Andy Pearmain responds to Adrian McMenamin

New Labour is the last gasp not the renewal of Labourism. It has achieved nothing more than some technical fixes—the kind of thing any modern state (including one led by post-Thatcher Tories) would have done. Those who wish to transform society need a new vehicle, argues Andy Pearmain.

I'm pleased to respond to Adrian McMenamin's thoughts on "Labour Must Die!!" It strikes me as a relatively intelligent contribution from within labourism to what is becoming daily a more urgent discussion. Underneath the furore about Blair and Brown is the momentous issue of what future, if any, there is for the Labour Party. In historical terms, is New Labour the last gasp or the "renewal" of Labourism? I think my article made clear my view that it's the former, but I'm happy to talk about it. As Adrian says at the end, and I very strongly agree with this, "We will need to rebuild a wider cultural politics that re-energises the idea of the progressive left". But to return to the beginning…

I'm really not sure I've ever been accused of Leninism before! I was once denounced by the Socialist Workers Party as a "right-wing communist", a label which at the time I found quite acceptable. I spent much of my time in the CP and in the Labour Party challenging Leninist practice—specifically its anti-democratic, vanguardist approach to political organization. I think there are still strong echoes of a wider ultra-leftism in contemporary politics—from the "impossibilism" of much green thinking and practice to the empty and ultimately dispiriting pieties of the "anti-capitalist" movements. One of the smaller tragedies of New Labour is that it has enabled, via Stop the War, the revival of the SWP and various Stalinist rumps of the old CP. The continuing value of Gramsci is precisely that he enables a rigorous critique of leftism as well as labourism, and links up worthwhile and necessary reforms in capitalism to broader, deeper social transformation. Reform and revolution are not mutually exclusive! That was the historical mistake of both 2nd International social democracy and 4th International Trotskyism—two sides of the same "economistic" coin and ultimately utter failures at any kind of transformative politics.

I have tried to make the general point that New Labour is nothing like as new as it likes to think. One of the curious, barely conscious echoes of older left-wing habits is that at its core, New Labour is ferociously Leninist in its practice, specifically its elitism and exclusivity. How do you join New Labour? You don't—I assume you're invited if your face fits. And one of the reasons for the ultimate failure of New Labour is that really and truly, the only faces that fit are Blair and (arguably) Brown. Lenin (or more precisely Stalin, acting on his posthumous behalf) created one of the most ruthless and blatant "personality cults" ever seen. In an understated, politely English, faintly self-mocking way, isn't that what Blair (and now, in a rather dourer Scottish fashion, Brown) have been attempting? And isn't that why New Labour is now floundering, because people get bored with politicians and, as Enoch Powell put it, "all political careers end in failure"?

The other major reason for New Labour's failure, as I tried to argue in my original article, is that it is simply not new enough. It still carries so much of the baggage of labourism—its macho posturing; its distaste for ideology and theory; its over-emphasis on loyalty to the central leadership (Leninism again) and thoroughly undemocratic, unchallengeable centralism; its attachment to outmoded institutions and practices in the British state and society; its shallow moralism; its absolute focus on winning elections to the exclusion of wider political circumstances and historical trends. The only reason New Labour can purport to be new, starting out every day on its own private Year Zero, is that the Labour Party, and its labourist mythology and iconography, are notoriously blind to history, its own included. If, to take an example from Adrian's piece, the Labour Party "was formed by MPs looking for external support", why have the trades unions invested so much money in it? Surely one of the historic purposes of the party has been to bring about some kind of broader transformation of society. Isn't that at least one of the reasons people join, however misguided and disillusioned they subsequently feel?

The question I am now trying to raise is precisely this—is the Labour Party any kind of vehicle for those of us who still wish to see such a broader transformation of society? I'm not sure Adrian would include himself in this number, but my sense is that there are enough interested and committed people in Britain to make it a worthwhile and very necessary project. Hence my call for a new political formation. Let me make one further thing clear—I'm not advocating the reformation of the Communist Party or anything remotely like it. The CPGB, of which I was an ill-fitting member for ten highly formative years straddling the onset of Thatcherism, was in political and historical terms a pathetic failure, unlike Gramsci's PCI. Choosing to wind itself up in 1991 (the only CP in the world to do so) was about the most honourable thing it ever did. However, it has left a huge gap on the left of British politics. For all its faults, the CP was a persistent source of creative, dynamic thinking, including some of the original steps towards New Labour. There is precious little of that around at the moment.

As for New Labour and its nearly ten years in government—what is distinctively democratic, left-wing, or even political about it? I honestly cannot see anything it has done which amounts to anything more than technical fixes, the kind of thing any modern state (including one led by post-Thatcher Tories) would have done to keep our society ticking over, while we adjust to deepening globalization and marketization of every aspect of our lives. Capitalism has become more unregulated and totalitarian, more unforgiving and brutal, and as a consequence more unequal and destructive under New Labour government. That simple fact outweighs all the ameliorative wheezes and eye-catching initiatives, all the New Deals and Sure Starts, all the guff about social exclusion and child poverty. At the receiving end, they are experienced as at best briefly useful handouts and at worst demoralizing condescension and chastisement for personal, family and community "failure".

My final point is that various forms of this critique of New Labour is now held by the vast majority of people in this country, at all points on the political spectrum. It expresses itself in many different ways, from disgust with "spin" and Labour-variant "sleaze", anxiety about social order and civility, utter horror over foreign policy starting out with the catastrophe of Iraq, all the way to inchoate anger and fear over "where the country is going". That critical feeling is solidifying into a pretty damning historical judgment from which I do not think the Labour Party will ever recover. This is the new "political coalition" (or to use Gramsci's term, historical bloc), which will form the ideological backdrop for coming decades in Britain. However, the Labour Party's complacency and narcissism seems to blind it to this harsh political reality—they really do not see how bad things are. Whenever I attend Labour Party events (like the recent Compass conference), I find myself asking who's this "we" they keep going on about? I'd ask Adrian the same—who exactly is this "we" who "won't be winding our party up" and who "won't be belittling its achievements either"? Look around you, Adrian, there's not many of "you" left.

Underlying Adrian's critique of my piece, and pretty much everything Blair says and does, is a weird kind of flippancy. You can sense and sometimes see a smirk forming on the face of New Labour. This all may look like a game from the perspective of Parliament and wherever the Labour Party offices are these days, but out here in the country some pretty fundamental shifts in mood and attitude are taking shape. My ultimate concern is that unless the "democratic left" finds a suitable vehicle/location/agency (choose whichever metaphor you wish, Marxist, Leninist or otherwise) from which to exercise some influence over those mood-shifts, they will take us into far darker times yet. This was the blind spot of 1980s Gramscian thinking. We understood that the game was up for our primary sponsor, the CPGB, but some of us imagined the Labour Party was capable of genuinely "hegemonic" leadership. We really can't afford to dodge "the question of agency" now. As Lenin said (when was it? I never actually read the bloody thing—I much preferred "Left-wing Communism—an Infantile Disorder")—"What is to be done?"

Andy Pearmain is a research student in History at the University of East Anglia. A version of this paper was presented to the Third Rethinking Social Democracy conference in Sheffield 28-30 June, 2006. Andy was a member of the Communist Party between 1975 and 1985 and more recently a Labour councillor in Norwich. He is the author of the Compass paper "Gramsci and Us" [Microsoft Word document, hosted on another site].

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