The decline of New Labour and the rise of no-party politics
On cowardly coups and the arbitrariness of the British political scene.
New Labour in turmoil; the Conservatives advancing; the Liberal Democrats consolidating; smaller outfits such as the British National Party and Respect emerging. After the May local elections in England, there has been much talk of the end of one-party politics under Tony Blair, and the start of an era of two-party, three-party or even multi-party politics.
It might be more helpful, however, to see recent events confirming the shift towards no-party politics in the UK. There are few reliable ‘core’ constituencies left, and little loyalty to any party. Instead the parties have become empty shells, dragged around as unwanted baggage behind individual leaders like a Blair or a David Cameron, who seek office on a ‘personality’ ticket rather than a political programme. Power struggles tend to be between individuals – Blair v Labour chancellor Gordon Brown – rather than political battles over party ideologies.
No-party politics is already proving a shallow, unstable and arbitrary affair. Take New Labour. The party that has dominated British politics for a decade now stands exposed as a chimera. So thin is its support that it is not inconceivable it could face a meltdown like that suffered by the Conservatives in the Nineties.
The panicky headlines about something like Labour losing some votes to the BNP in east London miss the broader trend of crumbling support in the heartlands. More significant was the loss of the working-class bastion of Blaenau Gwent, long Labour’s safest seat in south Wales, at last year’s General Election, to a former party loyalist protesting against New Labour’s imposition of an all-woman shortlist; or the recent embarrassing loss of Dunfermline and West Fife – the Scottish constituency where Gordon Brown lives – to the Liberal Democrats, despite the by-election coming at a time when the Lib Dems were themselves embroiled in scandal.
Labour’s results in the May local elections were very bad, although not as terrible as some had feared. Yet such is the loss of grip within the New Labour machine that its leaders reacted in panic. It has been plunged into internal turmoil with Blair’s desperate cabinet reshuffle amid renewed demands for him to stand down in favour of Brown.
Contrary to reports, however, this is no battle between Old and New Labour, far less between left and right, for ‘the soul of the party’. Whatever soul this party might have had was sold long ago. Only the Labour left’s unequalled capacity for self-delusion can sustain the myth that the conservative Brown poses any sort of political alternative to Blairism. The reported ‘Old Labour coup plot’ against Blair amounts to an unsigned letter circulating around Westminster, asking the prime minister if he wouldn’t mind giving a date at which he might think of moving out of Downing Street. ‘Coups’ don’t come much more cowardly.
Instead of different wings of a traditional political party vying for influence, we are witnessing a battle for personal power between cliques grouped around ambitious individuals. As we have discussed before on spiked, this bears more resemblance to the backstabbing court politics of a Shakespearean drama, in which rival factions manoeuvre for the Crown as an end in itself. Blair’s frantic ministerial reshuffle, designed to surround him with his few remaining reliable lieutenants, revealed this situation in all its goriness, as he sacrificed everything and everybody on the altar of personal loyalty. That the outcome proved such a mess shows how New Labour’s ‘control freaks’ have lost the plot.
Yet still, in the era of no-party politics, the central issue continues to be All About Blair. He clings to office as the individual embodiment of New Labour, claiming (not entirely unjustly) personal responsibility for the party’s past successes. His opponents, meanwhile, define themselves as little more than ‘I’m not Tony Blair’, and suggest that his removal is the key to survival. Blair’s suggestion that for him to set a departure date would ‘paralyse’ the government might sound like a bit of a joke, given the state of effective paralysis New Labour is in already. But the notion that Blair’s removal would somehow solve the party’s problems and lead to ‘renewal’ is a pipedream. The problem is that, behind Blair, there is really little of the Labour Party left to renew.
And what of the Conservative Party, supposedly resurgent under David ‘Dave’ Cameron? The relative improvement in the Tories’ standing in the local elections and opinion polls should not be interpreted, as some have suggested, as a return to pre-New Labour politics. If there is still an historical legacy, it relates to the inability of the Tory Party to make a breakthrough in the north of England, Scotland or Wales. Elsewhere, the local elections results speak more of the new political landscape than the old.
Take London for example. New Labour’s poor showing in the capital and the Tories’ improved position has been met by headlines about ‘London turns Blue’. But it might be more accurate to leave it as ‘London turns’. The capital is a city in permanent flux like no other, experiencing a constant process of generational and demographic change. Among other changes, this leaves London as the place where people have the least loyalty to any political party. Elections become even more arbitrary here than elsewhere. Thus Labour could lose its Camden council flagship, yet win back Lambeth. Such a state of churning and flux should not be mistaken for a stable Conservative revival.
In any case, inasmuch as the Conservatives are improving their position, it is not as the Tory Party. It is as the Dave Cameron Show, a vehicle for showbiz politics that appears every bit as shallow and image-driven as late New Labour. No doubt Cameron, like Blair before him, would rather do away with his burdensome rump of a party organisation altogether, and simply run for office himself with a personal PR machine.
It remains to be seen to what extent the Tories can exploit New Labour’s decline; as a benchmark their local elections were not bad, but could have been much better given the depth of the government’s problems. But the more important question is, what difference would it make if they do revive?
The relative local success of some smaller parties, such as the Greens, the BNP on the right or George Galloway’s Respect coalition on the left, has been dismissed by the established parties as a ‘protest vote’. Well, yes and no. The voters concerned did seem to be giving two fingers to the political establishment in general, rather than a thumbs-up to the detailed policy proposals of the small parties concerned. But it would be a mistake to assume that, like the protest voters of old, they will necessarily return to the fold of New Labour or the Tories when a general election comes around. Their estrangement from the empty shells of the old parties appears pretty profound. When Muslims vote for Respect, white working-class people for the BNP or middle-class dissidents for the Greens, they are all expressing in different ways the sort of identity politics of ‘what about me, me, me?’ that is the natural language of our no-party political era.
Where does this leave the state of British politics? As a messy business where there are no clear-cut party lines, an unstable system beset by short-termism where individual egos and personal paranoia rule. In this shallow and arbitrary affair it appears that anything can happen – from a BNP ‘breakthrough’ to a wild cabinet reshuffle – but none of it seems to mean very much or to make much of a difference.
One consequence of this will be to increase the already-widespread cynicism about anything to do with politics. But the decline of the old parties of the living dead might also give rise to new opportunities for some alternative voices. The state of flux in political life means there can perhaps be new openings for other brave souls prepared to step forward and try to get a hearing. The rise of no-party politics need not mean the demise of political choice.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
When control freaks lose it and spindoctors twist in the wind, by Mick Hume
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