By failing to hold any ideological ground, New Labour has sown the seeds for a resurgent right
New Labour will probably win the next election, perhaps comfortably, although Blair’s speech at the weekend betrayed a new sense of anxiety. New Labour, however, will not rule for ever. Maybe it will win a third term, even a fourth, but sooner or later, it will again be consigned to opposition, most likely by the Conservatives. The idea that the latter would be banished to the electoral sidelines was always fanciful: notwithstanding the impressive performance of the Liberal Democrats, the two-party system is enormously resilient, as it showed in the 1980s and surely will again. But what will be the legacy of New Labour: or, to put it another way, what kind of political era will succeed it?
Clearly it will lie to the right of New Labour. That might sound like a trite statement, bordering on the banal, but it is worth pondering what it might mean. New Labour has overwhelmingly acquiesced in the neo-liberal agenda. Far from challenging the Thatcherite inheritance, it has enthusiastically endorsed its basic parameters. The most obvious area where it has broken rank has been in its willingness to engage in public spending, though this has been seriously constrained by its timidity on taxation. At the same time, it has enthusiastically pursued a Thatcherite agenda of quasi-markets and choice within the public services, an objective desired but politically beyond the reach of previous Conservative governments.
New Labour has renounced the notion of left and right as irrelevant to modern political discourse. Alas, neither the Tories nor Bush seems to share that view. On the contrary, both at home and abroad, the Bush regime has signalled a major shift to the right, and it is difficult to imagine that not influencing the Conservatives here. New Labour’s rejection of the old polarity was enshrined in the idea of the third way. Of course, it did not presage what it claimed at the time, namely a new way of looking at, and acting upon, the world: it was far more prosaic than that. In effect, it was a grand term for ducking any kind of ideological engagement with the right: split the difference or, alternatively, look the other way.
The result has been a government that has failed to define or hold any serious ideological ground. Indeed, in some areas such as crime, civil liberties and now immigration, it has deliberately behaved in the manner of a populist Conservative government. Nor is this true only in the domestic arena. Blair’s support of Bush has been far more extreme than any previous Labour government might have displayed. Its support for the invasion of Iraq and the idea of military intervention in developing countries – in a nutshell, liberal imperialism – coupled with its increasingly open approval of Britain’s imperial past, mark an abject retreat from an anti-colonial tradition. It is difficult to think of any sense in which, internationally, the prime minister even belongs to the centre left.
Exactly how and when the electoral tide will eventually go out for this government is a matter of speculation: economic downturn, a collapse in house prices, divisions in the government, exhaustion, a popular desire for change, together with other factors that cannot be predicted. Nor is it difficult to guess the ways in which New Labour will be vulnerable when the Conservatives finally again become a force to be reckoned with. This is an administration that has put immense store on spin, presentation, public relations, hyperbole and rhetoric. It has always lacked substance, always been flaky. Furthermore, it has displayed an extraordinary lack of political courage, a profoundly timorous government in the face of powerful vested interests.
The rise of Thatcher as a new kind of conviction politician in the 1970s was in part a reaction to what was seen as the emptiness and posturing of Wilson – although he was a pale shadow of Blair in this respect. Thatcher stressed how different she was from Wilson and all he represented. In opposition to his pragmatism – “a week is a long time in politics” – she affirmed the importance of ideology and strategy, a novelty at the time. As the euphoria of the 60s gave way to the growing uncertainties and difficulties of the 70s, the Thatcherite message enjoyed growing appeal. It is not difficult to imagine, as the froth and vacuity of the last decade, both political and cultural, give way to harder times, that the reaction against New Labour could be at least as profound, probably far more so. Suddenly, the term “new” will look desperately old and passe.
But here the contrast ends. Under Wilson and Callaghan, the social-democratic tradition remained intact and operational; Blair has virtually dispensed with it. He is a fully paid-up member of the Thatcherite settlement. The frontiers she established have not been pushed back – they have been maintained. That is why Blair is Britain’s most rightwing postwar prime minister bar Thatcher (and possibly Major). The political centre of gravity has shifted hugely to the right; and Blair has made no attempt to reverse that. On the contrary, he has warmly embraced the Thatcherite legacy, while suggesting that this is really of no political significance because the old polarities no longer have any meaning.
A resurgent right will make no such mistake. It is not difficult to paint a picture of what might happen. Indeed, some of the potential stormclouds of the future are already visible on the horizon. Our hoary old friend immigration is back on the agenda, near the very top in fact. The opinion polls suggest that people are worried. New Labour is now desperately seeking to outflank the Tories while, predictably, utterly failing to make any stand against the new populism and its racist subtext. Of course, the charge of racism is denied on all sides: nobody ever owns up to racism. So why, pray, are the unskilled from the European Union welcome while those from the developing world are not? Just as in the case of Thatcherism, race will form an integral component of a populist right.
Nor will a resurgent right face anything like the very difficult political task of undermining the social-democratic consensus that confronted Thatcher: this time, the right will find no such obstacles, because Blair has been more than happy to sing from a similar hymn sheet. So what will happen to the Labour party when New Labour eventually finds itself out in the electoral cold? It is worth recalling the plight of the Tories since 1997. Thatcher deliberately set out to attack and undermine the traditional basis of the Conservatives as a one-nation party: when Thatcherism finally became irreversibly unpopular, culminating in the 1997 election defeat, the party had nowhere to go. It could neither stay with Thatcherism nor return to its one-nation roots: that is why it has been in such an abject and divided state ever since.
The crisis that will confront the Labour party after electoral defeat could be at least as great as that which has engulfed the Tories. New Labour will be derided, devoid of appeal, and terminally unpopular, while the pre-existing Labour tradition will simply be too weak and undermined to provide any serious form of alternative political sustenance. The fact that the party is already little more than a hollow New Labour shell, with a dwindling band of members, will only serve to accentuate this crisis. It sounds like a recipe for years in the wilderness: a depressing political prospect in the face of a Tory administration based on a populist combination of not-so-covert racism, xenophobia, hostility to civil liberties and support for Bush’s new imperial-style politics.