The Labour Party will never fulfil its calling with Gordon Brown at the helm

This article is cross-posted from Labour Home. Accordingly, it is orientated towards Labour Party members and sympathisers. I am not myself a member of the Labour Party. But I would like to see the Labour Party evolving into a movement focused on the needs of English society and people, which it has clearly failed to be during the New Labour period:

When New Labour came into power in 1997, it had huge ambitions to reform and invest in public services and the social-security system. In the event, much of that investment was indeed put in. Many improvements have been made to public services; the benefits system is now more tailored to the needs of the most disadvantaged sections of British society, while also offering more incentives and assistance for people to get back into employment; and the minimum wage was a long overdue reform that has helped end much of the wage exploitation of the Tory years.

And yet, in the present fin de régime atmosphere, it is hard to escape the feeling that Labour could and should have done much more given the broad centre-left consensus that swept it into power with such huge majorities in 1997 and 2001. Similarly, if Labour were re-elected next year – which hardly anybody in the real world regards as likely – would the Party have the ideas and vision to bring genuine progressive change and renewal to the country? Indeed, the apparent absence of any coherent and credible vision going forward is the main reason why the default option of a Cameron-led Tory government is the one the British (or rather, English) electorate is likely to choose.

One of the main reasons why Labour has failed to deliver an agenda of radical, popular socio-economic reform for Britain as a whole is that it spent half of its first term in office dismantling the governmental apparatus necessary to achieve it. Having, for once, secured a comfortable parliamentary majority across the whole of Great Britain – England as well as Scotland and Wales – Labour set about devolving responsibility in all social-policy areas apart from social security to separate administrations in Scotland and Wales. Doubtless, the Party expected to be able to continue to rule Scotland and Wales as its fiefdoms: exercising control over policy from London and being elected into power in perpetuity, having ‘seen off’ the nationalist threat through devolution. But it has not worked out that way, as we know, making it increasingly problematic to formulate and implement genuinely Britain-wide social policy.

The Labour government did, however, retain responsibility in England for areas such as education, health, local government, justice, transport, housing and planning: all key planks in any potential social-democratic programme of national social and economic development. But Labour has shown itself to be unable and unwilling to transform itself into a progressive movement and government for England. The Party is unionist in its traditions and outlook, and is rooted in ideas of UK-wide, or at least Britain-wide, social solidarity and the exercise of centralised power in pursuit of a common, ‘national-British’ social agenda. But post-devolution – or, at least, after asymmetric devolution as introduced by New Labour – it is no longer possible to deliver a consistent set of social policies for the whole of Britain directed from the Westminster centre. And Labour has failed either to adjust its vision of ‘the country’ for which it is in a position to pursue a progressive agenda, or to adapt its methods to the new realities of life at Westminster, which are that only some of the levers of power are now effective across the UK, while most social policy relates to England only.

So if the Labour government has not succeeded in carrying through a joined-up programme of progressive social reform for the country, this is because the ‘country’, in the social-policy area, has changed from Great Britain to England; and because Labour did not want to be a government for England only. The Labour-led coalitions in Scotland and Wales (up to 2007) were able to pursue traditional social-democratic agendas not only because they had a genuine electoral mandate to do so, but because the very rationale of the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government is to develop and execute social policy for those countries (and also, it has to be said, because they enjoyed very generous funding arrangements, arguably at England’s expense). By contrast, the Labour UK government and the Whitehall establishment have held on to the view that it is their job to be a government for ‘Britain’, and not to develop and implement a distinct social agenda for England, for which they do not in any case have any electoral mandate. Consequently, Labour’s agenda has been driven by the areas of government for which its responsibilities have remained genuinely Britain-wide: the economy; benefits and social security; defence; and foreign affairs.

In particular, under New Labour, social policy (in England, that is) has been subordinate to economics; or, put another way, in the Whitehall corridors of power, departments whose responsibilities are now limited largely or exclusively to social-policy areas relating to England only have been subordinate to the big, cross-UK-power-wielding departments such as the Treasury, the DTI (and subsequently, BERR) and the DWP. In part a consequence, and in part a cause, of this governmental prioritising of (UK) economics over (English) social policy, New Labour’s very ideology, as expressed in its management of the economy and its direction of social policy in England, was based on an economic model of society itself, rather than a model of society of which the world of economics and work is seen as an expression and support. In essence, New Labour viewed a progressive society in terms of an efficient market economy: the more efficient and productive the economy, the more integrated and wealthy is society as a whole, as people are enabled to participate to an ever greater extent in society-as-a-market. This means that, in theory, people can fulfil their aspirations to self-improvement and social mobility at the same time as working to improve the efficiency and productivity of the economy – with the circle squared through the idea that a true market should naturally develop products and services that a society needs; so that economic growth, and ever greater social inclusion, opportunity and wealth creation / distribution are co-terminous.

It is this ideology that has underpinned New Labour’s reforms of education and the NHS in England. In essence, these have involved introducing ever more market mechanisms, not only through direct investment by business into the public education and health systems in England (e.g. in the form of academy schools or PPPs to construct and run new hospitals), but also through the setting up of internal education and health-care markets. These have involved individual schools, universities and hospital trusts competing for public and private funding, and for the best staff; and the use of centrally imposed targets to replace the profit motive in driving efficiency savings (often involving privatisation, contracting out or even total elimination of ancillary services) and performance improvements. But performance has tended to be measured largely in quantitative terms, e.g. based on exam results in the educational context, rather than how the schools contribute to building up and maintaining cohesive communities, and developing happy, rounded individuals equipped to go out and help make a better country: a better England, that is.

