In it he identified the origins of the British Labour movement as being threefold: the desire of the working man to better his lot through work and education, the British tradition of dissent, be it religious or social, and the Fabian movement. He went on to warn against the Fabians. What would happen, he said, was that the bourgeoisie would seize control of the workers movement as its leadership and so, when the revolution happened, the workers would find that the same old plump and comfy middle class types were still in charge just like they always had been and the worker’s position would be no better.
I was looking at the front bench of the contemporary Labour party and thinking about this the other day. Can’t think why.
Still, if he was able to make predictions like that it’s no wonder Leon had to be got out of the way.
I’ve been idly thinking about the outcome of the election lately, and, post-conversations with annwfyn about the Labour party and the British left in general and the question: Where do they go from here?
You see, the more I think of it, the bigger the Labour party’s problem gets. It stems from the fundamental intellectual underpinning of the party, and subsequent history.
If there’s one thing the 20th century was about, it was about market against command economics. The thing is, market economics won hands down. Command economics was tested to destruction. It just doesn’t work. And the problem the British left, and the Labour movement has is that its intellectual foundation is one of command economics. Blair realised this, which is why he repealed Clause 4, but there’s a lot of people out there on the British left – and I do mean a lot – who still think a state-run economy is a fab idea. And it’s there that lies their problem. It’s an idea which has no realistic prospect of winning an election.
In continental Europe, which has lots more experience of Britain of command economics going horribly wrong for all concerned, the left have built themselves a respectable position within a market framework. Left-wing British people often say this country should be more like the Scandinavian Social Democracies but often don’t appear to know how they work, because the Scandinavians are by and large way more enthusiastic liberal marketeers than we are. What’s the minimum wage in Norway, or Sweden, or Denmark or Iceland? There isn’t one. What’s the inheritance tax rate in Sweden? There isn’t one. Indeed, Denmark is widely regarded in economic circles as having the most liberal market economy in the world.
The Scandinavians have realised that all the social stuff they want to pay for is really, really expensive and the best way to make the money is through liberal markets. Meanwhile in the UK the left fixes upon interventionist rent caps and energy caps and nationalising this or that…and lose. And are going to keep right on losing.
The thing is, whilst he Labour party squabble about just how much the inheritance tax rate should be the problem for them is bigger than that. In fact, I think it’s so big they can’t even see it. Whilst many of their members cling to command economic ideas, the Conservatives are busily colonising as much of the Social Democratic central ground which Blair captured and Labour have retreated from as they can under the economic circumstances. When you’ve got Boris Johnson airily calling for the living wage, you know that the ground the Labour party – and the left generally – wants to claim is at least in part in the hands of the governing power. And that’s where the problem for them lies.
For the Labour party, and the left in general, Blair was right. Bet you never thought you’d hear me say that, did you? The ‘Third way’ was a crack at Scandinavian Social Democracy, and he discredited it amongst his core support by killing 100,000 Iraqis and driving the economy into a tree. Having retreated from this ground the Conservatives are taking it, which gives them a commanding electoral position.
Because if the left want to win any elections any time soon, they’re going to have to abandon command economics. Again. And the problem they face is that Britain already has two established market economics parties – the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. They’ve had fifty or a hundred years to define the market economics ground as their own – hence New Labour being described by their more bananas former supporters as ‘Red Tories’ when they try to compete. In order to be competitive, Labour are going to have to take the economics fight to people who are not only already entrenched, but who are making inroads onto their old ground whilst they fight it out amongst themselves.
In truth, it’s hard to see where Labour, and the left still wedded to command economics, go from here. Their intellectual selling point has been disproven by events and others have got their ground. Other people have got market economics and trade sewn up as their USP’s, but those are the things you need to underpin and pay for social policies, and the voters have made their intentions clear. I keep saying that the things which win elections under normal circumstances are leadership and economics. One isn’t enough and right now they’ve got neither.
It’s quite likely that the left will retreat in upon itself. Trade and market economics are, by necessity, internationalist, so we’re seeing a rise in nationalism in traditional Labour areas. This isn’t surprising. Nationalism is another expression of command economics; a belief in the power of a monopolistic state to make everything better - thus we see UKIP and the SNP eating Labour’s lunch. (As an experiment, try pointing out to SNP supporters the similarity of theirs and UKIPs economic policies, or suggesting to pretty much anyone in the left-leaning LibDem or Labour party that UKIP are economically a left-wing party these days. You’ll be impressed by the vitriol your observation gets). Where else? The Greens?
I remember first reading Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis back in the early 1990s and ever since then I’ve had a lot of respect for the guy. One thing he’s said which I agree with a lot is that the great tragedy of the environmental movement is that it’s been almost entirely co-opted by the hard left. The reason is that this is a tragedy is that it alienates the very people whose support they really need in order to achieve their objectives by espousing centrally-planned command economic solutions. Lovelock has said that if the environmental movement is to achieve its goals it needs to involve the markets and their adherents. He’s right as well, but I can’t help but feel the Green party is so locked into a feedback loop of its own intellectual baggage (and that of the disaffected former Labour supporters) than it will never do so.
So command economics people retreat into echo chambers whose very insularity guarantees their failure. Meanwhile the remaining Labour movement finds itself in a position where it must take intellectual ground which it abandoned and now contains entrenched opposition in order to become actually electable.
Quite seriously, I’m at a loss where the British left goes from here. The SNP have peaked; the Conservatives in Scotland will start to eat away at them. The market economic Social Democratic ground has been taken from the Labour movement. Only petty nationalism remains. And that’s a minority interest. Where do future victories come from? The reinvention will be painful and time-consuming.