The Hard Centre: New Labour’s Technocratic Hegemony

Jeremy Gilbert 1999

New Labour has been criticised, especially in the special issue of Marxism Today published last Autumn and in places close to it such as the journal Soundings, for lacking a ‘hegemonic project’. Let’s think about this for a moment. Firstly, what exactly is a hegemonic project? Well, in the loosest terms, a hegemonic project is what you get when one group in society manages to convince a number of other groups that their interests will be well served by entering into a social coalition in which the hegemonic group is the leading partner. For much of the 1980’s, a particular section of the intellectual left berated the Labour movement for failing to construct a hegemonic project, and had a reasonably clear idea as to what one might look like. It would involve the Labour movement learning to speak the language of the consumer society in order to talk to the public more clearly and convincingly about its core values of equality and democracy. It would use this language to put together a coalition much like that which was perceived to have been the basis for the electoral success of Ken Livingstone’s GLC, making people feel good about belonging to a multicultural democracy, channelling people’s desire for material self-improvement into support for socialist policies such as the ‘fares fair’ campaign, generally making them feel that the they would be better off and happier throwing in their lot with the sections of society which Labour had always represented than with the traditional, Daily Mail-reading Tories of the home counties. Indeed, if only that small but influential section of the professional middle classes which had deserted Labour for the SDP and the Liberal Democrats could be brought on board, so went the argument, then we would have nothing to fear from the Tories again: hence the many calls for a tactical alliance between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in the eighties and early nineties. Labour’s failure, it was argued, was as much as anything its failure to make enough people believe that its world was anything to do with theirs. Its continued reliance, prior to the 1988 policy review, on a policy agenda dictated by the interests of industrial workers, was on a hiding to nothing when there were not — and would never be again — very many industrial workers to represent. What the Labour movement had to do was to modernise, and in doing so to build a hegemonic project.

Much of the confusion that has arisen over new Labour over the past couple of years can be attributed to the fact that new Labour has done precisely that, but it has not done so in the manner hoped for by the Gramscian left of the eighties. For instance, the party has modernised, replacing the unwieldy and union-dominated bureaucracy of its old power-structures, but it has replaced them not with an expansive, inclusive, de-centralised, participatory and member-led form of organisation, as many hoped for, but by a streamlined, centralised and wholly professionalised system of administration. More fundamentally, the social coalition which new labour has put together as its electoral base is not the one that anyone on the left had in mind when calling for a new popular front with which to turn back the tide of Thatcherism. It includes far more of the people who had always voted Tory before 1997 than was ever envisaged as being necessary to the success of that hoped-for coalition, and it has generally appeared quite happy to exclude a very large set of constituencies to its left: its traditional ‘core voters’, public sector workers, those many single parents who still have not forgiven the Blair, Straw and Harman for their material and rhetorical attacks on them between 1995 and 1998 , etc. etc. Indeed, I might go far as to suggest that almost all of the groups who supported the Labour Party in 1983 — that 28% of the populations who were prepared then (and I doubt the figure has actually changed much) to support a party of the radical left — are now excluded from the socio-political coalition which underpins new Labour and which its success depends on maintaining. This is partly because it is assumed that all of these groups will vote Labour or not vote at all, so there is no need to court their support, but I think that there is a longer-term hope in some quarters that new Labour can consolidate its support in the home counties to the point where both the residual Tories and this broad left constituency become marginalised and isolated sections of the electorate posing no real threat to the new Labour hegemony. In fact, in the wake of the European election results, we clearly saw this emerging as the key point of debate within Labour circles; implicit in the debate over how Labour’s traditional core supporters can be enthused to turn out to vote is a deeper debate over whether or not new Labour can simply do without them altogether.

So I would suggest that Blair’s claim to lead a government of ‘the radical centre’ should be taken quite literally and quite seriously. There is no need to interrogate, as many commentators continue to do, the ‘real’ nature of the project lurking somewhere behind statements like this one. Rather, to take such statements at fact value is to understand the politics of new Labour. What’s more, to berate new Labour for failing to construct a hegemonic project is quite wrong. Just because it is not a hegemonic project led clearly from the left, as many had hoped for, or from the right, like Thatcherism, does not mean that it is not one. New Labour is as much as anything a socio-political coalition which seeks to consolidate a solid centre-ground — socially, economically, politically, culturally — by excluding both the radical left and its natural constituencies and the radical right and its. So overt symbolic racism is attacked as it never was under Thatcher, but radical anti-racist groups get none of the support they did from the GLC (for example, and not untypically, the pioneering anti-racist group Newham Monitoring Project actually had its funding cancelled following a Blairite take over of the council’s Labour group). More money is spent on education, but progressive educational agendas are treated with even more contempt than under the Tories. The most feckless and destructive element of finance capital — the currency markets — are threatened with being brought to heel by our joining the Euro, but beyond that the city is allowed to behave much as it ever did.

