Has the Labour Party become a Post-Socialist Party?
[This document contains an appendix on the Labour Government under Gordon Brown’s premiership]. However it now needs very considerable updating to take accounts od developments under the respective leaderships of Ed Miliband and especially of Jeremy Corbyn. The Party moved gradually back towards a more orthodox form of Social Democracy while Jeremy Corbyn shas sought to move the Party decisively back toward the Left. This antagonised many Labour Mps but did also contribute to Labour’s much improved showing in the 2017 General Election.
There are relevant links at the end of this document but I do hope to update it in the future.
Since one may distinguish between Marxism, socialist anarchism, democratic socialism and social democracy within the broad ideology of socialism it is clear that there are important ideological variations within socialism as well as between socialism and other ideologies. There are also core values which all socialists agree and I shall be attempting to analyse the labour party in terms of its relationship with the main core values of socialism.
These core values include a commitment to economic equality, to equality of opportunity and to individual liberty. Socialists believe that individuals are entitled to equal respect as human beings and that justice demands that all individuals should have equal opportunities to develop their talents to the full. Additionally, however, socialists argue that a high level of economic equality is necessary if equality of opportunity is to be achieved and necessary also if all individuals are to possess high levels of individual liberty because economically disadvantaged individuals do not have the liberty necessary to live fulfilling lives. This belief that economic equality is a pre-requisite for equality of opportunity and for individual liberty is one of the key beliefs that distinguish socialism from other ideologies.
There are substantial differences within socialism as to how the key objectives of socialism are to be achieved. Marxists and most socialist anarchists would argue that they can be achieved only via the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system although they would disagree as to the characteristics of the revolutionary process and as to the characteristics of the future socialist society to be introduced.
Both democratic socialists and social democrats would argue that an evolutionary parliamentary road to socialism is possible but whereas democratic socialists would argue for the virtual abolition of capitalism and very high levels of state ownership and control of the means of production revisionist social democrats such as Tony Crosland have argued that in practice nationalised industries have often been bureaucratic, inefficient and remote from their customers thereby suggesting that further nationalisation has little to contribute to the achievement of socialism. Instead what is required is a dynamic mixed economy containing both a public sector and a private sector in which the private sector will generate the economic growth which is necessary for the achievement of socialism. In the Crosland theory economic growth will generate increased taxation revenues which governments can then redistribute disproportionately to the poor via welfare state services and benefits in order to generate greater economic equality, greater equality of opportunity and greater individual liberty although at the same time it was recognised that some economic inequality should remain in order to preserve the financial incentives on which the dynamism of the capitalist economy depends.
It would be fair to say that although the Labour party has always contained some democratic socialists and even a few Marxists its policies have always been influenced fairly heavily by the ideology of fairly moderate social democracy [apart perhaps from the brief interlude of 1979-1983.]
The Labour Party suffered a landslide general election defeat in 1983 which was blamed to a considerable extent on the radical left wing policies included in the 1983 Labour party manifesto. As a result between 1983 and 1994 under the leadership of Neil Kinnock and subsequently John Smith attempts were made to modernise the Labour party which involved changes to its organisation and image but also led to the increasing moderation of its ideology and policies. The processes begun by Kinnock and Smith accelerated under Tony Blair and it is in relation to the leadership of the so-called New Labour party by Tony Blair that it may justifiably be asked whether the Labour Party has become a post-socialist party.
Labour policies under the leadership of Tony Blair show that they have been influenced by elements of neo-liberal ideology, mildly social democratic ideology and support for constitutional reforms usually associated with the Liberals and Liberal Democrats. The influence of neo-liberalism on recent Labour governments’ ideology and policy can be seen in the following points.
- New Labour removed its commitment to public ownership from its constitution in 1995 and industries which were privatised by the Conservatives have not been renationalised by New Labour.
- New Labour has extended the role of the private sector in state activity by means of the expansion of public-private sector partnerships whereby private companies build and maintain hospitals, schools and schools and lease them back to the state at a considerable profit.
- Legislation introduced by the Conservatives to restrict the powers of the trade unions has been retained by New Labour.
- Conservative governments 1979 -1997 introduced significant reductions in income tax rates particularly on the higher paid as a means of increasing financial incentives. New Labour has not reversed these changes and the economic inequality which increased substantially under Conservative governments 1979-1997 has not
- The New Labour defence of economic inequality is invalid. The Incentive effects of lower taxation are questionable and equality of opportunity is impossible with the high levels of economic inequality which currently exist in the UK.
- Conservatives restricted the growth of some social security benefits such as unemployment benefits which they claimed led to the creation of a welfare benefit- dependent underclass whose members preferred to live off state benefits rather than to seek paid work. New Labour have to some extent accepted this line of argument and have claimed that the poor can best be helped by the provision of advice and training which will help them to find work rather than by the provision of more generous social security benefits.
- New Labour’s emphasis on communitarianism places excessive blame on disadvantaged individuals themselves for the breakdown of their communities while in reality community breakdown is caused by the ravages of neo-liberalism and the overall failure of New Labour’s own economic and social policies to address the problems created by neo-liberalism.
However it is true also that Labour has been influenced by traditional social democratic ideas at least to some extent. Thus:
- New Labour did reduce significantly the extent of relative poverty partly as result of its mildly redistributive taxation and social security policies, partly because unemployment remained low and partly also as a result of the introduction of the minimum wage.
- Economic growth remained fairly steady under New Labour and New Labour was able to increase significantly government spending on Health and Education [exactly in line with the Croslandite proposals of the 1950s.]
