health service - that was contradictory and frustrating. Unresponsive to growing expectations and a new diversity of demand.

The movements of the 1960s and 1970s were one response. Arguably one reason for the significance and lasting memory of Ken Livingstone’s GLC was that it was one of the few politically successful experiments in translating the diffuse but creative radicalism of the 1970s into a popular political programme. It was cut short in its prime. We all know what happened then. But perhaps now after 1 May the significance of what didn’t happen is coming home to roost for New Labour – and tragically for Londoners as a result of Ken’s political downsizing to rejoin the party he once loved.

What didn’t happen was the Labour Party grasping the importance of the GLC experiment - in all its messiness -and showing the possibility of transforming, opening and democratising state institutions, and translating this on to the national level. It could have been the basis of a direct challenge to Thatcher’s privatisation and Hood Robin approach to redistribution. Indeed Norman Tebbit saw the threat when he remarked of the GLC on the eve of its abolition: ’this is modern socialism and we will kill it.’ It’s no real comfort but there was in Livingstone’s extra 14 per cent support on 1 May, on top of Labour’s share national vote, a residue of that old potential to present a modern alternative.

Reactivate public service values

We on the radical but pragmatic left cannot now simply say ’I told you so.’ It’s mightily tempting. But we are in no position to come out of the wings with a perfectly formed alternative strategy and means of implementing it. But the belief in public service values are still there on the ground, as is much thinking and experimentation in renewing them. But they lie dormant, unnurtured, lacking champions and increasingly overgrown in the jungle of competitive, self-seeking values.

It’s not to late to reactivate them. Drawing together the scattered left, across party boundaries, we need to resist the persistent and pervasive intrusion of a narrow, desiccated commercial logic into every public space. And to resist by celebrating the values of cooperation, of human ingenuity meeting urgent sometimes desperate social needs, of the satisfaction of helping to resolve the problems of fellow citizens. These values are still daily enacted all over the place; in hospital intensive care units, in what’s left of youth services working innovatively with voluntary organisations, in councils that have blocked privatisation and developed means of genuine improvements and so on.

Everyone has their own personal stories of public services values being practiced, unsung, not only within the public sector but in voluntary organisations working long hours and in the face of almost impossible funding pressures. These values and the kind of practices keeping them alive against the odds need the mutual reinforcement of some kind of broad based national movement. Addressing this need is surely a condition for reviving the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party or indeed any party on the left.

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