The Labour Party can be puzzling. It’s fanatical about change, indifferent to whether the result is an improvement. It applies, or attempts to apply, ill-considered policies, whose failure is then enjoyed as a ‘learning experience’ rather than acknowledged as proof of incompetence. It revels in ‘growth’, deaf to those who point out the damage, environmental and psychological, that inescapably results. Its key value today is market meritocracy – an equal chance to become more unequal – and not securing the common good. Above all, it glories in violence and repression.
The conventional narrative is that after its fourth election defeat in a row, in 1992, Labour was ripe for takeover by an unscrupulous gang of free marketeers, led by Tony Blair, with Peter Mandelson as chief fixer. The essence of New Labour is, supposedly, that means change, ends don’t. What actually happened was the triumph of a belief that ‘socialism’ can be advanced within an individualist, capitalist society simply by redefining what socialism is, even to extent of excluding what was once considered its most fundamental characteristic, the democratisation of economic life. The re-writing of Clause IV in 1995 allowed Labour to join the Thatcherite bandwagon, partying on the proceeds of privatisation and leaving in its wake a fast-collapsing society owned by others whose loyalty can only be bought by the application of money that doesn’t exist.
It’s a partial explanation but it’s incomplete. Labour was ripe for takeover only because of the moral implosion of its leadership cadre, an implosion brought on by impatience and personal ambition. And the roots of that lie in the student politics of the 1960s. That generation tasted power for the first time in the early 80s, in Livingstone’s London, in Blunkett’s Sheffield and in Hatton’s Liverpool. Thatcher outwitted them all and by the mid-90s, with the Soviet bloc in ruins, the ageing hippies were ready to do the Faustian deal that would return Labour to power nationally and fulfil their craving for high office. Policy, instead of being their guiding star, became whatever the focus groups said it was. The contrast with the more successful of the nationalist parties is instructive. After some wobbly moments in the 80s, they continued to focus on their primary purpose and eventually saw their fortunes rise.
Labour, on the other hand, is now damaged beyond repair. No-one, least of all the leadership, knows what the party stands for. Or at least they won’t say it in public. It shares this lack of explicit direction with parties of the Left right across the developed western world. The one place where the reasons shine through is Germany, where the student politics of the West now mingles with surviving habits of thought from the formerly Soviet East. It shows up in different attitudes to jihadism, with east Germans taking a more rigorous line against fascism in any form, and west Germans being more relativist and self-critical. This can plausibly be put down to the first being Marxist-Leninist and the second being Maoist. Our Left in the West is ‘auto-aggressive’, as the relevant term in German translates, or self-loathing, as we might say in better English. It has ceased to care about the structure of society, about the distribution of wealth or power, and wants principally to re-make the individual. Through embracing consumerism and globalisation it has sought to dissolve community solidarity. Through dumbing-down, deconstructionism and post-modernism it has sought to paralyse the intellect. Through an agenda of fear shrugged off as respect it has sought to place its own values and priorities beyond criticism. Welcome to the Cultural Revolution.