fter three years in government, it is essential
to draw up a balance sheet of New Labour's political project.
No one around Chartist expected radical redistribution
of power and wealth, but what could be expected from
Labour from its rhetoric and manifesto promises was a real
devolution of power and return to democratic values.
reversal of the Tory centralisation programme, quangoes
and the domination of business priorities was the minimum
that Labour's supporters expected.
It is now clear that despite some welcome social reforms,
the Blair project seeks not to reverse the Thatcherite agenda
but merely to adjust it on a technocratic basis. Unlike the
1945 Government, New Labour does not seek to move the political
culture to the left, but to work within the parameters of
the right. Right wing free market dominance has now become
a permanent feature of political life, as it has in most other
advanced capitalist societies.
In key areas Blairism seeks to extend the centralising tendency
of Thatcherism, only modifying Thatcherism by replacing a
free market laissez faire approach with a tightly controlled
centralised target driven regime. Despite rhetoric, there
is a marked hostility to democracy and popular action and
control. The essentials of Blairism may be described as "Free
Market Stalinism". At the heart of this is a thoroughgoing
commitment to free market domination, with privatisation going
forward unabated - Air Traffic Control being only the latest
in a series of moves. Where services cannot be privatised,
they will be transferred to quangoes or placed under tight
Whitehall control monitored by centrally imposed targets.
Those who see resemblances to Soviet style central planning
are entirely correct. Whitehall ministries are coming to resemble
Gosplan in the USSR, while inspectorates run centrally bear
more than a passing resemblance to the Rhabkrim. Where inspectorates
have a degree of independence from the Whitehall machine,
as with the Prisons Inspectorate and its criticisms of government
policy, these are to be destroyed and replaced by more pliant
creatures - in the name of efficiency.
The area in which Free Market Stalinism operates to most
dangerous effect is in local government. Councils have been
systematically undermined by a combination of privatisation
- notably of housing and refuse collection - quangoisation
and target setting by Whitehall. Funding increasingly bypasses
councils to go straight from Whitehall to service providers,
notably in education where schools are increasingly controlled
from Whitehall. The privatisation of services proceeds apace,
while other areas of school life are controlled by the DfEE
and the centrally run OFSTED inspectorate. Criticisms of OFSTED
and its chief, Chris Woodhead, by a parliamentary sub- committee,
were met with the telling comment that Woodhead has the confidence
of the media and the Prime Minister, and that was all that
mattered. OFSTED has now been given inspection rights over
pre-school and Further Education.
Nothing illustrates the drive to centralisation and unaccountable
power better than the growth of quangoes and centrally set
targets. Quangoes - particularly in the form of the new Task
Force system - have grown enormously under Blairism. It is
clear that they are largely staffed by businessmen - normally
men, Blairism being a phenomenon of white male apparatchiks
- or New Labour apparatchiks, with a few token
trade unionists. The wider community is not represented. Nor
is there effective public scrutiny of these, Parliament having
been reduced to a laughing stock while cabinet government
has effectively ceased to exist.
Central control through financial targets is endemic. Few
things better illustrate the cynicism of New Labour than its
claim that it has fulfilled its commitment to abandon crude
capping of local government - by replacing it with sophisticated
capping. Best Value has proved a system of centrally set financial
targets. Education provides the best example of this, not
merely through the school system but through the failure to
provide any democratisation of the unaccountable Further Education
Funding Council, set up by the Tories under John Major, with
its annual budget of seven billion pounds. Indeed, this is
now to be replaced by an even bigger quango covering both
Further Education and Training.
New Labour's election victory was in part due to its commitment
to freedom of information and open government. In practice
it has abandoned both, with an enormous growth of secrecy
and the effective subverting of the Freedom of Information
statute. The bill to give MI5 total access to electronic communication,
on the pretext of anti-terrorism, is unprecedented in any
other state where parliamentary democracy is the norm. All
this is well documented. What is not well documented is New
Labour's threat to academic freedom. Under Thatcherism, the
academic freedoms traditional to liberal democracy were leaned
upon but not infringed. This is now changing. The Times Higher
Education Supplement of 31st March carried a report that the
Office of Science and Technology wishes to use science research
"Effectively to support government departments' objectives".
The document was hostile to new EU states who might favour
"curiosity driven research". Professor John Field
of Warwick University criticised the proposals as having a
"concern to control the research agenda and bring it
more in line with policy prescriptions".
