Millbank in control

Labour Party conference

Mephistopheles would have loved New Labour - they sell their souls so cheaply. At the 1998 Blackpool conference £200 bought you a quick handshake with the prime minister prior to a gala dinner; £7,000 hired you three square metres of floor space to market your wares; and for a mere £25,000 you got the chance to transform every delegate into a walking advertisement by sponsoring their ID cards, suspended on a plastic necklace emblazoned with your company’s logo.

The Somerfield chain of supermarkets understandably grabbed this opportunity with both hands. In the light of the Draper affair such a stunt was politically inept, to say the least. But is there nobody at Millbank Tower who knows enough about the history of the Labour movement to realise that it was also an obscenity? Evidently not - and even if there were, it is doubtful whether they would care (or dare). To give some small credit where it is due, the GMB union and the Co-op provided delegates with alternative neckwear - thus instigating the ‘war of the dog-tags’.

Some readers may think we make too much of a small matter, but in politics it is often the symbolism of seemingly minor details that tells us most. By turning not just the conference’s physical location but even its human participants into the components of a disgusting corporate bazaar, Labour is saying something about how it sees itself and (god help us) about how it wishes to be seen. For us, as Marxists, it has always been axiomatic that the Labour Party is, to use Lenin’s phrase, a bourgeois party of the working class, but Blackpool confirmed that Labour is well on the way to transforming itself into a bourgeois party of the bourgeoisie. Given the split at Bournemouth - the Heseltine-Clarke wing versus the Hague-Thatcherite wing; given the civil war over Europe, and the demise of the Tories as a viable pro-big business alternative, we might say that, for the foreseeable future, Blair looks likely to succeed in his aim of making Labour the preferred party of the bourgeoisie.

There are really only two questions about Blackpool: what did it say about the present political complexion of the Labour Party, and what clues did it give us about the Party’s future direction?

In the first place, let us dispose of the notion that the constituency-based part of the NEC elections represented any kind of breakthrough for what is laughably referred to in the bourgeois press as the “hard left”. The election of four Grassroots Alliance candidates stimulated a familiar conditioned reflex in the media, with hysterical headlines about the resurgence of the left. But back on planet earth things look rather different: to call the successful candidates leftwing, let alone Marxists, is simply fatuous. Scratch Liz Davies or Mark Seddon and what do you find? A Bennite. Scratch Tony Benn and you find a thoroughbred liberal radical, who after all these years still believes that parliamentary democracy can deliver socialism.

The real significance of these results lies in the fact that the left was elected through a procedure which was specifically designed to exclude them. Admittedly, at around 35%, the turnout was pretty small, but in terms of local elections, for example, it was hardly negligible. The main thing is that the constituency results were a product of Blair’s ‘one person, one vote’ policy - a cornerstone of his strategy for destroying Old Labour and transforming it into a force capable of capturing and holding the centre-left terrain for New Labour: first, in terms of practical politics, this was the only way Blair could neutralise the organised opposition of constituency management committees packed with ‘dangerous’ leftwingers; secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in ideological terms it provided him with ostensible democratic legitimisation for his project. Now, however, Blair has had to learn that the stick of ‘democratisation’ strikes both ways and that it can be turned against him.

Maybe this fact accounted for Blair’s strange mixture of defensiveness and aggression in his eve-of-conference ‘question time’ session. Somehow or other he managed to use the word ‘comradeship’ without laughing, but as always with Blair - hampered as he is by a middle class background and a Scottish public school education - there was an unmistakable edge of detachment and menace, even to his pathetic attempts at cultivating ‘solidarity’ with the party masses. It was the first of many pep talks with a common theme: ‘Accept the government you’ve got, because the alternative is a rightwing Tory administration.’ Telling your electorate to ‘take it or leave it’ hardly seems to be good politics, but maybe it reflects the arrogance of a party in power without any credible opposition.

Presentationally, things got off to a poor start on the first day of conference, when the Evening Standard published a leaked memorandum from Millbank Tower concerning delegates who should on no account be allowed to speak at conference. Against a list of names there were remarks such as “Trot”, “leftwinger”, “pro-Livingstone” and so forth. Predictably, this example of New Labour’s futile obsession with control was explained away by a spokesman as the work of an overzealous official, who had since been dismissed. If this is true, one must hope that he takes his case to an industrial tribunal. Further embarrassment followed the next day, when Labour’s MPs and MEPs voted for their section of the revamped NEC. The ballot papers for this election were apparently numbered, with the result that some participants were apparently too scared to vote for their preferred candidate (Dennis Skinner) and voted for the leadership’s slate instead. This sad fact, which led to Skinner’s ejection from the NEC after 20 years, speaks volumes about the culture of fear and sycophancy which comprises the inner-party life of New Labour.

As always, the centre piece of conference was the leader’s speech, which this year consisted of 50 minutes of monumental vapidity, the oratorical equivalent of lift music. If this was really meant to be an exposition of the much vaunted ‘third way’ in politics, then the people who do Blair’s thinking for him still have a lot of work to do. Proverbially, the third way is about “managing change”, and Blair defined it as usual in hortatory terms: “Accept the challenge of the future, but refuse to consider ourselves powerless to overcome it.” Is there anybody out there who can tell us what this banality is supposed to mean? The more you listen to Blair, the more you realise that his speeches consist not of reasoned argument, nor even of an ‘honest’ appeal to raw emotion - they constitute a particularly repulsive form of calculated sermonising in which it is not ideas but so-called ‘values’ that count for everything.

