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Can New Labour be socialist?

"TODAY’S LABOUR party has the same values as our socialist pioneers: the same burning passion for democracy, justice, individual freedom and for confronting inequalities of power and wealth". Was this Nye Bevan in 1945? No, Peter Hain, writing in The Observer (27 October). The reality is starkly different to this fine rhetoric.

From day one of the Blair government taking office the ideology of neo-liberalism has reigned supreme. The pre-eminence of Thatcherite ideology in shaping New Labour policy was symbolically displayed by Blair when, within days of taking office, he became the first Labour prime minister in history to invite an ex-Conservative prime minister to No.10 to seek their counsel. New Labour’s slavish commitment to private finance initiative (which is a euphemism for privateers to milk public funds), its continuing use of private companies to run the prison service, and its specific refusal to renationalise the railway industry in the teeth of all serious opinion, with the polls showing that 80% of the public support it, suggest New Labour is not only not socialist but vigorously implementing policies which correspond with the interests of the rich and powerful.

In an interview with David Frost Blair himself rejected the notion of renationalising rail, not because it would have been wrong, but that it would look too much like ‘Old Labour’. That begs the question: in whose eyes? Presumably the gaggle of millionaires who currently advise Blair on policy.

Peter Hain dismisses the state intervention and control of important sectors of industry during the war and the subsequent nationalisation of big sectors of the economy in the post-war period, as carried out ‘unthinkingly’. In fact it would have been impossible to have prosecuted the war effectively without the co-ordination of the state, and he hasn’t grasped the reality that rail, coal and the other utilities had been wrecked under private ownership, where the greed of the owners overrode the needs of the community and of the industries themselves. Hain calls on the ghosts of the past like the Levellers, the Chartists, and William Morris to support his notion of libertarian socialism, apparently arguing that they would support the present policies of New Labour. A cursory glance at the policies advocated by these strands of socialist thought, however, reveal that they opposed obscene wealth and privilege, advocated the direct intervention of the working class in the workings of the state, and argued that wealth be redistributed amongst the community. Can anyone doubt that they would have been implacably opposed to the obscene differentials in wealth which characterise present day capitalism? Hain uses rhetoric which doesn’t commit New Labour to even vaguely radical policies; the word ‘brave’ is employed to describe the break with Labour’s socialism, and the mantra of ‘libertarian socialism’ advocated as an alternative to public ownership.

The only hackneyed phrase missing in Hain’s article was ‘traditional values in a modern setting’ so beloved of New Labour clones. The question is: whose traditional values? The answer is exemplified in the grotesque spectacle of company executives now earning 500 times more than the average worker, compared to a ratio of thirty to one 25 years ago. An obscenity exemplified by the recent farce of privatised company British Energy which announced losses in May of £493m and received a bailout of £650m tax payers money. The executive chairman who presided over this disaster trousered for a year’s work nearly £480,000 and a bonus of £185,642. We await with bated breath New Labour condemning this legal theft with the same alacrity that they condemn trade union leaders for taking action to defend their members.

Peter Hain mangles the meaning of the word ‘left’ when he states that "we on the left... must continue to trust people to decide for themselves". We are entitled to ask: ‘which people, deciding what?’ New Labour proudly defends the most draconic anti-trade union laws in the developed world, rampant low pay, the supply of arms credits to the most bloodthirsty dictatorships on the planet, and the extension of PFI which places future generations in hock. In addition, the democratic structures of the Labour Party have been dismantled. There is no longer a mechanism for rank and file members to shape let alone determine policy, nor to select candidates of their choice. The answer to the question, can New Labour be socialist? must be a resounding No!

Tony Mulhearn,




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