Of the three great issues facing people everywhere, nowhere can the British Labour Party claim in any sense to be in the lead. Nowhere can it claim to be in the vanguard against environmental destruction, against growing inequality and against corrupt centralised governance. In fact it has been failing miserably on all three fronts. Which is not to say that both in government and in opposition it has not had its moments of enlightenment. New Labour did introduce the Sure Start programme to help combat the shocking disparity between the life chances of the better-off and of those of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. It did introduce tax credits and the minimum wage to partially bridge the glaring gap between those at the top end and those desperately trying to eke out an existence at the other end. It did make some tentative moves in the direction of political devolution of this rather dis-United Kingdom. And there were some haft-hearted concessions to the renewable energy industry. But after thirteen years in government it was all too little and way too tame to make a noticeable difference.

Let's start with the bread and butter issue of growing inequality. Yes a Labour government did introduce the concept of the minimum wage but as even the Tories are now forced to concede, the minimum wage was set at such a pitiful level as to be virtually worthless. And in opposition, Ed Miliband, supposedly a voice for a more radical Social Democracy, had the nerve to pledge to increase the minimum wage to £8 by the end of the next parliament. What an insult. What a joke. If anything summed up the mealy mouthed, spineless nature of the British Labour Party, that was it.

Anything short of an immediate increase to twelve pounds for everyone above the age of 18 and with the associated promise of automatic increases in line with inflation would be a worthless policy. It must be plain to any thinking person that a compulsory living would negate the need for the highly degrading and mind-bogglingly complex tax credit system. Instead of the tax payer subsidising tax avoiding corporates, a realistic living wage would put the responsibility where it belongs, with the employer. Alongside a living wage should come the pledge to lift all those below the twenty thousand pound income level out of the tax regime. Those two policies would have made a start in redressing the growing disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished, a disparity that has been relentlessly growing under successive Tory and Labour governments. Under an Ed Miliband Labour government that gap was almost certain to continue growing.

It was a similarly depressing scenario right across New Labour's policies during their thirteen years in power and their subsequent five years in opposition. New Labour did not seek to reverse the sell-off of council housing nor did they seek to replace the original stock. New Labour did not seek to reverse the futile and wholly reactionary policy of university tuition fees, on the contrary, they endorsed the policy. New Labour did not attempt to reverse the first wave of Thatcherite privatisations; on the contrary they speeded up the process with their misguided policy of PFI's which have proved to be not only economically disastrous but a foot in the door for the privatisation of the NHS and state education system. And nowhere did New Labour, either in government or in opposition, stand up resolutely to the fossil fuel lobby. On the contrary, New Labour and its current adherents can't wait to perpetuate the environmental crisis by giving the nod to yet another round of airport expansion.

And the least said about New Labour's foreign policy the better. We are still reaping the deadly blowback from that fateful return to British neo-colonialism.

 

All of these failures of New Labour can be collectively summarised as a failure to stand up to the corporate control of Britain. Now I have some passing sympathy with Deng Xiaoping who reportedly coined the phrase; 'black cat, white cat, so long as it catches mice.' But if you apply this to global capitalism it is becoming increasingly clear that it can't catch mice, or certainly not for the 99.9% of the world's population. Even in the capitalist heartlands of Europe and North America, huge swathes of the working population are being reduced to penury. In Spain and Greece 50% of young people are unemployed. The figures get a lot worse as you travel across the so called developing world. Clearly global capitalism cannot consistently deliver. In a world increasing run by oligarchs and casino bankers, New Labour has little or nothing to say. On the contrary they offered the corporates a virtual free hand with their 'light-touch' regulatory regime. Under this regime corporate tax evasion in Britain alone is said to run to £100 billion -  enough to wipe out the deficit and totally re-equip the country's ailing and decrepit infrastructure.

So if Britain's main social democratic party is so impotent in the face of corporate control, what is its purpose? Jeremy Corbyn's leadership challenge is certainly helping to raise this very question. No one is realistically expecting any of Europe's social democratic parties to suddenly take on a revolutionary perspective. That prospect pretty well receded way back at the turn of the twentieth century. But a radical social democracy that can, at the very least, fight for a more favourable balance between global capital and local social provision, one that could clip the wings of the corporates, might just be worth supporting. Corbyn and his supporters are currently making the right sort of noises, but will the party follow their lead?

If Labour dare not stand up to the corporate domination of Britain whilst in opposition, then there will be zero chance they will do so in government. To merely settle for the ambition of managing capitalism more efficiently than the Tories is a waste of everybody's time. Stand for something progressive or stand aside.

The increasing irrelevance of European social democracy is neatly summed up in the latest edition of the New Internationalist NI484. All Labour Party members, including the current leadership contenders might do well to contemplate the following;

Today's centre-left parties vary greatly. Few have gone as far as Britain's New Labour in their complete commitment to capitalist modernity. It is fair to say, however, that almost all present themselves in one way or another as modernizers of capitalism rather than as positing an alternative to it. Their aim is to shave off the rough edges by making the system fairer and better thought-out. They underestimate the power of corporate actors to manipulate and undermine whatever 'rule-based' economy they envision; they underestimate the essential irrationality and instability on which this most radical of all social systems thrives; and they underestimate the sheer inertia in the very structure of the state a kind of in-built conservative bias that derails their chosen vehicle of reform. They also ignore the myriad ways in which the state is tied into the capitalist power structure or else simply accept these as the inevitable price of political realism.

Achieving high government office becomes a question of compromise and careers. It tends to trap the Centre-Left into managing the fundamentally undemocratic structures (including the security apparatus) of government, and this sucks all the oxygen out of the remaining social vision. The state in an advanced capitalist society is hemmed in by the sheer weight of the corporate economy on which it depends for the fundamentals of economic well-being: growth, taxes and jobs. This gives the corporate elite serious weight (often presented as a subtle form of blackmail) when it comes top blocking any kind of alternative or even regulatory tinkering that would threaten corporate power and prerogatives.

Only a radical government with a significant counterweight rooted in society has any hope of facing down such forces. But instead of building this kind of counterweight, the centre-left remains trapped in a parliamentary political culture where achieving snail-like incremental reforms is the cause of much self-congratulation. The very things that it criticises elsewhere in the political culture  hierarchy, short-sightedness, a politics tuned to the news cycle, leadership through personality rather than programme also shapes its own behaviour. Building the counterweight is then left to the social movements and ecological projects whose vision is not atrophied by this self-defeating form of compromise.

A good a summation of social democracy's current failings as is needed. Of course, Ralph Miliband, some fifty years ago, gave an even more precise and equally damning verdict on the limitations of European social democracy in the face of a ruthless capitalist state, but neither of his sons seem inclined to pay it any heed. Pity.

No one imagines it will be easy going. Syriza can testify to that. But to be seduced by the illusion of political power and be content to stand as the Tory second eleven really isn't worth the effort. Now that capital's once revolutionary pulse has been totally overwhelmed by its destructive contradictions, the only meaningful political task is to try and take back into common control the vast wealth that humanity has collectively created. This is the defining task of our times. Most everything else pales into insignificance, and if the British Labour Party is not a part of this epochal project then it is nothing. When the next financial crash comes, as it surely will, Britain's Labour Party, like all the other compromising centrist social democratic parties, will be complicit in the turmoil that follows.

End JPK Copyright 25/7/15

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Last Updated ( Monday, 21 May 2018 06:04 )