Magazine article The Spectator

Abolishing the 10p Tax Rate Shattered the Contract on Which New Labour Was Based

Magazine article The Spectator

Abolishing the 10p Tax Rate Shattered the Contract on Which New Labour Was Based

Article excerpt

Why is the abolition of the 10p rate of tax unlike any other rebellion of backbench Labour MPs? The answer lies in the mood of Labour backbenchers following decades of modernising the party, a process that began under Neil Kinnock but only became a root and branch operation under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Repeated Labour defeats in the 1950s were accompanied by the burst of outriders demanding a revision of an exclusively economic definition of socialism. This plea ought to have fallen on fertile ground. There has always been a sizeable proportion of activists who believe that socialism could not be achieved without first changing the kind of people we are. Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson's grandfather, touched on this when he claimed that socialism can only be built by socialists.

Morrison's plea was, sadly, a backward cry to a lost age. Emphasis on Labour's ethical roots lost its dominance when Ramsay MacDonald formed the 1931 National Government against the overwhelming wishes of the Labour Movement. MacDonald was the chief proponent of the fundamental importance of developing a nobility of character. Following the 1931 debacle, not only was MacDonald viewed as a charlatan but, as a consequence, his approach to politics became deeply suspect. In place of ethical regeneration of individuals the Labour party looked increasingly to a more mechanistic basis to underpin radical change. That mechanical approach centred, first, on nationalising much of the economy, and then, as a result of the success of the war economy, of central planning.

Labour's 1960s revisionism began the long march to New Labour. The electorate of the 1950s had already jettisoned any hope Labour had of building a revival around a planned economy, no matter how much the verb planning was prefaced by the adverb democratic.

Anthony Crosland, now the best remembered of the early revisionists, attempted to prise Labour away from the belief that only by nationalising the commanding heights of the economy could socialism be established.

Labour instead needed to stress equality as its goal and high public expenditure as a means of achieving this new society.

Crosland's objectives were to be realised only under Tony Blair. He, at least, had seen how Mrs Thatcher transformed the Tory party. She and a small boarding party seized control of the Conservatives and systematically threw the old crew overboard, and with that crew went their ideas on how to run the ship of state.

Blair, along with Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, conducted a similar operation in the Labour party, seizing power from within.

Most of Labour's sacred furniture was cast to the waves. Out went Clause 4, to be replaced by a lengthy consideration about values.

Labour MPs and activists went along with the birth of New Labour as there appeared to be no coherent alternative that might appeal to the electorate.

Slowly but surely most MPs found themselves signing up to a project that, step by step, sacrificed their own beliefs on how to achieve a socialist commonwealth and which marked clear red water between the party and anything that might conceivably be offered by the Tories. Once activists became engaged, each revisionist demand was simply a logical step from changes already set in hand. …

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