frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008

New Labour In Crisis

John McAllion is a well known and well respected figure in Scottish politics. He has been active in working class politics in Dundee for decades, serving as a regional councillor then as the MP for Dundee East, where he defeated the right-leaning SNP leader Gordon Wilson. He also served as an MSP for the same constituency until 2003. John always stood out from most in the parliament due to his strong support for both socialism and Scottish independence. John left Labour and is currently a member of the SSP. In this article he looks at what the New Labour project has done to the labour movement.

The Crisis

In 1997, New Labour swept away eighteen years of Tory misrule in a landslide electoral victory that secured Labour’s highest ever number of Westminster seats (418). The Tories were simultaneously reduced to their lowest number of seats (165) since 1832 when the hapless Duke of Wellington had led the Tory opposition to the Great Reform Act.

In that same year, the Blair/Brown/Dewar triumvirate also succeeded in carrying a referendum on the constitution with 75% of Scottish voters supporting their proposals for a devolved Scottish Parliament and nearly 65% supporting their proposed tax raising powers for the new parliament.

In the first elections to the Scottish Parliament two years later, New Labour was returned as the dominant political force in Scotland with the highest share of the popular vote and the biggest number of seats. That dominance was then quickly entrenched through an agreement with their junior partner in government, the Liberal Democrats, promising stable and long-term government into the foreseeable future.

New Labour politicians predictably reacted to these successes with a degree of triumphalism. The then new Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander, predicted that the party was on course to turn Scotland into a beacon of progressive thought in a globalised world, and would use the power of government in Edinburgh and London to eliminate child poverty in Scotland within two decades.

Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander jointly published a pamphlet called “New Scotland New Britain”, in which they boasted that the tide of history was running in favour of New Labour and new unionism and against the “narrow divisiveness” of Scottish nationalism. It seemed that George Robertson’s earlier prediction that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead was being turned into reality.

Yet less than 10 years on from this high point the inconceivable has happened – New Labour has lost Scotland. For the first time ever, more Scots voted SNP than Labour in a national poll. A devolved settlement designed to prevent nationalists ever taking power had now delivered a minority SNP Government that has gone on to compound New Labour’s misery by passing its first budget unopposed in a Parliament with a supposedly overwhelming unionist and anti-nationalist majority.

Where did it all go wrong?

Some argue that New Labour’s problems in Scotland stem from a succession of failed leaders who never came close to replacing the “Father of the Nation”, Donald Dewar, following his untimely death in 2001. According to their analysis, Scotland would be a very different place today if Donald had survived to steer HMS “Devolution” through uncharted constitutional waters. He didn’t and as a result a series of failed leaders have driven New Labour on to the rocks.

Henry McLeish’s short and unconvincing reign as First Minister was brutally ended not so much by his “muddle” over office expenses as by the failure of any section of his own party to rally in support of his beleaguered leadership. Jack the Knife McConnell quickly showed himself to be decisive and ruthless in dealing with internal New Labour enemies; but in the longer term proved too subservient to Westminster and lacking in ambition and ideas for his “best wee country in the world”.

Wendy Alexander is now widely praised as the brightest brain on the block, but even more widely dismissed as too arrogant and lacking in political and character judgement to cut the mustard as an effective and inspirational leader. The row over the dodgy donations to her leadership non-campaign allied to her woeful parliamentary tactics and performances at First Minister’s Questions have left her looking like yet another New Labour lame duck leader.

By contrast, it is argued that Alex Salmond now strides across Scottish politics like a colossus, easily swatting away the attacks of his unionist enemies and steadily building a national consensus that Scotland’s future trajectory should be towards independence. His triumph in securing the SNP’s first budget against the unionist odds is presented as evidence that decisive political leadership can and will deliver change.

Of course, this analysis of political change as determined by the qualities or lack of qualities of individual parliamentary leaders is bunkum. It may provide good copy for the lobby journalists embedded in the Holyrood hothouse. It certainly conforms to the prevailing orthodoxy in “free market democracies” that politics should be the preserve of great men and women who understand the needs of “business”.