So what of those who, like Anthony Giddens, will argue that this is all simply a rational and creative response to a changing world? The criticism which advocates of the ‘Third Way’ would make of the account which I am presenting here is quite straightforward. They would point out that my account is entirely predicated on the received view of politics which neatly divides the political spectrum into left, right, and things vaguely in between. At the end of the twentieth century, they would argue, such terms are wholly redundant. Policy and politics cannot be seen in those terms, rather creative solutions must be found to problems as they emerge, without being bound by the dictates of such old-fashioned categories as ‘left’, ‘right’ and centre. My account of politics, in fact, harks back to a simple Marxist account of the relationships between politics, culture, economics and the social, dividing the entire spectrum of social, political and economic experience between the ‘left’ and it so-called ‘natural constituencies’ and the right and its. How could I be so antediluvian in my analysis?

Well, to some extent this criticism would be correct. I am suggesting that the sphere of politics can be divided up in much this way and I am holding on to some very old notions as to the difference between left and right and as to the likelihood of given social groups lending their support to one side or another. Where I would agree with Giddens et al is in their claim that politics cannot simply be seen in terms of a left-right split with no distinctive middle position and the claim, made long before Giddens, that traditional Marxist categories cannot tell us all we need to know about politics. But this is not to say that politics is now simply immune to classification. The situation I think we are in at the present time, at least in the UK, but also to some extent globally, is that politics and policies can be seen as often informed by three distinct types of agenda, which I will designate, for want of better terms, democratic, anti-democratic and managerialist. To put this very simply: an anti-democratic agenda is essentially hostile to attempts to break down existing concentrations of wealth and power or even to attempts to prevent such concentrations from intensifying, a democratic one is precisely in favour of such redistribution of power / wealth / opportunity, and a managerialist one is concerned with administering the status quo such that some of the interests of the disadvantaged are taken into account while the overall distribution of social power is not threatened. To put it another way, the anti-democrat does not believe that people have any rights at all, so regards it as perfectly acceptable for government to be a means by which the dominant groups in society pursue their own interests unchecked (e.g. Thatcherism was informed by a belief that there was nothing wrong with the capitalist classes paying people low wages and using the machinery of the state to smash up their unions, making it impossible to defend themselves), the democrat believes that it is ultimately desirable for all groups and individuals to enjoy as much self-government and equality as possible in all spheres, and the manager believes that people have the right to be governed well, but has no belief in the desirability of them ever governing themselves. Much of the rhetoric and almost all of the policy of new Labour is clearly informed by this third position. Peter Mandelson is famously rumoured to have remarked to Anthony Barnett that Charter 88 should campaign not for better democracy, but for ‘better government’ (because the former sounded too archaic, too left-wing). Indeed, Mandelson’s notorious comment that he believes the era of representative democracy to be at an end must be seen in this light. By the same token, the government’s position on the poor is that they are to be ‘socially included’, but never that they might actually be empowered: they should be invited to sit at the family table, even, perhaps, presented with some very limited menu options, but never offered a kitchen of their own. Unsurprisingly, I would suggest - contra Giddens- that it is still meaningful at the end of the millennium to declare oneself ‘on the left’, and that to do so is to commit oneself to just that belief in the overriding value of democracy for which new Labour shows nothing but contempt.

It is crucial to understand that this contempt is not a simple mater of disagreement or varying tastes. The managerialism which informs new labour is not simply the product of a technical, political or ethical mistake. To see it as such has been, I think, the second great error of most of new Labour’s recent critics. For example, even Chantal Mouffe (a writer to whom , I must stress, my understanding of politics is immeasurably indebted) recently published a critique of New Labour and its emergent philosophy, the so-called 'Third Way' which in some senses appeared to suffer from just this weakness (Chantal Mouffe ‘The Radical Centre: A Politics Without Adversary’ in Soundings Issue 9, Summer 1998, Lawrence & Wishart). In this article, Mouffe skilfully exposes the insubstantiality of the Third Way. Blair and his key ideologist, Anthony Giddens , she insists, are making a terrible mistake. Globalisation, the international hegemony of neo-liberalism, is not necessarily inevitable. The persistence of inequitable structures of power and irreconcilable differences of interest between the powerless and the powerful means that the distinction between left and right politics remains as crucial as ever. Blair, Giddens, et. al. are wrong to imagine that a purely consensual politics is possible; there can be no politics without enemies.

