After the illusion, a new covenant: The Labour Party is sinking into vacuity when it should be planning the reimposition of civic order, warns David Selbourne

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The Labour Party has begun to write the script for a fifth electoral defeat; even its new leader looks frail. But Labour's failures should not be seen in isolation. They are part of a much wider failure of the left.

Labour was losing its way throughout the Seventies and Eighties, precisely the period in which East European and Soviet state socialism was coming to grief. The non-communist left would rather not have such a connection made. But connection there is.

Everywhere the economics of state-supervised production and allocation, the ethics of a bogus egalitarianism, and the politics of self-regarding left elites could make no further progress. Everywhere, the arrogance and inflexibility of the left invited the triumph of the right's ideas. Everywhere, communists and socialists alike - even some social democrats - not merely took for granted the moral superiority of the socialist idea but believed it to be transcendent: they looked forward (and a handful still do) to a 'post-capitalist' dawn in which 'socialism' would at last come into its dominion.

Such notions have now largely evaporated, but other more personal things have gone too. A sentimentalist might consider some of it tragic: whole lives have been spent, and wasted, in vain socialist endeavour. Moreover, the amour propre of all leftists, and not just of communists or Marxists, has been damaged by the discovery that the seemingly good ideas of socialist thinkers have often, in practice, been no good at all; even, sometimes, without redeeming ethical value also.

The ex-socialist or disappointed socialist is now - as in a game of snakes and ladders - on his back after a long and vertiginous fall. Neither the conservative Marxist who still hankers for a return to the scriptures, nor the 'radical' post-socialist bent on abandoning every former left position, any longer knows where he is going. A morass of intellectual banality occupies the place where fixed principle, wrong as much of it might have been, once stood.

In Britain, in place of Labour's old politics of gradualist redistribution, we have the politics of 'individual ambition'; in place of the cloth-capped working-class hero, the 'empowered consumer'; in place of the ethics of 'Christian socialism', today's 'common-sense socialism' of the sinking New Statesman. A 'new politics' that puts people first, as the Labour leader, John Smith, has described it in his flaccid manifesto, and according to which 'we are all aspirants', is not only not new; it has no discernible meaning.

Equally puzzling and contentless is the claimed 'radical agenda' of Bryan Gould. He criticises the Labour leadership for being 'all dressed up with nowhere to go' yet his own intellectual stall is bare. 'Society's support,' he tells us, 'is necessary to individual achievement.' 'Public intervention', and more radical still, 'collective action' are the means by which to satisfy individual needs. He even wants an 'end to short-termism'. This is left political thought at the end of its tether.

But today even left assertions as to the values of 'community' or promises to tackle 'entrenched interests' - no mention of socialism or class here - seem mere flourishes of words. It is as if the heart had entirely gone out of left aspiration, as it has gone out of left organisation. And all this, in Britain, at a time of economic decline, under a Tory government presided over by an inadequate leader: Tweedledum to Labour's Tweedledee.

The crux of the problem of lost direction in the Labour Party is that, like other left parties in the world, it can no longer even pretend to be a socialist party. But as a party of the left, it cannot properly abandon a critique of capitalism and of market ethics. It can neither surrender every public institution and possession to privatisation nor, so discredited is such politics, be merely a party of public ownership and welfare. Caught in such a dilemma, a left party might be forgiven for dissolving its purposes entirely and sinking into intellectual vacuity, as the Labour Party is doing.

In a period of growing civic disaggregation, however, there has never been a greater need for a puritan left party whose political and moral philosophy is civic (not socialist): a party of the left, not of the right, which places citizen's responsibilities and duties, rather than rights, at the centre of its ethic. Duties without rights make slaves, but rights without duties make strangers.

Citizenship is a matter of morality as well as of passports. It is not a matter of 'enhancing the rights and powers of the individual citizen' (John Smith), but of reciprocity between the individual's rights and obligations. Loss of rights and benefits will in the future, surely, be the sanction for enforcing such obligations. Better, too, when this day arrives, that it should not be the political right that supervises this reimposition of civic order in metropolises which are no more than random agglomerations of millions of strangers.

Instead, the left must constitute itself as the party of the social or civic convenant, reread Hobbes and Locke, set aside the base opportunism of a politics of consumption and ambition, and begin to repair the damage to our civic order wrought by greed and licence.

The Labour Party, it should be noted, also has a most particular name: a name that points directly to the work ethic, restrictions on welfare, the acceptance of 'workfare' and, when all else has failed, the authoritarian enforcement of responsibility to self and to neighbour. Even arbitrary laws are preferable to civic dissolution, as Spinoza argued.

It is a paradox that while Labour, in its current maunderings, fancies the idea of 'Clintonising' itself - which seems to mean little more than contriving to win an election - it has paid so little attention to the first adumbrations in Clinton's agenda of the left politics of the next century: the politics of a 'new covenant' between citizen and state, in which civic rights and civic duties are rebalanced in the interests of all.

Now that socialist illusion has been cleared from the left's path, this civic politics, founded upon a relearning of pre-socialist political theory, beckons to the left. If it does not respond, the right, including the extreme right, will get there first, and with dire effect.

David Selbourne's book 'The Spirit of the Age: An Account of our Times' is published this month by Sinclair-Stevenson.