Indeed, Labour has lost sight of the country for which it is equipped, in government, to shape a better future. This is not Britain any more, but England; although, of course, in the present lop-sided condition of the UK’s constitution, any would-be government for England would also be the UK government and would have to operate within a dual- or even triple-focused framework: developing a socio-economic vision for England while looking towards the strategic and economic interests of the UK as a whole, and also trying to co-ordinate economic policy for the UK with the varying social policies of the devolved administrations. It is arguable whether such a system could ever work, either in the sense of delivering social policy that really addresses the needs of the English people, or in terms of its asymmetry and democratic discrimination towards England: refusing to allow the English people the same democratic input to social and economic policy for their country as is afforded to the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.

But one thing that is clear is that Labour will not reverse the steady erosion of its support from both the middle class and its core working-class constituency in England unless it can transform itself into a progressive party for England. That means facing up to the fact that the old unitary Britain for which Labour used to be able to implement holistic, nationwide social policies no longer exists – by Labour’s own actions. But there is a whole country out there – England – that is crying out for better education, health care, social care, and more cohesive and less crime-ridden communities, and which needs a strong Labour Party to speak out for it, and offer a more hopeful and egalitarian vision of society than the discredited market-centric ideology of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron.

But this is never going to happen with Gordon Brown as Labour’s leader. Irrespective of whether the Party has now come round to the view that there’s no alternative to Brown as leader until the general election, he has to go if Labour is to assume its moral responsibility as the socially progressive party for England. This is not purely because Brown is Scottish and represents a Scottish constituency, with the consequent problem for democracy that many of the policies implemented by the government he leads do not affect his constituents but do affect people who can’t vote him out. The real problem is that Brown quintessentially represents the denial of the post-devolution truth that most social policy for which UK governments are responsible relate to England only, not Britain. Brown takes flight from this reality into an economics- and world affairs-centric ‘Britain’. Everything is only ‘Britain’ for Brown, even what is in reality England only. Just listen to his keynote speech at the Party conference this afternoon. I guarantee that it will be a litany of ‘Britain, Britain, Britain’, even though over half of it will effectively relate to England alone, including the reported emphasis it will place on anti-social behaviour and crime (well, that relates to Wales as well as England, but not ‘Britain’).

All this talk of ‘Britain, Britain, Britain’ increasingly rings hollow and no longer chimes with voters in England. And that’s because it actually isn’t real: social policies as carried out by UK governments are not British but English. And if they’re not real, how can they also be realistic and joined up: not just isolated reforms introducing even more market-orientated mechanisms into English social services, but part of an integrated vision for England’s future offered honestly and openly as such to the English people, and enlisting their ideas, participation and support? A true popular, progressive movement, in short.

Indeed, ultimately, all this incessant intoning of ‘Britain’ is an insult to the people of England: insulting their intelligence (because increasing numbers of English people realise that the present Labour government can’t and won’t deliver an integrated socio-economic plan for England), and insulting their national pride – shoving ‘Britain’ down their throats in a denial of England’s very nationhood. And this is because Brown’s British obsession expresses more than merely a denial of the contemporary national-political realities, but an actual pathological aversion towards the very idea of ‘England’. The man can hardly bring himself to utter the ‘E’ word, even though he’s effectively the English First Minister. But the English people are not going to vote for an England-hating Scot for PM at the next election. Sorry, but that’s the painful truth.

But over and above the issue of personalities, the Labour Party cannot hope to be, indeed does not deserve to be, a popular, mass-movement, progressive party for England until it is reconciled to England: reconciled to the fact that ‘national’ social policy now means English social policy. And reconciled to the English people as the people it is its duty to love and to serve.

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4 Responses

  1. Certainly Brown is not the person to pick up this challenge. It is a blueprint for a new Labour leader after the almost inevitable election defeat next year – but which of the likely candidates would dare to grasp this particular nettle? Their record suggests that we could expect only ‘more of the same’ and that no Labour leader is likely to put up such an opposition to the next Conservative government. Both parties are therefore likely to connive in providing ‘more Britain, less England’.

  2. Fantastic article, well argued and well said.

  3. “Doubtless, the Party expected to be able to continue to rule Scotland and Wales as its fiefdoms: exercising control over policy from London and being elected into power in perpetuity, having ’seen off’ the nationalist threat through devolution”

    That makes the Labour Party sound more homogenous than it was/is. Some in Welsh Labour (Ron Davies chiefly) could see that the social and working environment which had sustained the Labour vote was fast receding into the past and that the party was atrophying as a result of historic one-partyism. I believe he was genuinely convinced of the case for ‘new politics’, involving PR, which would revitalise Welsh politics and, in turn, Welsh Labour, rather than trying to plot some desperate attempt to cling to power. Shame he took that walk … Ron also suggested that the British Labour Party should become federalised, which would have allowed an English Labour element to develop.

    One of Gordon Brown’s problems with accountability is that New Labour has dismantled the old, unwieldy policy-making machinery of the party. Such a machinery could have legitimised policy announcements for England by a Scottish Prime Minister but New Labour couldn’t bring itself to trust the Cabinet, let alone the party, for its policy decisions.

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