Sunday, 10 May 2015

Old New Labour

I’m going to continue with my posts about what is now the aftermath of the British election but before doing so I just want to restate why I am doing so on a blog which is first and foremost about studying organizations. There are two reasons. On the one hand, politics and organizations are really inseparable. The British political landscape matters for both British businesses and public sector organizations. But more importantly what lies at the heart of British politics, and has done for at least three decades now, is a contestation about different models of capitalism and of organization.
Britain matters not because it is still the seventh largest economy in the world, but because it has been the template and cheerleader for the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism with all that implies for organizations in terms of an emphasis on shareholder value, labour market flexibility, privatization and deregulation. Crucially, this conception of how to organize both the economy and work has been a joint production of Conservative and ‘New Labour’ governments. In that context, the defeat of Labour in the recent election matters, as to a limited extent the party offered a break with this model, by urging greater regulation of markets and more protection for workers. So its defeat has implications for the future of organizations and of working life.
In this post, I want to focus on what has been a wholly predictable response to Labour’s defeat by the architects of New Labour. Both Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson have denounced Labour’s campaign for its failure to occupy the ‘centre ground’, by which they mean departing from that Anglo-Saxon model. If Labour is to win, they say, it must go back to being ‘New Labour’, whose defining hallmark was to accept the Thatcherite or neo-liberal settlement.
There is a huge irony in this. The central tent of New Labour in the early 1990s was that circumstances had changed and that Labour therefore also needed to change to reflect this. Yet now that formula, now more than two decades old, is held up as an unchanged and unchangeable verity. But even if it were to be accepted that the New Labour diagnosis were right at the time – and that is highly questionable, because by the time of their 1997 election victory pretty much any alternative to the Conservatives would have been a winner, so discredited – it isn’t right now.
Labour lost the 2015 election for two main reasons. First, because its hitherto impregnable heartlands in Scotland switched to the SNP because it offered a more social democratic programme. Those voters were sick of New Labour and won’t be regained by returning to New Labour. Second, because in key English marginal traditional Labour voters switched to UKIP, mainly because of anti-immigrant sentiment much of which derives from New Labour’s European policy. So, again, those voters aren’t going to be won back by a return to New Labour. But, equally, Miliband’s Labour were far too scared of the issue of immigration – probably because of the disastrous ‘Mrs Duffy moment’ of the 2010 election – to really challenge those voters. At all events, Labour’s 2015 travails were the consequence of New Labour, and cannot be solved by a return to New Labour.
Generals always fight the last war, not the present one, and the interventions of the New Labour old guard are a perfect example. If there is to be an effective strategy for Labour in the future it won’t be based upon nostrums derived from a quarter of a century ago, any more than New Labourites would have based their early 1990s approach on the basis of what worked in the late 1960s.

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