Give us more ambition, Tony

Labour is still reeling from the defeats of the Eighties, and has not understood the huge changes of the Nineties. A commitment to economic independence is essential, says Bryan Gould
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The Independent Online
I was 40 years old at the time of the 1979 general election. I heard Michael Foot speak many times during the 1980s, and brilliantly at that. I took a close interest in the result of the 1992 election. (I hope that these few clues might convince readers that I did actually write this article.)

In fact, I do remember 1979 very well. It was the last time that Labour was in power. When Margaret Thatcher won the election, we were convinced that she would be a one-term prime minister. The Eighties turned out, however, to be Mrs Thatcher's decade. Labour has still not recovered from that blow to its intellectual self-confidence.

In retrospect, we now see that the pendulum of intellectual and political fashion had swung decisively to the right much earlier than 1979. Jim Callaghan had proclaimed the demise of Keynesian demand management in 1976, and Denis Healey had reportedly conceded that "we are all monetarists now". By the time Mrs Thatcher reached Downing Street, the intellectual pass had been well and truly sold.

Labour's first reaction to the 1979 Thatcher victory was that her move to the right allowed Labour the luxury of moving sharply to the left. But the Conservatives' 1983 win put paid to that.

Neil Kinnock believed that a new, young, dynamic leader would reverse Labour's fortunes. The 1987 election campaign confounded Labour's critics by being slick and professional. Yet Mrs Thatcher still won.

It was at this point that the iron entered Labour's soul. Neil decided correctly that presentational skills were not enough. Labour had lost the battle of ideas - and so badly that there had to be something wrong with the ideas themselves. Labour had no option, it was thought, but to accommodate itself to the Thatcherite hegemony.

So, from 1987 onwards, Labour ducked out of the battle of ideas - not a very comfortable position for a supposedly radical party. If a discussion of ideas proved unavoidable, the party managed to suggest - discreetly most of the time, but overtly when necessary - that it accepted much of the Thatcherite agenda. But we preferred to avoid ideas altogether. They meant too many hostages to fortune.

As a consequence, we accepted that inflation is more important than unemployment, that monetary targets are all that really matter in macro-economic policy, that markets can be trusted to get the right answers most of the time. No admission was made that we had lost the intellectual battle. The strategy was justified by the dictates of electoral logic. If we did not frighten the voters, the Tories would obligingly lose the election to us.

The Tories proved remarkably unco-operative in this strategy. When they won the 1992 election, Labour strategists decided that the fault lay with Neil Kinnock and his failure to attract middle-class support.

The strategy was accordingly entrusted to a new leader who could be relied upon to appeal to Conservative voters. John Smith's premature death was a blow, but Tony Blair's succession offered a new and exciting chance for the strategy to work. When Tony Blair wins the next election, as I believe he will, the strategy will be proclaimed a success.

Yet somewhere in this long saga of defeat and defeatism, Labour seems to have missed something. Mrs Thatcher was turned out by her own party in 1990 because she had become an electoral liability - and that, in turn, was because Tory voters had rejected the Thatcherite agenda.

Labour seems not to have registered this development. While Labour was still convinced that the path to electoral success lay through adopting free-market policies, the voters - appalled at the threat to their jobs, homes and living standards - seem to have reached a different conclusion.

Even more remarkably, Labour seems not to have noticed the most important single change over which Mrs Thatcher presided. During the Eighties, financial markets were deregulated, and a global capital market was put in place. This development has had a fundamental impact on democratic politics.

The ability to move investment capital at will across national boundaries means that national governments (and trade unions) are powerless to defend the interests of those they represent. Investors can roam the globe, seeking the lowest labour costs, the least onerous conditions, the monetary and economic policies which are the most congenial. Governments that try to resist are easily blackmailed by the threat of the withdrawal of capital or are bypassed by its reality.

This immense victory of capital over labour wouldn't matter so much if it delivered higher living standards and better conditions to ordinary people. But it does not. In what is increasingly a single world economy, resources move to the most productive part of that economy. Less productive parts close down. Jobs are lost. Those who stay in work do so on condition that they work harder, at lower cost and with fewer rights. Even their political power is undermined. They can no longer elect governments capable of defending them against the power of capital.

Even Mrs Thatcher eventually realised that the monster she had helped to create had got out of control. But her attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, by staying out of the ERM, came too late.

Labour, which has greatly more reason than Mrs Thatcher to oppose and fear this development, seems not to have noticed it. Indeed, the left has positively welcomed the move towards a single world economy in which international capital has a veto power over economic and social policies it does not like. Labour leaders seem not to regret this abandonment of their role as defenders of ordinary people.

Yet a government with the political will and courage to assert an independent monetary and exchange rate policy could regain control over its economy and restore democratic power to its people. In the absence of such a commitment, Labour's promises to run the economy better and differently mean little. An election win on such terms would not be a victory, but a surrender.

Nothing of this should be interpreted to mean that a Labour government would not be an immense improvement over its Tory predecessor or that Tony Blair will not be an excellent prime minister. But I do lament the failures of analysis and the absence of ambition. I wish that, when the long-awaited victory finally comes, we could be clearer as to what we want to do with it.

Bryan Gould was a member of the Shadow Cabinet from 1986 to 1992.

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