Friday, 23 November 2007

New Labour, New Capitalism

On Wednesday, Keele's Industrial Relations dept hosted a talk by Robert Taylor, a well known freelance journalist who has worked as industrial correspondent for a whole host of mainstream papers. The theme of his paper was the legacy of New Labour.

He prefaced his discussion with how Labour has come to embrace the very things it spent time railing against in the 1980s. Its neoliberal love affair with markets, privatisation of public services, swingeing cuts in the social wage, the proliferation of PFI schemes, and so on have been the social policy side of the monetarist coin. Economic policy has seen the maintenance of a deregulated and hitherto relatively stable climate for finance capital, not least assisted by a complex web of tax loopholes. As a result, the global super rich have migrated to London in droves. The IMF lists London along with the Seychelles and the Cayman Islands as a top international tax refuge.

At a 10th anniversary/legacy tour lecture in Manchester last April, Blair argued such outcomes were achieved because of the different policy focus of New Labour from previous Labour governments. According to Blair, the latter were mainly concerned with the state and institutions, whereas New Labour's priority was work. The government's job was to provide the education and training necessary to equip Britain with a labour force that can compete in the global economy. For Blair, this was an emancipatory vision. Workers would be empowered not through legislation guaranteeing workplace rights, but by making them through training more powerful in relation to the marketplace. Decoding the Blairspeak, the idea was to make employees so marketable they could pick and choose where they sell their labour power, and with a highly skilled and motivated workforce British capital could not fail to benefit. What did Blair use as evidence to back up this era of individual emancipation? The obscene growth in inequality between the haves and the have-nots.

For Taylor, this was an post-facto theorisation of the New Labour mission. The neoliberal "achievements" of Blair/Brown were more or less pragmatic responses to the free market climate rather than the result of a coherent programme. This can be shown by a cursory examination of the 1997 manifesto. Though accepting the primacy of the market as the engine of wealth creation, the first government nevertheless implemented a windfall levy on the privatised utilities, a minimum wage, (weak) mandatory union recognition, and signed up to the Social Chapter. Therefore, Taylor argues this was a broadly pro-worker platform. But nevertheless, in 1997 and every general election since, Labour have circulated a special manifesto for business to reassure them of their economic competence, and how any ostensibly pro-worker measure will be watered down. After that first election victory, as if to underline Labour's pro-business credentials, No.10 refused to see any TUC delegations for the first six months but made clear its door was always open to business leaders.

This has meant despite the meagre crumbs thrown to the working class in 1997, the last 10 years have been a grim experience. Not only has the government attacked state benefits to the most vulnerable sections of the class as a crusade against dependency culture, the continued impotence of the unions - often hiding behind the anti-union laws - have seen workplaces become a breeding ground for bullying managers and long hours. Small wonder absenteeism and ill-health have become increasingly serious problems.

But in one respect, New Labour has been off-message. Taylor argues there has, in congruence with the Blair/Brown 'empowering employees' vision, been a real extension of individual rights for workers on paper. Unlike rights around collective bargaining, the CBI has been forced to concede the provision of maternity and paternity rights, compassionate leave, and so on because, in an untypically honest moment, it knew it would have a hard time arguing against them.

In conclusion, though Blair and Brown have consolidated and extended the grip capital has over British society, from the standpoint of the New Labour vision the project has been a failure. Productivity is not increasing, education and training are no better, and the numbers of NEETs are growing. And despite the language, neither is New Labour particularly modern. Blair and Brown have jettisoned social democratic politics and returned to a time before the working class made its weight felt in political systems. But now, in a global situation characterised by increasing turbulence, New Labour is passing over from Hubris into Nemesis. Its days are surely numbered.

Among the batch of questions Taylor took, the first asked about the relationship between New Labour and the Democrats. He responded there were mutual influences around the uses of rights and responsibilities rhetoric when Clinton and Blair's administrations overlapped. But since the ascension of Bush and neoconservatism, New Labour's adoption of neocon positions has gone beyond a hawkish foreign policy. A key influence on Blair and Brown has been the right wing economist and Murdoch stooge, Irwin Stelzer. His message of more deregulation and more privatisation of public services have fallen on very receptive ears.

I asked a question about the Conservatives. As the Tories have traditionally been the organic party of capital, has New Labour been successful robbing it of this role? Taylor replied there can be no doubt that it and big capital in general are in cahoots. The Tories, for their part, are now overwhelmingly the party of small capital, of small business. Furthermore and despite Cameron's attempt to Blairise his party, the issue of Europe runs like a crack down the middle. Its submerged Europhobia constitutes a major problem from the standpoint of big capital, so it is unlikely to back the Conservatives as a whole in the near future.

Given the talk was mostly about the adoption of right wing ideas by the government, another questioner asked if there was any influence on its practice coming from the parliamentary left and the unions? Taylor's response was to what extent can we speak of a left now? The mobilising capacities of the unions are very different today than 30 years ago, and the conditions that gave rise to this combativity them are gone and are not coming back. For example, most unions do not have even the potential strategic muscle they once had. It is pointless blaming the various leaderships for this state of affairs. They are pragmatic beasts who are governed by what they perceive to be the ability of their members to fight.

The final question ended on a gloomy note. The questioner observed that while New Labour might be on their way out, neoliberalism appears to be sticking around for some while longer. Where can we expect opposition to come from? Taylor replied that if we were looking to the unions, then we have to recognise they are in crisis across the developed world. The only places where they are holding on to their memberships and positions are the Nordic countries, and possibly Australia. The situation in the global south is different, where unions are important actors in broad social movements. For this situation to change, the context must change, but this will be difficult.

There were very few reasons to be cheerful, but there's no point trying to fall ourselves about the power of capital or the state of the labour movement. The question, as always, is what we can do about changing the present state of affairs.


Anonymous said...

I guess the trite answer would be for unions to 'go transnational'. Mutual aid and solidarity across boarders.

Indeed, hard to conceive and easier said than accomplishe--but this seems like the next logical step for workers.

ian said...

Good post. Very interesting lecture.