• New Labour Betrays Its Supporters

    As the Labour Party steels itself for electoral meltdown, it may seem ironic – after the global-sized catastrophes of the Iraq invasion and the worldwide recession – that it is the descent into venality at home that will count most with the voters. But to underestimate the importance of the expenses scandal would be a mistake.

    The voters understand intuitively that, having presided over and applauded a society in which greed and the pursuit of self-interest have been elevated into positive virtues, New Labour’s own pursuit of power at any cost has produced its inevitable outcomes. The expenses debacle has been much more than a series of individual peccadilloes and defalcations; it has been the expression of a political culture that has created a gulf between what is seen as acceptable and necessary in the political world and the standards of decent behaviour expected of the rest of us. The individual manifestations of that culture may seem grubbily petty and venal, but the embarrassed squirming among the political class as the detail has been exposed is testimony to how out of touch our leaders had become and how serious that is for the whole political process.

    This matters more to Labour than to others. The Tories have never bothered to hide their view that power is to be sought so that it can be used to defend vested interests. The Liberals seem to believe that power is best exercised by “nice” people. Only Labour, traditionally, has pursued power with the avowed purpose of correcting the unfairness and inefficiency of allowing the dice to lie where they fall and of creating a better society.

    It is for that reason that the demise of Labour – under its “New Labour” leadership – is a matter not just for pain and anger at the loss of the opportunity presented by the 1997 election victory, and contempt for those who led us down this cul-de-sac into disreputability. It is also a major blow to our whole political structure which, in the absence of a substantial presence from the democratic left, will be less effective at creating a healthy society and a strong economy than it should be.

    The special importance of the left lies not just in the fact that it is, or at least has been, the major source of progressive ideas, that it has provided the most reliable stimulus of new thinking, that it has generated the most creative dynamic for reform – though all of that is true. Its true value is that it underpins the whole case for democracy and for the power of good government.

    Among the many lessons we should draw from the global recession is that this is what happens if government fails in its purpose. Ever since democracy was ushered in, there has been no shortage of powerful forces dedicated to undermining it. This is for the obvious reason that the whole point of democracy is to offset the power of the powerful with the political strength of the people. In the absence of that political power, without bringing to bear the legitimacy of the democratic mandate through an elected government, there is no force capable of resisting the might of the economically or socially or militarily powerful.

    The failure of government to lean against the economically powerful over the last three decades led directly to the unregulated excesses that created a market-driven recession. And, even as we grapple with the measures needed to recover from recession, the same central question is starkly posed – what is the proper role of government?

    The key feature of a recession is that every individual, every business, will have a cast-iron and rational reason for battening down the hatches. Only government has the capability and responsibility to act in a contra-cyclical way, against market logic, and to pull us out of recession faster than would otherwise happen, by spending and investing at a time when no one else will.

    What this tells us is that it is always the role of government – when necessary – to represent the wider interest against powerful forces, and to act in a way that would be irrational or impossible for the private individual, however powerful. It is only the left that has in the past carried into government this central concept of what the true purpose of democratic government really is.

    If this week’s elections do indeed show how thoroughly New Labour has debased and betrayed the legacy with which it was entrusted, it will not just be Labour’s party warriors who are relegated and enfeebled. The vast majority of the British people – irrespective of their party allegiances or lack of them – will have been significantly disenfranchised. The blow struck by the expenses scandal against faith in the democratic process will claim more casualties than just a few MPs. The real losers from the demise of the Labour Party will be millions of ordinary people who – perhaps without knowing it – will have lost their best defence against the depredations of the powerful.

    Bryan Gould

    2 June 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 2 June