There were two sides to New Labour – the hardliners and the wets. The former rejected class-based politics, embraced neoliberal capitalism, and was Atlanticist in its foreign policy. The Party was not worth listening to, and so was ignored. Members drifted away, two unions fell by the wayside as millions of voters gave up on the Party.
New Labour wets went along with this – depressed and demoralised by years of defeat, they genuinely felt that Labour had to move to the right to win. While the hardliners embraced this, the wets felt uncomfortable, but accommodated to it.
This did not just happen in Parliament, but to a lesser extent it occurred in unions and local parties too.
Blair appealed to the wets when he said, ‘principle without power is futile’. The message was clear, ‘it’s no good having good principles if you’re not in power … give some principles up and we can at least achieve a few things’.
Ed Miliband was elected saying, ‘the era of New Labour has passed’. It hasn’t. New Labour wets have simply emerged from under the New Labour hardliners. We see their better instincts emerging but without the confidence the hardliners exploited.
As Maria Exall said at LRC conference, Miliband exhorts employers to pay a living wage, but does not commit himself to force them. Likewise on tax avoidance, Miliband threatens to name and shame, yet does not promise to legislate.
What stalks the New Labour wets is the fear that you cannot win unless you pander to the right wing dominated media, to big business – in short to capital – hence the capitulation over Afghanistan and Gaza.
We see the same passivity in many of the major unions that believe strikes cannot win, that unions can only exhort, not force. They are churches, but secular with cosseted and unaccountable leaders who believe there can be no salvation on earth. It is a miserable, defeatist position.
Our job is to put something in place of fear, to build a movement that creates change itself from which those same leaders can draw confidence or else be replaced. We must do this with our party leadership, our trade union leaderships, and where it exists, we must do it within our CLPs and union
John McDonnell MP told LRC conference, “We need three things; courage, determination and, above all, solidarity”. He was right.
- Andrew Fisher