What exactly are these ‘values’? Basically, a few warmed up leftovers of communitarianism served up with a garnish of ‘third way’ aphorisms: “We manage change together, modernise, reform” (my italics). It is the “togetherness” that gives the communitarian game away, positing as it does a society in which there are no contending classes determined by relations of property and power, but merely ‘families’ comprising a ‘community’. Such a community can be “confident because the challenge [?] is being taken on not by each of us in isolation from each other, but together, one nation, sure of its values and therefore sure of its future.”

‘Challenge’ is this year’s New Labour buzzword, intended to stimulate the recognition that the Labour Party’s goals have in some mysterious way become the goals of the community at large, and that not to accept ‘the challenge’ would therefore constitute a kind of treachery. In practice, Blair’s rhetoric serves morally to exclude everybody who does not happen to agree with his ‘values’. If you cannot say with Blair, “I am a patriot. I want the UK strong”, then there is clearly something amiss with you.

There is indubitably something worrying about a supposedly communitarian ethic that expresses itself in terms of threats, as Blair’s speech did time and again. Woe betide you if you are a teacher or a doctor who supposedly does not come up to scratch. Heaven help you if you are a first-time benefit claimant. At times the speech became almost sinister: “From tomorrow kids can be picked up for truancy; young children alone on the streets can be subject to curfews; parents made responsible for their children’s behaviour. From April anti-social neighbours can be taken to court and punished.” You half expect Blair to end his peroration with the promise that ‘from June anyone guilty of double-parking will be summarily executed.’ What we have here is a language so trenchant and systematic that it is not too far-fetched to imagine it constituting an embryonic authoritarianism.

Only once during the whole conference did we see any suggestion of a serious inner-party conflict and this was over the question of proportional representation. Everybody knows that New Labour is split from top to bottom about this issue. In a manner calculated to warm the hearts of Old Labour nostalgics, Ken Jackson of the AEEU engineering and electricians’ union was ‘persuaded’ by the NEC to withdraw his union’s motion calling on the Labour Party to commit itself to maintaining the first-past-the-post system. Most observers agree that if the motion had been put it would have been carried overwhelmingly, which would have caused Blair no end of problems. Maintaining the status quo gives him great flexibility in pursuing his strategic plan of creating a new constitutional order. For all their huff and puff about “shabby deals”, union leaders like John Edmonds of the GMB know full well that Blair’s constitutional bandwagon is unstoppable. His goal - permanent occupation of the centre ground - ie, a permanent New Labour government, involving where necessary a coalition - demands a concordat with the Liberal Democrats over PR.

Curiously, in presentational terms, Labour’s handling of the PR issue has been amateurish and counterproductive. The party’s membership, still exulting in what seemed at one time an impossible electoral victory, are in no mood for any kind of deal that would bring Paddy Ashdown into the cabinet. Furthermore, the rank and file have good reason to see PR as a deeply centralist way of doing business: candidates for next May’s Scottish and Welsh elections and for the European election are to be selected not by their local constituencies, but by a central panel: ie, by the bigwigs at Millbank Tower. This is a source of considerable and understandable resentment.

The PR issue aside, the Blackpool conference produced only one other notable faux pas. At a Guardian fringe debate the AEEU announced plans to spend £1 million educating suitable candidates for parliamentary seats. Peter Mandelson, who has taken to calling himself an “industrial revolutionary” in his role as trade and industry secretary, dropped something of a clanger when he said: “It would be a disaster if we thought we could discover some tidy quota system of blue collar, working class, northern, horny-handed, dirty-overalled people to have in our party...” (The Guardian October 1). Mandelson’s distaste for the working class is palpable and hardly surprising coming from a true scion of the old Labour aristocracy and a man whose inability to recognise mushy peas will guarantee him immortality of a kind. How eloquently Mandelson’s words speak to us about the reality of New Labour. It is to become a party of professional middle class politicians and seconded members of the self-made bourgeoisie. Workers, “horny-handed” or otherwise, will have no place - except as voting fodder.

In their own different ways Blair and Mandelson can be acquitted of the charge of class treachery because they never belonged to the working class in the first place. The same cannot be said for John Prescott. Here we have a man who consciously uses his proletarian origins to dupe the workers into believing that Labour really does represent their interests. He was on fine form at the close of this year’s conference, demanding that the surreal Rubik cube backdrop be lit up in pure red, “the party’s true colour”. As part of his Les Dawson act, Prescott was even licensed to make fun of the notion that Tony Blair was ever a socialist. Everyone clapped wildly and you asked yourself whether they really understood the import of what was being said, even in jest. Prescott did his job well. Everyone, even those with the remnants of a socialist conscience, went home feeling good about themselves.

This complacency is not destined to last. Behind Blair’s rhetorical summons to a new austerity lay the need to prepare the country for bad news. Gordon Brown has already admitted that his projections for growth must now be halved. A global recession, perhaps even a depression, is on the way, with all that means in terms of unemployment and suffering for the working class. Russia is in meltdown, the east Asian contagion has spread to Latin America. Neither the US nor the EU can remain oases of stability. Global capitalism means global crisis.

We shall see soon enough that Labour’s talk of community and ‘values’ is just empty verbiage. In a climate of rising social tension and unrest, its response will be a resort to ever more stringent authoritarian measures of control. Life itself will open the eyes of the working class to the falsehoods of New Labour.

Michael Malkin