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New Left Review I/219, September-October 1996


David Coates

Labour Governments: Old Constraints and New Parameters

It is good to be able to explore again the pattern of constraints likely to beset a Labour Government. [1] This is an amended version of a paper first presented to a seminar at the International Centre for Labour Studies in the University of Manchester. The author is grateful for the advice and comments given by members of the Centre who attended that seminar; and for subsequent guidance from Leo Panitch, Adam Tickell, Robin Blackburn and Edward Coates. Since the interpretation of New Labour presented here is not one widely held on the Left, it is even more essential than normal to emphasize that responsibility for the line of argument in this article is the author’s alone. For a long time now, such concerns have been definitely off our collective agendas because of the string of heavy electoral defeats for Labour. The bulk of the uk Left spent the 1980s discussing not how to use power but how to win it: how to create a bloc of electoral forces sufficiently large to bring an end to Thatcherism. We all read Eric Hobsbawm, struggled with the possibility that the Forward March of Labour had well and truly Halted, and contemplated the politics of electoral pacts. Yet that seems for the moment now to be behind us. It seems that realistically we can begin to anticipate again the arrival of Labour in power; and, because we can, it is time to go back to literatures and arguments prevalent on the Left in the 1960s and 1970s, literatures concerned with the aspirations of incoming Labour governments and with the barriers likely to be erected in their path. Of course, here as elsewhere, the past is never a perfect guide to the future. Some at least of the barriers awaiting a Blair government will be new ones—in form certainly, even in basic character—but I suspect that most will not. For in a very real sense we already know much of what will constrain an incoming Labour Government, because we also know what constrained Labour governments in the past. So in order not to be overly-surprised when the constraints come, and in order to avoid the temptation then to re-invent the wheel, this is an opportune moment to look back, and to consider again what happens to Labour governments whenever they try to rule uk capital.

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