British Elections: The Undoing of the Labour Party

12 May 2010

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Leo Panitch, Professor of Political Science at York University and author of "The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour" talks to Paul Jay of the Real News Network about the outcome of the recently held elections in Britain.

Tony Blair of the New Labour Party ushered in the "third way," which has ended ingloriously with Gordon Brown's defeat at the polls after 13 years of Labour Party rule, which comprised winning three successive elections. This has now come to an end.

At the onset of their victory in British electoral politics, the Labour Party presented themselves as the ones who would tackle the problems of free market Thatcherite capitalism, however, what they did was to embrace it instead. According to Panitch, they embraced it and said, "we will be slightly more socially conscious than Mrs thatcher was." What Labour did was to embrace the city of london and the banking system fully. This included taking lots of money from them.

New Labour had a very pragmatic line. They presented themselves as having this philosophy of representing an egalitarian market society. However, it was one that essentially embraced the Thatcher revolution. They spent nearly as much as Thatcher did, and were able to show that Thatcher didn't reduce the state nearly as much as she claimed she had. She just shifted the state's priorities around.

According to Panitch, Labour's undoing and the thing that may have hurt them most in the end, was their support for America's war in Iraq. British parents of soldiers who were sent to Iraq are very angry with the government.

Panitch notes that what is interesting about the outcome of this election is that there was not a rush to the Conservatives, especially not in the North and Scotland, especially not amongst labour's working class constituency -- among whom there is an abiding fear and suspicion of the Conservative party.

In Pantich's view, the Liberal Democrats didn't do better in this election because "its always the case that with 'third' parties that they get squeezed out on election day."

He argues that the Liberal Democrats are a media party. The more progressive media have always been Liberal Democrat supporters. They don't want to be seen as socialists, they think that Labour is too tied to the working class, so the center left media is always pushing the Liberal Democrats. It was journalists who judged, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, winner of the media debates.

Panitch reflects on Labour's earlier electoral victories contending that the Party won elections by selling itself to a centre right media -- "You want us to say anything, we'll say it." 

The left wing faction of the party, which tried to transform it into a democratic radical political force in the mould of Tony Benn was rejected by the pragmatists in Labour.

But Brown's defeat does not open up the space for struggle in the Labour Party. In Panitch's view, "one cannot turn a lumbering beast like the Labour Party into a gazelle." The Party will split before allowing itself to be changed into a democratic radical force in British politics. That was clear from the earlier Bennite struggle era when a section of the party joined the Liberal Democrats.

Panitch argues that there was little difference between Blair and Brown in terms of their politics, principles and approach, despite the illusion of a major difference. There will also be an illusion now, especially if a centre left cabinet minister is elected, that he would be able to push the Labour Party in a more radical direction -- but this is unlikely.

According to Panitch, the more serious question at the moment in terms of divisions in Labour is: If the Liberal Democrats manage to get either the Conservatives or Labour to commit to some sort of system of proportional representation, will that create the space for a viable new socialist party to the left of Labour similar to the Left Party in Germany?

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