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Wednesday, August 08, 2007 

Can I get some of what Neal Lawson's been smoking?

Has someone been spiking Neal Lawson's cheerios? I honestly can't think of any other explanation for why he's chosen now, after 10 years of Labour government, to suddenly have an absurd epiphany about the possibilities of a "seismic" shift towards the left.

The skilfully engineered bounce witnessed in the first days of Gordon Brown's premiership could be turned into something more: a political earthquake. The time is ripe not just for a better Labour government but for a shift in the centre of gravity of politics decisively to the left. Brown could be the first Labour leader since Clement Attlee to recast British society - not by taking small steps but giant leaps. This is why.

Even if this was slightly plausible, is Gordon Brown the man to do it? The same Brown who didn't just take on the left and win crushingly, but instead patronisingly rose to the leadership unchallenged while insulting those who had dared to suggest there might be some within the party with different views? This isn't to suggest that John McDonnell was the man to lead Labour; none of us who supported his candidacy even dreamed that he could win. It was about the exchange and debate of ideas - of which there was none because of the way that Brown's clique crushed any opposition.

Secondly, to think that now is the time for a shift is ridiculous. The opportunity to shift the centre of political gravity radically towards the left was in 1997 - with the Tories destroyed and moribund. The last 10 years, while not entirely wasted, have just been one long missed chance.

Once in every generation a political revolution takes place in which thinking and behaviour shifts not just by degrees but qualitatively. It happened in 1945 under Labour, as the experience of the war and the economic depression before it heralded the centralised welfare state. It happened again 30 years later under Thatcher as the free market counter-revolution swept all before it. Greed became good.

All of this is true. What though makes 2007 a better year for another dramatic shift than 1997 was? The Brown bounce is just that - a bounce. The Tories might currently be in a kind of disarray, and they've panicked at the very first serious challenge since Cameron became leader, but to believe that they'll stay this way long is naive. They've got the whole of the summer to regroup before their conference, and it still looks highly unlikely that Brown will risk a snap election in October. The opinion poll leads are likely to diminish swiftly once everyone forgets the joy of Blair being gone and realise that the same tired Labour government is still lording it up.

Today the free market is not the solution, it is the problem. Every pressing issue we face demands a collective response - climate change and flooding, terrorism, the housing crisis, insecurity at work, immigration and the ageing population. Neoliberalism promised a utopia but has failed to deliver. Britain has become a hideously unequal society. The poor are not treading water but sinking beneath the rising tide of the rich. But the middle classes are struggling, too. Insecurity and anxiety abound. Working harder to keep up on the treadmill of the learn-to-earn consumer society is deepening our social recession. We are at a tipping point.

As much as I agree with most of what Lawson writes, to think that the apparent rise of the super-rich at the expense of the middle classes is a tipping point is a joke. They're not really struggling, they're just moaning even more than usual while almost never having it so good. The Mail might be getting steaming about the fat cats, but the tide certainly hasn't turned yet. If a change comes, it will likely be because of rising interest rates, and those feeling the pinch aren't going to suddenly take to the streets waving red flags, they're going to be blaming Labour. Hardly the optimum moment for a seismic shift towards the left.

At these moments of rupture, the rules of electoral politics can be ripped up because parties are no longer required to win from the centre. Instead, majorities can be formed by offering reassurance from quite radical positions. Thatcherism's electoral success was not built on the soggy consensus of the centre but through a decisive break with the postwar settlement. Reassurance was offered by unleashing market forces in a way that seemed impossible just a few years before.

People want reassurance once more, but this time it's that globalisation can be tamed, climate change averted and social cohesion created. This demands new forms of collective action.

What does all of this even mean? Exactly what sort of "collective action" are we talking about? Are we all going to start wearing "Make Thatcherism History" wristbands and hope that's enough? This seems like bollocks aimed at filling space.

It is this new social mood that is causing the Conservatives such trouble. David Cameron has failed to make a breakthrough in the polls and his party is starting to rebel against his modernising agenda because the times are against them. It is a moment for democratic state-building in the knowledge that we only flourish as individuals in strong societies, not more watered-down Thatcherism. As Cameron's bubble finally bursts, the Mail and Murdoch are left without a negotiating card in their battle to influence Brown. At last we can stop pandering to their reactionary agenda as it increasingly looks as if they have nowhere else to go.

