Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Labour Leadership: Blair’s Leninist Legacy

Tony Blair will go down in history as the marmite Prime Minister. He will be canonised by many as the only Labour leader to win three general elections, but for many more his legacy leaves a bad taste in the mouth – the taste of betrayal, disdain and missed opportunity.

The spectre of New Labour threatens to overshadow the leadership contest. Five million voters have abandoned Labour since 1997 and many Blairite policies – such as top-up fees, foundation hospitals, creeping privatisation, Iraq and the flagrant disregard for civil liberties – haunt the minds of the electorate. But it is not just the Blarite policies which threaten to undermine Labour’s renaissance, it is the structure of power which New Labour fostered. Indeed, was it not for the democratic deficit within the party, many of these policy choices could have been avoided.

For decades many people on the left of the party have campaigned against the “democratic deficit” within Labour. Under New Labour that deficit became deep depression. Tony Benn’s biography, A Political Life, gives a frightening insight into the inner workings of the New Labour machine. Central to Blair’s mission was a desire to move away from the trade unions and cast Labour as ‘the natural party of business’. In an ironic echo of Leninist democratic centralism, Blair needed to concentrate the policy-making process in order to secure his economic agenda. Indeed, a leaked document drafted by Blair’s advisor Philip Gould called for ‘a unitary command structure leading straight to the leader’ with the leader as ‘the sole ultimate source of authority’. It could almost be an Orwell novel.

As a result, virtually every aspect of Labour policy-making was made top-down: constituency powers were substituted for ‘the dictatorship of the focus groups’, leadership prescribed shortlists for parliamentary candidates, party conference became a leadership rally and the National Policy Forum was established to buttress the party leadership from unwanted policy suggestions. As Tony Benn wrote:
I’m told that no cabinet minister has put in a paper since the 1997 election. What happens is the cabinet meets for twenty minutes or so, during which the PM or the Chancellor tells the ministers what their decisions are...

... It is not simply that the dialogue within the Parliamentary Labour Party has gone, or even that the dialogue between the government and the party has gone, but also that the dialogue within the cabinet has gone. In effect the checks and balances of the parliamentary system have all but disappeared, to be replaced by a presidential system.
Collective responsibility within cabinet was replaced by collective passivity and in its place emerged unelected and unaccountable bodies such as the Number 10 Policy Making Unit.

Blair’s willingness to do away with internal democracy and court big business may have endeared him to the establishment, but it also brings into question the legitimacy of our democracy. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm said in Age of Extremes, “The most convenient world for multinational organisations is one populated by dwarf states or no states at all”. In short, pander to big business and they, not the people, become the kingmakers.

Many of the leaderships candidates have sought to revise their Blairite collusion – particularly on the subject of Iraq – but none of the contenders (with the exception of Diane Abbott) have questioned internal policy-making or championed increased democracy. Abbott makes a powerful point by highlighting the similarities between her opponents but this is reflective of the narrow field from which they were drawn.

Engaging with grassroots and Future Leaders is all well and good but unless the politicisation of membership challenges centralised power structures then the party will become an electoral anachronism. Without the mutually responsive link between the leader and CLPs the party will remain aloof, distant and alienated. Without the input of working people Labour loses its raison d’être.

All the leadership contenders have undergone a fast-track political apprenticeship over the last few months. Their political rite-of-passage must not be forsaken, however, with power centralised around the new leader. The Labour Party must become a broad coalition of talent with a unified aim to defeat the government. Labour supporters must join with groups like the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Grassroots Labour to fight for a party that listens, not just to its members, but to the public. The Labour Party needs an accountable leadership that responds to movements from below rather than giving orders from above. With any luck, next time there’s a leadership contest, all sides of the party will be represented and everyone’s vote will count.

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