When policies, institutions or leaders fail, they are quickly replaced by others. I have often wondered about how few people pose the simple question “Why should we believe it will be any better with this?” In the 1970s, academics gave a lot of attention to policy failure and problems of implementation. Indeed it was an important intellectual strand in the breakdown of the post-war consensus allowing the rise of neo-liberalism. And the Cabinet Office of the new Labour Government of 1997 recognised that implementation issues needed as much attention as policies themselves. Those who think in linear fashion credit leaders, managers, institutions and policies with power they simply do not have. System thinkers and marxists in their very different ways recognise this. Systems thinkers would urge experimentation and decentralisation. I am less ceratin of the practical steps Marxists would suggest for our various social and economic ills.
These thoughts were sparked off by a good essay on the Open Democracy site by Jeremy Gilbert about the current Labour leadership contest which poses a basic question no one has really posed - How did Blair, the advocate of a communitarian politics,
weakly informed by the traditions of Christian socialism and Catholic social teaching, become Blair the fanatical advocate of merciless market liberalisation? And why on earth should we imagine that the next Leader will not also betray the promises of the campaign?
There is a simple answer to this question available, which is to say that in any society dominated by liberal capitalism, political opposition from either right or left will inevitably find itself having to make communitarian noises, because the lack of community is the most obvious failing of a competitive market society and one which most of its inhabitants will keenly feel. Isn’t this what ‘The Big Society’ is all about, along with ideas of ‘Red Tory’ Philip Blond?
Just as with New Labour, but in a shorter time frame, we’ve witnessed an opposition come to power speaking a language of community and fairness, only to see it bow to the demands of the financial markets and the Whitehall monetarists by promising a historic assault on the remaining institutions of social democracy.
We must then assume that the story was similar, if slower, for Blair: pressure from elites in the City, the Civil Service and the media, gradually winning him over to the cause of full-blown neoliberalism. David Miliband and Jon Cruddas would probably argue - with some justification - that Blair’s personal commitment to communitarianism had never been run very deep, and that their own is far more serious. But this is really beside the point. Whatever his personal convictions or lack of them, Blair was elected leader of the party on a prospectus almost identical to that which they now propose, but within 5 years was trying to drive a programme informed by an almost diametrically opposite set of principles; and the party was apparently powerless to stop him.
The question which this leaves open for all of the Labour leadership contenders, or their supporters is: why should we believe that their leadership will be any different? How will they react when their civil seravnts and their friends with the yachts and the hedge funds and the influential newspapers, tell them that, no matter what they might once have believed, what they have to do now is to cut taxes and privatise public services?
Will they have put in place institutions and a movement which enables them to resist such pressure better than New Labour - bereft of any real political or social base after its deliberate evisceration of the party’s democratic structures - was able to? Should we trust any of them to resist the seductive pressure to defend the interest of the elite of which they have themselves become a member? Most importantly of all: will they at least acknowledge that such pressure will inevitably be brought to bear, and will reveal genuine conflicts of interest within our society between the rich and the poor, the employers and the employees, the upper-band tax-payers and the low-paid hospital cleaners?
Right now, there are at least two possible futures implicit in the forms and symbols of modernisation which we can see all around us: an world of vicious competition, new forms of authoritarianism and a dreadful narrowing of personal and collective aspirations; a YouTube world in which the authority of centralised media and corporate capital is severely weakened by the power of decentralised democracy and collective creativity. The latter is a real possibility, immanent to the most transformatory tendencies of our age, but it will prove unrealisable without a programme of institutional and democratic transformation far more radical than anything envisaged even in the days of Labour’s halting half-conversion to the cause of constituional reformin 1992.
Of course, we know which world all of the Labour contenders would say they want to lead us to. But then the question comes back round again, almost unchanged: will they recognise that there are powerful forces which will try to stop them, to push them in the other direction, to ensure that it is only Murdoch’s version of modernity that can possibly triumph, and that ‘community’ becomes just an alibi for the decimation of public services? Will they tell us what they plan to do about it when such pressure is brought to bear? Until they do, I’m reluctant to vote for any of them