These concerns were reinforced by Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat
education spokesman who found that of 15 government departments,
12 were prepared to veto publication, 9 said they would make
amendments, and despite advice from the Committe of Vice Chancellors
that sponsors should not delay publication, nine departments
said they could do just that. Harris said "This is not
just sleaze. It is undermining the fabric of the research
community. It is deplorable and disgraceful". Evans is
right. New Labour poses a threat to the independence of academic
investigation essential to the health of any democratic society.
It has long been a weakness of the British constitution that
it allows elective dictatorship, but the presence of local
authorities, a vibrant civic culture and the willingness of
the power elite to abide by unwritten rules of academic freedom,
freedom of speech and the principles of representative government
have modified the worst excesses of Whithall government. Thatcher
began to undermine these, Major continued the trends, and
under New Labour they have accelerated. In one crucial area
- the Local Government Bill - the Labour Campaign for Open
Local Government has done sterling work with other groups
on one vital New Labour initiative. However it is clear that
a far wider campaign for Open Government is needed.
If nothing illustrated this, the cynical mock consultation
on the NHS now taking place makes this abundantly clear. New
Labour is now about to launch a controversial modernisation
plan for the NHS, which Blair has been working on and which
his disastrous WI speech was meant to trail. One of the proposals
apparently being suggested is that social services should
be removed from local authority control and placed in the
hands of privatised quangoes. New Labour has realised that
its plans are likely to be controversial, and is staging a
mock consultation exercise. Twelve million leaflets went out
However, the deadline for return to Alan Milburn was 5th
June, only a week after the launch of the consultation. Blink
and you missed it. Will Hutton has rightly commented that
"this is not a serious exercise in finding out what the
public wants...it is a high profile exercise in trying to
demonstrate that the government is 'listening' even though
it it knows the results will be unrepresentative and profoundly
compromised by the tight time scale". This is a form
of cynical manipulation which we are only too familiar in
the Labour Party as the Partnership in Power project has driven
on, stripping out genuine participation from ordinary members.
As this culture of manipulation flows into the public arena,
it threatens enormous damage to the political process.
If New Labour and the Westminster elite are not opposed effectively
by a democratic alternative, Free Market Stalinism with its
business oriented culture and manipulative politics will become
the future whichever party controls the Westminster machine.
The Tories are of course infinitely worse than New Labour
and their xenophobic nationalism has to be prevented from
winning the next election. But as the Right still controls
the political agenda, and New Labour makes cynical compromises
over issues like asylum seekers, the chances of reversing
the dominance of right wing values become less and less viable.
It is an error to think that Blairism is a liberal philosophy.
As in the USA, with socialism destroyed as an effective force,
liberalism has become a dirty word and for both Hague and
Blair, liberalism has become a totem to be consistently attacked
- though Blair occasionally genuflects towards Gladstone.
The debate has now to be how to revive the centre left, making
a genuine democratic renewal and revival of public interest
politics achieveable. In the immediate future, the role of
local government is crucial. Councils provide one of the few
points of possible resistance, and the Local Government Bill
has to be resisted. However democratic renewal has to go well
beyond defending existing structures, which command less and
less public interest and support. A democratic renewal agenda
has to have its own restructuring proposals.
Two issues immediately spring to mind. One is the opposition
to the increasingly stalinist DfEE, which cannot rest secure
on a defence of the council operated Local Education Authority
system, which excludes most parents and other interested parties.
Instead, campaigners should agitate for new community elected
education authorities taking power from Whitehall and representing
all interested parties. Similarly with the NHS crisis, power
to run hospitals and local health facilities should be removed
from the Department of Health to a system of elected local
boards, replacing the powerless and ineffective Community
Health Councils. In both cases the Ministry would retain monitoring
and efficiency responsibilities.
New Labour has failed to provide the drive towards democratic
renewal which was its main progressive platform at the last
election. It now urgently neccessary to begin a conscious
process of democratic renewal. In bringing together the coalition
of forces needed to achieve this, I believe Chartist
has a crucial role to play. The time for generalised debate
about the Blair project is now over. After three years in
power, it is clear that it is only a new form of the business
oriented culture of the new right. Attention has to be focussed
on how a new, effective, political movement countering the
domination of the values of the right and their expression
in the Whitehall elite can now be created.