This article contrasts two strategic options for the Labour Party and the Left in the approach to the next election in Britain. One, the option chosen by the Labour leadership, is to seek to recapture the votes lost to the Alliance parties since 1981 by occupying their political ground. Aggressive moderation in policy, ostentatious repudiation of the hard left, and out-Saatchiing the Tories in the media are the key elements of a strategy which does offer some hope to Labour supporters of a relief from Thatcherism. Many feel that after the failure of the Left’s attempt to transform the party after 1979, even a quarter of a loaf would be better than total defeat. I shall put forward a different perspective, with a longer time-horizon than the run-up to the next election. For, in my view, the attempt simply to reconstitute the Labourism of the sixties and seventies is misguided and probably doomed. It disregards the depth and extent of the British economic crisis, which defeated the Labour governments of the last two decades, and which needs to be addressed with more than bravado and a package of mild Keynesian reforms. It is also
The alternative option must centrally address the British economic crisis, and the need for more democratic and plural forms of representation, even if this requires taking critical distance from some of Labour’s own party claims. Labour is pursuing a politics of convergence, while forcefully reasserting its right to monopoly representation of all social forces left of centre. The alternative to be presented here is more conflictful and divergent in its politics, while more modest and pluralist in its representative ambitions. The Militant Tendency is rightly criticized for its substitutionism and centralism. But there is a substitutionism of the centre-right as well as the left, just as a cult of the leader is not promoted only in the Tory Party. The purge of Militant involves a convenient projection and displacement of tendencies almost congenital to the Labour Party.
A degree of consensus has now been achieved regarding the distinctive nature of Thatcherism as a radical and dynamic right-wing political formation. This has led to the recognition, except in certain fundamentalist quarters, of the imperative need to displace the radical Right from its controlling position in British politics. Proposals for the construction of ‘broad class alliances’—and, more specifically, for a post-election pact between Labour and the Alliance in the event of a hung parliament—have sought to carry forward this analysis into preventive political tactics. This argument has been necessary. But it has also been somewhat negative and minimalist in its objectives, concerned mainly with breaking the grip of the Thatcherites, not with alternatives to Thatcherism. So uncertain has been the prospect of defeating the right in government, that little thought has been given on the left to what formation might feasibly replace it. It is becoming urgent to think about these issues, now that some inter-party agreement is beginning to emerge on the outlines of a ‘post-Thatcherite’ Britain.
There is little ground for encouragement in the post-Thatcher consensus that is now developing. Central is some agreement on the need for industrial restructuring and for a more interventionist State. The Alliance, the Kinnock–Hattersley leadership of the Labour Party, Hesel-tine, Heath and many other non-Thatcherite Conservatives are all urging that priority should be given to industrial investment. Differences of scale and emphasis remain—and the degree of commitment to full employment and social ownership, for example, is worth fighting over—but they are generally less striking than the similarities. The Labour leadership is already working to lower public expectations, emphasizing the limited room for manoeuvre in an economy ravaged by Thatcherite recession. We might recall how the Wilson–Callaghan governments
We should not, of course, underestimate the differences between That-cherism and even this moderate post-Thatcherite programme for reflation. Just as Britain would have had three or four per cent less of its population unemployed, and considerably more real wealth, if the Thatcherite Tories had never come to power, so a ‘consensus’ government of any party could expect to do better with the economy than the Thatcherites have done. Yet such a modest improvement may not be enough. It was the failures of moderate governments in the 1960s and 1970s which gave the radical Right its opportunity, and it is from these failures too that the difficult lessons have to be learned. Consider the problems that would face a new Labour or Tory–Alliance government committed to expansion. The structural weaknesses which have plagued the British economy since the war have deepened, mostly as a result of misguided government policy since 1979. footnote1 The economy is more exposed to international capital movements. The City is stronger relative to the industrial sectors, many of which have continued their dismal decline. Import penetration has increased still further. The competence and powers of government to promote investment and restructuring have been attenuated by the dismantling of interventionist agencies and by hands-off policies.
Even what the business sector has seen as the main task and achievement of Thatcherism, the disciplining of the trade unions, is likely to prove superficial and short-lived in its effects on the economy. The confrontationist approach of Thatcherite employment policy will have deepened the bitterness and distrust of workers towards both employers and the State. When and if workers regain some economic leverage, through renewed labour shortages, they will seek to reverse, indeed avenge, the humiliations of the last decade or so. The real strength of trade unions in Britain has always rested on their roots in collective class loyalties and antagonisms. Just as the recession of the 1930s entrenched defensive and negative attitudes among working people, storing up difficulties for post-war governments, so we must expect a similar reaction from the recession of the 1980s. The effects of the Thatcher government’s trade union legislation seem likely to pale beside these structural and cultural factors, especially since any new government will be under pressure to repeal its most repressive features. Insofar as industrial laws compel unions to be more democratic and accountable to their members, they may merely ensure that any industrial action is more firmly supported by mass feelings. Nor will the sectionalism that was so notable a feature of the industrial conflicts of the 1970s have been abated in the avid Thatcherite climate of competitive individualism. Already, even with present levels of unemployment, we see wage levels (mainly in the private sector) continuing to rise well above the rate of inflation,
The ‘British disease’ is nevertheless wrongly defined as a problem of over-assertive trade unions. The British economic system is chronically squeezed between two opposed forces, each concerned mainly to maximize short-term market advantages to the disregard or at the expense of long-term growth and competitive viability. One of these forces is financial and rentier capital, intentionally and grossly strengthened by Thatcherite deregulation, tax concessions and monetary and exchange-rate policies; such capital is more internationally mobile than ever. The other is defensive trade unionism, also market-oriented though of course adopting more collectivist strategies than its property-owning adversaries. The over-valuation of sterling is an index of the first constraint, from the financial sector; abnormally high rates of inflation of the second, from the labour market. Neither of these limits on the modernization of British capitalism has been lifted by the Thatcherites, and in the case of the capital market, Britain’s vulnerability has been sharply aggravated.