- New Labour did not succeed in reducing significantly economic inequality as measured by the distribution of income and wealth. However whereas in the Thatcher years income inequality increased significantly partly because of natural trends within capitalist economies and partly because of Conservative taxation and social security policy which further increased income inequality, New Labour’s taxation and social security policies, taken in isolation, were redistributive toward the poor but they were not strong enough to offset the natural trend toward income inequality. In any case New Labour politicians argued that significant increases in economic equality would reduce financial incentives and thereby reduce economic efficiency and economic growth thereby reducing the living standards of people whom they were trying to help.
New Labour also introduced a range of liberal constitutional reforms.
- New Labour’s devolution policies could be seen as representing an attempt to enhance citizen involvement in politics in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. [It is noteworthy that the elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are all conducted using the more proportional additional member system and Northern Ireland uses the single transferable system. PR has obviously not been introduced for House of Commons elections.]
- It is intended finally to remove the hereditary element from the House of Lords although final decisions on method of selecting members of the Second Chamber have not yet finally been agreed. The House of Commons has voted in support of and 80% elected second chamber and in support of a fully elected second chamber but these are advisory votes only at present.
- New Labour has signed the European Convention on Human Rights meaning that individuals can defend their rights in UK courts where previously they would have had to apply to the European Court of Human Rights which would have been more time-consuming and expensive.
Tony Blair and his supporters have claimed that in adopting the above mixture of neo-liberal and social democratic ideas and combining them with liberal constitutional reforms they have nevertheless remained true to their social democratic values while necessarily modifying their policies in order to take account of changing social and economic circumstances. Thus they argued that they could win general elections only with New Labour policies which would appeal to a winning coalition of aspiring working class and middle class voters and that only New Labour policies can help disadvantaged people in the era of globalisation. Thus, Labour remains a social democratic party [or even according to its own constitution a democratic socialist party] because it is helping disadvantaged people as much as it can in the current social and economic circumstances in accordance with its social democratic values.
Other theorists disagree. They argue that New Labour has moved decisively in the direction of neo-liberalism and that although their mildly social democratic policies have reduced relative poverty, economic inequalities are still at much the same level as they were when the Conservatives left power in 1997. According to most socialists a high degree of economic equality is necessary to secure equality of opportunity and individual liberty and New Labour’s thoroughly non-socialist approach to the issue of economic equality may suggest that it is indeed a post-socialist party.
- The Labour Government and Gordon Brown
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has been seen as to some extent the joint architects of New Labour but Gordon Brown has also often been identified more closely with the historical traditions of the party and there have been suspicions or hopes depending on one’s point of view that as Prime Minister he might opt for a return to Labour’s traditional social democratic ideology.
When he did become Prime Minister his poll ratings and the ratings of the Labour government did improve initially as a result of what was seen as Brown’s effective handling of two relatively minor terrorist attacks, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and serious floods. David Cameron’s leadership was soon being called into question and there was increasing speculation around a possible snap general election which Brown did nothing to quieten.
However a series of events would soon undermine Brown’s credibility as Prime Minister and the poll ratings of the Labour government as a whole. These events included the failure of the labour government to allow a referendum on the acceptability of the EU Treaty; the international credit crunch leading to the failure of the Northern Rock bank and increasing concerns that the UK might fall into economic recession; the rises in food and fuel prices which were undermining living standards; David Cameron’s effective Conservative party conference speech in which he seemed to reassert his leadership of his party; the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of a general election followed by the perception that Brown had shown political cowardice by his failure to call the election; the claims that Labour were effectively stealing Conservative taxation policies; the loss of a compact disc containing the personal details of about 23M citizens from a government department; the resignation of cabinet minister Peter Hain as a result of irregularities surrounding the financing of his campaign for the deputy leadership of the labour Party ; and the comical suggestion by Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats that Mr Brown was being transformed from Stalin to Mr Bean.
However the severest and most fundamental criticism f New Labour under the leadership of Gordon Brown was that, after all, it seemed to have discarded its social democratic principles and deserted some of its most vulnerable supporters. This seemed to apply especially in relation to the decisions in the 2007 budget to reduce the standard rate of income tax from 22p to 20p and to offset this by the abolition of the 10p tax rate which was ultimately to affect adversely 5.3 M people on lower incomes.
Labour back bench annoyance and declining opinion poll ratings belatedly forced Gordon Brown and his chancellor Andrew Darling to introduce further compensatory tax changes with the promise of further compensatory changes in the future.
However Labour were forced into 3rd place in the local government elections; the Conservative candidate Boris Johnson was elected as London mayor; the Conservatives won the by election in the previously safe Labour seat of Crewe and Nantwich and Labour poll ratings continued to plummet. There has been some speculation that Gordon Brown might be replaced as leader especially if the government was defeated in parliament on its proposals to extend detention without trial for terrorist suspects to 42 days although despite some rebel Labour opposition the Labour Government actually won this vote by 315-309.
In June 2008 came an important annual government report on the extent of poverty and inequality in the UK. It showed that economic inequality had not declined at all since 1997 and that although overall relative poverty had declined since 1997 it had increased in 2006-7 especially among pensioners and children. Labour’s credentials as a social democratic party have surely been undermined and only time will tell how Labour will respond to the current political circumstances. Meanwhile, of course, Labour’s difficulties have operated to the advantage of the Conservatives and David Cameron.
Click here for the Guardian’s detailed assessment of Gordon Brown’s first year.
Click here for Michael Crick’s Newsnight report on Gordon Brown’s first year.
Click here for some additional information on Gordon Brown 2007-2010
Click here and scroll down about 40% of the page for several items on the leadership of Ed Miliband
Click here and scroll down about 50% of the page for several items on the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn