Labour and the return to Keynes

James Turley examines the Brown bounce

Back when Gordon Brown assumed the reins of government in 2007, Labour’s poll ratings shot up.

He was, after all, replacing the by then almost universally reviled Tony Blair; he had under his belt a decade as an apparently competent chancellor and a cryptic reputation for being to the left of Blair on key issues. Labour was jubilant: “It’s just like 1997 again, isn’t it?”, one backbench soft leftist told The Guardian’s John Harris (July 19 2007). This mood of euphoria was dubbed the ‘Brown bounce’.

It came to a head that autumn, when it became public knowledge that Brown intended to call a snap election to wrong-foot the Tories. When he decided against that, the climbdown was largely derided. The bounce was very much at an end, and the subsequent year was a time of disaster after disaster. By March he looked barely competent, and the Tories were resurgent.

The phrase ‘Brown bounce’ has since then been largely the butt of sniggering in the commentariat - until now. The last few weeks, bizarrely, have seen the term re-enter the currency, to describe the surprisingly favourable response Brown has received for his handling of the financial crisis.

This bounce is rather shallower than the last one, however. Then, Brown consistently led the Tories in opinion poll after opinion poll by about eight points; at the moment, the pollster ComRes reports that 31% of respondents would vote Labour, compared to 40% support for the Conservatives - the gap has shrunk by 3% (The Independent on Sunday October 19). But this is on top of the improvement over the last few weeks - ComRes reported at the beginning of last month a Tory lead of 19 points (The Independent September 6). Nevertheless, other polls make it clear that the one issue where Brown is consistently outdoing Cameron is that of “economic competence”. There is no other candidate for explaining the partial turnaround in Brown’s fortunes.

“A woman’s preaching,” Samuel Johnson misogynistically quipped, “is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Such is the impression left by Gordon Brown’s poll performance the last few weeks. Of course, Labour continues to trail the Tories; according to these findings, David Cameron would cruise to a victory - though not a landslide - if an election were held tomorrow. And yet, the fact remains - a prime minister is actually benefiting, however slightly, from a catastrophic breakdown in the financial system.

In most other circumstances, a premier would be destroyed by such a challenge. Indeed, Brown seems superficially vulnerable to attack on this score, having been chancellor during a period which saw the cementation of the economic conditions that triggered the crisis.

But by responding in a more or less timely and direct fashion to the new conjuncture, Brown may have begun to reverse his fortunes. Cameron’s political strategy hinges on spinning an overwhelming focus on the extension of private sector provision as a humane approach to social questions. Society is broken - and it can be fixed by recourse to the family and the voluntary sector. We need more of nanny, and less of the nanny state.

Such a strategy could succeed coming out of a decade of Blairism-Brownism - a decade which has seen both creeping privatisation of the NHS and other public services, and mass investment in the bureaucratic sides of these operations. Blair-Brown appeared to have given us the worst of both worlds - massive tax investment that resulted only in red tape; an open goal for an ascendant right.

An ascendant right, that is, under ‘normal’ conditions. What we have seen, conversely, is a financial crisis that has landed at the peak of an ideological offensive in favour of ‘free markets’ - that is, of the appearance of unregulated financial capitalism (in reality, no aspect of contemporary capitalism, even at the apex of the recent laissez faire turn, escapes the intimate intervention of the bourgeois state). The right finds it easy to pose as the more consistent advocates of such an economic configuration, or the more adept at keeping it ticking along.

However, the necessity posed by the crisis has been a shift to dirigisme. Government has to be seen to be ‘doing something’; the opposition has to be seen as ready to do something better if only it were in power. The sudden and total inadequacy of private-sector solutions to the major problems has completely wrong-footed the right around the world.

We have seen John McCain in America reverse his position again and again; we have seen the British Tories, Cameron and George Osborne, cling for as long as possible to sub-libertarian anti-‘big government’ politics until long after such positions came to seem entirely inadequate.

By contrast, Barack Obama has managed to appear sharp by backing Bush’s bail-out policies (while drawing some distance from the most openly regressive elements of the $700 billion bill and its successors). And Gordon Brown has followed suit, and exploited his opportunity to show the nation he means business by taking the ‘tough’ decisions to nationalise banks where necessary for the survival of the British finance industry.

Importance of being Labour

Brown and Cameron are both, in terms of their personal political evolutions, committed advocates of the free market. Yet history has found Brown to do its will and rescue capitalism in the short term. What makes him so special?

Nothing other than the party card. The Conservatives remain crippled (and at this time that is the only word) by their commitment to Thatcherism. If Cameron is to break with this, he faces massive opposition. By substantially weakening both the local structures of government and purging the Tory party of its ‘wets’, Margaret Thatcher seemed to cement for all time a full organisational adherence to the new right and neoliberal capitalism.

The weakening of local government did not end at reshaping her own party, however. It contributed to the most comprehensive destruction of the Labour left achievable as well. But this could only go so far. The Conservative Party is an instrument for the hegemony of the big bourgeoisie over the petty bourgeoisie. For over three decades, this construction of hegemony has entailed a programme of laissez faire capitalism, sold in libertarian terms economically and authoritarian terms socially.

The Labour Party, however, is the instrument of a parallel but significantly distinct hegemony - that of the bourgeoisie over the labour bureaucracy. This became the dominant political form during the post-war consensus when it became obviously necessary for the bourgeoisie to make concessions to the working class in a situation where mass communist parties had wide influence all over Europe and the domestic labour movement had enough fight in it, in support of however confused a programme, to make things difficult for the bosses. Even when and where social democratic parties were not in power, their political preoccupations predominated.

Now, it appears, we have another situation which calls for a party like Labour (or the US Democrats). Such parties are far more easily able to shift back towards a more Keynesian strategy of direct government intervention in the commanding heights of the economy. Rightwing parties have, to an extent, to really believe in their rightwing politics - centre-left social democratic formations have only to pose them as necessary, given ‘how things are’ right now.

As such, they can take along for the ride a large, inert (if grumbling) rump of more traditionally leftwing forces, in the union bureaucracy and in the political fractions proper. To these naive souls, Brown’s 11th hour conversion to the virtues of nationalising banks is merely the recognition of the necessity of a more thorough-going Keynesian ‘economic strategy’ and thus a confirmation of their own reformist problematic - a return to the post-war social democratic consensus is not on the cards; this Keynesianism is of a totally different order.

We need not concern ourselves with this foolishness, apart from recognising its sustenance at however low a level as a necessary element of bourgeois support for centre-left formations, whether social democratic or liberal; and as a force which can be turned against the hard-right wing of such formations when the capitulation to orthodox capitalist ideology fails.

Will the Brown bounce (mark two) last? It is still too early to tell. Certainly, Brown can take heart from the situation across the Atlantic. In the USA, it seems that Barack Obama can do no wrong, and John McCain no right. Obama gathers endorsements from a whole series of Republican grandees, while McCain’s every campaign manoeuvre is derided as opportunistic and cynical by a hostile media. It certainly seems as though the capitalist system (if not the traditional elite of the bourgeoisie) is demanding of its deputies a willingness to break in some way with the unfettered free market ideologies of the past three decades.

Nevertheless, in this regard, the US is the key battleground. Capitalism can make do with a hard-right government in London provided it has a compliant one in Washington; Brown may still be too utterly wrecked by a shambolic first year in power to regain the initiative in a lasting fashion. Whatever the outcome of the next election, it is clear that capitalism as a global system can only shift away from neoliberalism; the place of British politics in this shift remains to be settled.

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