However, it is utterly lacking in any real understanding of the deeper economic, political and social forces that ultimately determine change as well as the success or failure of particular political parties. In truth, the roots of the crisis currently facing New Labour can be traced back deep into the history of the British labour movement and long before Kinnock, Brown and Blair dreamed up New Labour as the answer to Thatcher’s hegemony.

From its very beginning the central purpose of the British Labour Party was exclusively parliamentary in character. The trade union movement alarmed by the 1901 Taff Vale decision decided that labour representation in the House of Commons was essential to protect the freedoms and legal immunities of trade unions operating in a twentieth century capitalist economy.

The TUC therefore created the Labour Party to protect workers’ interests through Parliament. In return for this parliamentary protection, the unions provided financial muscle and political support to the new party across the country. Crucially, they also conceded virtual autonomy on policy and tactics to the Parliamentary Labour Party. They entered into a kind of Faustian pact with an autonomous Labour Party in parliament that would determine the future development of Britain’s only mass party of workers, including the splitting of the parliamentary and industrial wings of the movement with the former always in the ascendancy over the latter.

The PLP, of course, never had any transforming project to change either the British state or British capitalism in the direction of socialism. Its 1918 commitment to the old clause 4 and to public ownership was never serious and was made under the post-war pressure of widespread social unrest, and in the hope of staving off the then working class demands for more revolutionary change that were inspired by the contemporary soviets of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The subsequent history of that parliamentary wing’s leadership would reveal again and again the small c conservatism of a nominally socialist body whose true purpose was simply to get elected and to wield constitutional power along the traditionalist lines of the British establishment.

Between the two wars, it shunned both the unemployed workers’ movement struggles and popular front agitation in support of republican Spain while expelling the likes of Nye Bevan for urging unity against Franco’s fascists.

After the Second World War, its achievements in creating the NHS and the welfare state were part of a national and cross class consensus inspired mainly by fear of the spread of communism in a war ravaged Europe. Its programme of public ownership was confined in the main to failing capitalist industries and driven by the need for national economic efficiency rather than any ideological commitment to workers’ control.

Everywhere else in post-war Britain, it was to be establishment business as usual. The pre-eminence of British finance capital was re-established through the Treasury/Bank of England/City of London axis that ensured the retention of sterling as a reserve currency and the resumption of the export British capital around the world.

British imperial interests were protected through endorsement of the likes of the Shah of Iran and massive spending on military bases east of Suez that saw the arms budget account for 14% of national income by 1951.

Communism was confronted through support for a neo-fascist Greek government and bloody repression of a communist led insurgency in Malaysia. Labour Britain joined the NATO alliance and agreed to site US long range bombers in East Anglia while secretly continuing to develop the British H bomb.

Foreign office officials, who originally had feared that Labour’s 1945 victory heralded communist hegemony in Europe, ended by praising Ernie Bevin, Labour’s Foreign Secretary, as “a giant with an instinctive understanding of British interests”.

The Wilson/Callaghan governments in the 1960’s and 1970’s picked up where the Atlee governments had left off. They continued to jump to the demands of British finance capital, defending sterling’s role as an international currency, while trying to legally shackle trade union power and impose a wages policy on workers experiencing a decline in their living standards. They ended by adopting monetarism and paving the way for Thatcherism.

New Labour, when it came along, was not so much a break with this past through the creation of a new and different party; it was rather a more open and honest affirmation of what the Parliamentary Labour Party had always stood for – working through the established institutions of the British state to secure the national interest of British finance and industrial capital as a means of delivering improvements for British workers whose true interests they believed to be the same as those of British capital.


The brief analysis above is of necessity truncated, selective and therefore unfair in many respects to the thousands of Labour Party activists and supporters who over the years fought the PLP’s hegemony and genuinely struggled and continue to struggle to achieve socialist change through what they believe to be Britain’s only mass party of workers. However, it does highlight a number of serious and fundamental flaws in the Labour Party’s claimed project of defending the interests of workers through the British state.