Yet this completely ignores what the past 10 years has taught us. The Mail and Murdoch were without anyone to get behind up until around 2003, but it didn't make any difference. Was this because Blair was too timid and too right-wing himself or because the Mail and Murdoch are so powerful that they themselves can be the opposition? The evidence points towards the latter. All Murdoch has to do is whistle and world leaders, whoever they are, come running. Brown is no different, as the wooing lunches with Wade and sharing of a platform with the man himself showed. The time for rejecting them both was 1997, but it needed a leader with both the courage and the political belief to do so. Even if Brown wanted to stop pandering to them, the Tories would squeal about a shift back to the left, and the papers would likely this time go with it. If there's one thing more likely to get the tabloids in a lather than Muslims/asylum seekers/the eating of swans, it's any suggestion that they might be about to get snubbed.

Looked at in this light, New Labour's 1997 election victory becomes a false dawn, not a new one. A moment still mired in the possessive individualism of the 1980s. Instead of being the fag-end of New Labour, Brown becomes potentially the premier to oversee the transformation of British society. A totally new and exciting narrative opens up in which reassurance comes from the left, not the right, for the first time since the postwar settlement was founded.

1997 was a false dawn, not because it wasn't the opportunity, but because it was. All the changes Brown has instigated so far have been almost purely cosmetic. Sure, we've had a change of tone over the response to terror, a return to consensus government and Brown has been mostly assured since he became leader, but dig beneath the surface and all the same policies are there, just buried because of the leadership change.

Skipping a quoting of Gramsci and a load of rhetorical questions:

The doom-mongers are right to highlight the private finance initiative, flexible labour markets and Iraq. But unlike Blair, with Brown we can agree to disagree on the basis that there might be a set of shared underlying principles. While the jury is out, the democratic left should do everything in its power to influence the verdict.

Well yes, but Brown completely refused to listen during the nomination process. Why would he do so now he's successfully installed?

In one sense Brown has already laid out the route map - he calls it the progressive consensus. It's a belief that the left must build beyond Labour and reach out to social movement such as unions, NGOs, charities, progressive academics and, crucially, a revived Labour party capable of campaigning for change in every community in the country.

All of which is very noble, but isn't this the same Brown that has just stiffed the unions, not only by refusing to sign the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, but also by appointing a true cunt of capitalism in Digby Jones as trade minister? Would a Brown really interested in campaigning for change in ever community have appointed the ghastly Blairite automaton Hazel Blears as the minister for them? She might be enthusiastic, but she rubs everyone other than those like her up the wrong way. The so-called "Big Conversation", which was in reality a conversation where one of those taking part it in had cotton wool stuffed in their ears, isn't exactly a good omen of Labour listening to people and learning. Besides, as someone recently pointed out, what does progressive even mean? When someone like Hillary Clinton can describe herself as such, does it really describe the true Labour grassroots? Or is it another of these meaningless words loved by the likes of Peter Mandelson because it means they can pretend that they too are "one of us"?

The job of the pragmatic left is to pick the issues on which to build such a consensus and to go further and faster than Brown now dares. Take one possible example, the promise to match state school spending to that of private education. We must show how this can be achieved and build pressure and support for its enactment. We could start by focusing on English and maths or targeting poorer children with free school meals and make a breakthrough that would build public support for extra redistribution. Brown says he has a moral compass; we must hold him to it.

Or you know, we could perhaps reconsider our currently destructive foreign policy, retreat and rectify the attacks on civil liberties, call a moratorium on private sector involvement in the public services, especially the hugely wasteful PFI, emphasise the need for more council housing, and think about the best way to reduce increasing inequality. Education is important, but for God's sake, let's point out where Labour has gone disastrously wrong.

We don't have to buy into Brown or simply wait to yell "sell out". Every government is a balance sheet of good and bad. Brown's will be no different. What matters, though, are the strategic decisions that build the forces and ideas to seize this potentially historic political moment. This is a difficult balancing act; neither cheerleaders nor oppositionalists, but walking the tightrope of constructive criticism.

Why does this remind me of a Blair speech, or of Hazel Blears and her vacuous, disingenuous nonsense about there being no more Blairites and Brownites?

A different world starts with a better world. The forward march of Labour may not have resumed, but this could be the moment to get it kickstarted. To quote Gramsci once more: "The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions, without becoming disillusioned."

It's a good quote, but it's just that. 1997 was the year, and the best we can hope for is that Brown's decent start continues. Pessimistic maybe, but also realistic.

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