In the 1980s, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said: ‘There is no alternative’ to the neo-liberal, right-wing policy agenda that she was pursuing. On the surface, this is a shockingly arrogant statement to make for a party leader in a democracy. Unfortunately, however, she had a point.
She and her intellectual guides Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Keith Joseph had fashioned an ideology of managerial supremacy and deregulated markets. To me, it seemed to be unequal to the industrial crisis we had at the time, said nothing about skills or innovation, but at least they had an intellectual framework, albeit a rather dehumanizing one.
Labour offered nothing. Perhaps, I thought, there would be some ideas on the radical left. For a brief period of time in the late 1980s, I joined Tony Benn’s Socialist Movement. I vividly recall a speech he gave in which he denounced both corporations and bureaucratic nationalized industries. Great, I thought, he’s going to set out some cooperative-based business and economic model that’s a practical and inspirational alternative to neo-liberalism. But he didn’t. Again, nothing. I was never a huge admirer of Benn after that day. He had considerable intellectual capability, and probably did care about ordinary folk up to a certain point, but he settled into the safe role of professional protester, rather than create ideas for generating employment and good living standards for working people.
Between 1997 and 2005, Tony Blair’s Labour Party won three elections from the centre ground, without really articulating an ideology. Blairism ended up being a curious hotch-potch of neo-liberalism and Old Labour, before the combination of Big State and Big Banks collapsed in a heap in the autumn of 2008.
After the debacle of the General Election of 2015 – off the scale of pessimistic projections for Labour, in which the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander lost their Commons seats – the internal debates in the party will presumably now focus on whether they should be more left or more centre; more towards Miliband père or back towards Tony Blair. To me, this is missing the point. It’s not whether the policies and the ideology that they rest upon are more or less left, but whether they are coherent.
On this score, Ed Miliband in his dismal campaign of 2015 was shockingly lacking, as bereft of ideas and explanations as Neil Kinnock in 1992, left to bleating about the NHS, but without a plan for funding it. He opposed austerity, but failed to explain the causes of austerity. He blamed the banks and the global financial crisis for the economic crisis of 2008-09, but failed to acknowledge that Labour had very much encouraged debt-fuelled growth; had failed to respond to warnings about too much debt in the economy (Vince Cable in the Commons, eg in November 2003). Miliband failed to acknowledge that Gordon Brown, by stretching the definition of the economic cycle to give himself permission to increase borrowing and break his own fiscal rules, contributed to the crash that followed. If you want to oppose debt-fuelled, unsustainable neoliberal ‘growth’ created by short-termist banks, you can’t use this as a basis for your spending plans. That’s the point made by the incisive businesswoman Catherine Shuttleworth in the Leeds audience at the BBC Question Time, to which Ed Miliband had no answer – none at all.
A little humility on the left might lead to better understanding, and development of an alternative. After 30 years or so, I’m still waiting.
- I’m aware that this may sound rather passive – expecting others to create a lead that I meekly follow, please bear in mind that I’ve spent the bulk of my professional career creating a humanized, alternative business model to the neo-liberal one that has failed. I’ve been trying to answer the question that Tony Benn raised, but then ducked, all those years ago. It’s set out in my co-authored book New Normal Radical Shift. See here for a link. I mean, if little old me can critique the neo-liberal business and economic model and produce an alternative that is based on research, and proven by more enlightened businesses, why can’t the so-called left-wing, so-called intellectuals do the same? Seriously.