Labour, including the Labour Left, has failed entirely to address the role of the British state as a bulwark for capitalism. Their unwavering faith in the parliamentary road to socialism simply blinded them to other ways of advancing workers’ interests. Nye Bevan, the hero of their parliamentary left, dismissed mass industrial action, including the General Strike of 1926, as an effective way of achieving political change and argued instead that collective action through the Westminster parliament was the core of his socialist creed.

Again and again Labour’s leadership has distanced itself from extra-parliamentary pressure as a means of forcing change. As the General Strike swept across Britain in 1926, Ramsay Macdonald reassured the House of Commons that he had nothing at all to do with “general strikes...and all that kind of thing”. Almost 60 years later one of his successors, Neil Kinnock, was equally embarrassed by the 1984-85 miners’ strike as he condemned from the sidelines the NUM’s mass picketing and defiance of parliament’s anti-trade union laws.

The Blair/Brown New Labour leadership succeeded in proving its own parliamentary credentials by facing down the mass mobilisations to stop the war in Iraq, and by banning public protest from the environs of the Palace of Westminster. The principle of direct mass action that has swept aside despotisms across the world has remained forever anathema to the self styled “people’s party”.

Labour’s constitutionalism has both cut it off from the politics of street anger and protest and entangled it in the thickets of a Westminster order tellingly described by Tom Nairn as “Europe’s last feudal system”. They have failed to grasp the key role of monarchy in helping to subvert genuine democracy through its surviving royal prerogative, patronage and powers. They have been unwilling to seriously reform or to remove an unelected House of Lords that is there to hold in check any democratic excesses by the elected part of the parliament. They have clung on to a first past the post electoral system that is designed to ensure political and economic stability and to minimise change. Any power they have devolved away from Westminster has in Enoch Powell’s infamous phrase been “power retained”.

When it really mattered, Labour has also remained a reliable ally of British capital. Gordon Brown’s decision to “free” the Bank of England from political control echoed earlier commitments by Labour Chancellors to defend the international role of sterling and to safeguard the export of British capital abroad. Labour in office has always defended the right of British capital to profit from overseas investments even when those profits have been and continue to be made at the expense of British and overseas workers alike.

In truth New Labour is the true conservative force in the politics of Britain committed to markets, to monarchy and to the mumbo jumbo of our sacred and ancient unwritten constitution. Ernie Bevin inadvertently described the Labour Party as having been created out of the bowels of the trade union movement. By their subservience to the British state they certainly have left the workers at the mercy of the bowel movements of finance and industrial capital.

Some lessons

There is no parliamentary road to socialism, either in Westminster or in a devolved Scottish Parliament. However, that does not mean that socialists should ignore either parliament. Westminster and Holyrood are the political currency of the times we live in and there is no alternative other than to deal in that currency.

However, we must engage with parliaments with our eyes fully open to their limitations and utterly reject the “new realism” nonsense that there is no economic alternative to free markets and no political alternative to liberal democracies. Neither free markets nor liberal democracy represent the end of history and we will need to set down clear long-term objectives demonstrating how democracy will ultimately transform and control the economy and politics alike. Because it lacked such a transformative strategy, Labour was condemned to being used by the system for the system’s ends rather than using the system for its own ends.

However, we also need to build support for a transition to socialism in a reality where that support does not yet exist and will not exist for the foreseeable future. Endlessly prophesying the imminent collapse of capitalism does not make it happen. It also alienates workers who rightly resist an appeal based upon the promise of impending economic disaster and misery for all concerned. In the old jargon, we need a transitional programme that actually appeals to workers in the here and now, while it builds their confidence in a possible and better socialist future.

In addition to populist measures, that transitional programme will need to embrace an alternative economic strategy around key issues such as workers’ control, participatory budgets and popular control of public services. It will also need to recognise that workers cannot be dragooned behind a predetermined reform programme developed, led and controlled by an elite cadre of revolutionaries.

Progress towards socialism will depend upon the democratic support of majorities of workers for each step along what will be a very long road. That means listening to what workers are telling us as well as trying to convince them of what we think is in their interests. Socialism and democracy are inseparable because real socialism can only ever come from below when workers understand and decide to act in their own class interest.

Labour and New Labour have never understood that simple truth. Any party that aspires to be a mass workers’ party will have to base everything on that fundamental democratic reality.