The End of the Labour Movement

By McElvoy, Anne | New Statesman (1996), September 26, 1997 | Go to article overview

The End of the Labour Movement


McElvoy, Anne, New Statesman (1996)


New Labour is new, but it isn't Labour. Could Tony Blair please now get on with the job of building a proper liberal party

The most absorbing and least well-addressed question about new Labour is what sort of a political party it now is. In the pre-election period the response to any such probing was that it was the party that was no longer old Labour. In government it defines itself cleverly as the party of change, which is both a brilliant and an evasive positioning because it appears to answer the question without saying what it is changing from and to.

New Labour has the distinction in modern politics of being the party that has gained power by dissociating itself from its past while never formally repudiating it. It's a Janus-like creation that faces in two directions at once. As far as the all-important floating voter is concerned it represents the de-ideologised centre: gently corporatist and in tune with a society that has followed Lady Thatcher to her radical conclusions and beyond. Having had our economic and social certainties uprooted under her rule, we have learnt to question everything.

Much to our own surprise Britain has become a country that sees no reason to hold back from changes to the organisational fabric of the United Kingdom, still less the House of Lords. It seeks progressive icons in the strangest places, recently managing to find one in the unlikely shape of Diana, Princess of Wales.

New Labour has identified and built on this mood. But to its own members it still upholds the notion that it remains part of the historical labour movement. In his conference speech last year, Tony Blair thanked old Labour for sticking around long enough to make new Labour possible. That struck me at the time as a polite form of obituary, the equivalent of a Hollywood star thanking his long-deceased parents for making it all possible. But the exact nature of new Labour's relationship with the party throughout this century goes undiscussed. Is it really part of a great continuum? Or does new Labour mean the beginning of an entirely new species of centre politics, distinct from the labour movement in both its socialist and social democratic tempers?

This is a question no one can honestly claim to answer without declaring their hand. Like a lot of people who are non-Tory but felt that the pre-Blair Labour Party had outlived its usefulness, I believed that the Kinnock/Smith leaderships were positive steps towards electoral renewal, but that they failed to address the Thatcherite settlement or identify the areas in which she had failed to deliver on her own promise of a more meritocratic society.

New Labour was thus a huge relief to those of us who are non-Tory and yet believed that the pre-Blair Labour Party had to change because an awful lot of what it had believed before - about the economy, education, the welfare state and the relationship of the individual to the whole - had been proved downright wrong or historically redundant.

The labour movement came into being because of concrete historical and industrial conditions at the end of the 19th century and will disappear for the same reasons at the end of the 20th. At the same time, though, the Blairite party remains institutionally in the grip of a cultural identity which demands that the tribe continues to pay homage to its elders. So Blair, asked who his greatest influences are, improbably cites Keir Hardie and laces his speeches in the north-east with approving mentions of the late Durham miners' leader Sam Watson. Labour's coffee-table history books, most recently exemplified by Tony Wright and Matt Carter's The People's Party, which will be snapped up on the conference bookstalls, obediently present the Party as a continuum that culminates in the luminous arrival of The Moderniser who chucked out the chintz but is otherwise a faithful son of the Labour tradition.

This doesn't really wash. My view is that Blair's leadership of new Labour signals the end of the labour movement in Britain. …

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