Of course Mouffe is right in all respects, but what she appears, uncharacteristically, to overlook here is the fact that politics is not simply about being right. Blair et al are not engaged in a struggle to describe current social reality as accurately as possible, but to define it, and thereby, on the political level, to constitute it. Their claim to transcend old political distinctions is not to be understood as a simple statement about the nature of contemporary politics, but as the hegemonic gesture par excellence. It is a basic insight of Gramsci's that the moment of hegemony is the moment at which one group in society manages to generalise the idea that its interests are coterminous with those of all or most of members of that society. A ‘politics without enemies’ which several commentators have accused Blair et a of imagining themselves to be engaged in, is, of course, technically impossible, as Mouffe convincingly demonstrates. However, the articulation of such a politics is nonetheless precisely the logical goal of any hegemonic strategy. Of course, new Labour does have some enemies even at the level of its explicit discourse. What makes the appeal of many of the Soundings and `Marxism Today writers to Blair and Giddens, addressed more-or-less as comrades who have gone sadly and mysteriously astray, so very poignant, is their apparent failure to realise that new Labour’s enemy is in fact precisely that political and social formation which traditionally aspires to the implementation of the type of redistributive democratic programme which they themselves advocate: Old Labour. Such commentators addresses the statements of New Labour as if they were simple constatives, descriptive contributions to the general conversation of the left. They are not - they are performatives whose aim is the rhetorical and actual marginalisation of any kind of recognisable left discourse.

So why is this taking place? Why are the agents of the new Labour project trying to convince the world that there is no left and right any more, that globalisation is inevitable, that political problems have to be dealt with one at a time, to be met by policies informed not by big ideas but by sound common sense efficiently applied? The answer, again, is simple and old fashioned. This very specific and very effective ideology is being mobilised precisely because the people mobilising it are the people who stand to gain the most from its being generally believed. New Labour, it seems clear enough, is a project led by a very specific class fraction of administrators and managers, drawn from the elite universities, the top ranks of the best-paid professions, and those particular sub-sections of finance, industry and the media wherein a technocratic approach to decision-making and problem solving and a shallow but efficient approach to gathering and disseminating information prevail. In a world where money is power, pure and simple, the world Thatcher wanted to maintain, such people are likely to find their authority dwarfed and distorted by the naked might of capital. In a democratic world this class of managers, advertisers and pseudo-experts would obviously be far less powerful than they are now. But in a world without politics the focus group replaces democratic consultation and the PR facilitator rules. In the world without politics, there is a right answer to every social problem, and all it should take to sort it out is some young thing at Demos with a 2.1 in PPE and a nice line in graphs. In a world without politics, political activists — those hate-figures of the new labour ideologues — are part of the problem and never part of the solution.

But what might we, the democratic left, do about this situation? I would suggest that the long —term task must be two-fold. On the one hand it would be to break up the existing social coalition which underpins new Labour, bringing much of it with us, and building a new coalition around a project which could genuinely deserve the name ‘modernising left’. This would have to involve somehow convincing much or at least some of ‘Middle England’ that it’s interests can be best served by entering into a coalition with some of the most disadvantaged in society: no easy task. This was the function which the discourse of class struggle and solidarity was once supposed to fulfil, calling as it did for the solidarity of all those who lived by selling their own labour, but clearly does not now. On the other hand it would mean convincing a largely sceptical public of the value of democracy itself. One thing which we on the left often forget — and this is as true in Britain at the end of the twentieth century as it has ever been anywhere — is that very often people prefer being ‘governed well’ to governing themselves. This - more than anything — is still the great obstacle facing any kind of left project, modernising or otherwise: the need to persuade the public that their own material interests can , in the long term, only be served by they themselves taking control of their own lives and the institutions which govern them. Very few to the left of new Labour seem able to grasp this basic problem. The grouping which has formed itself around Tribune newspaper, for instance, is already making the classic mistake of the British left, concentrating all of its efforts on winning over the Labour party, and directing all of their anger at its leadership, while leaving the real fields of political combat — the vast and complex arenas of civil society -wide open to their enemies. The left won that battle in 1983, convincing the Labour Party to adopt a radical manifesto, and wholly failing to convince the public to vote for it. The result was another 14 years Thatcherism.. This struggle cannot be about winning over the party: it is about winning over the country. Unless a modernising left can find a language with which to do that (and the work of writers such as Chantal Mouffe still provides us with by far the most valuable resources with which we might do it), then it has no future.

Jeremy Gilbert helped found Signs of the Times in late 1991. He teaches Media Studies at the University of East London and is co-author of Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound ( Routledge, 1999) and a contributor to The Moderniser’s Dilemma: Radical Politics in the Age of Blair Anne Coddington & Mark Perryman (eds.), Lcnce & Wishart, 1998.

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