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Feelbad Britain

Beyond Feelbad Britain

Searching for the Left

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in 70s and 80s




August 2009: Searching for the Left is an essay which looks at the history of the British left and the possibilities for advance in the leadup to the 2010 general election

January 2009: Beyond Feelbad Britain is an extension of the original Feelbad Britain essay to take account of the economic and financial crash of 2008

June 2010: Left Out is a set of essays written immediately after the May, 2010 election which analyses the state of the British left and tries to provide policies for a new left in an era of Conservative/LibDem coalition

Popular attitudes towards the Labour Government elected in 1997 moved slowly, but inexorably, from initial hope that it would reverse the harm inflicted on Britain by eighteen years of Conservative rule through disillusion to the final, bitter farce of Gordon Brown’s succession when the New Labour leadership came to resemble a royal court in the late Middle Ages: the dying king, surrounded by his favourites, unwilling to retire to a monastery and surrender power to a son whom he hates and who is likewise surrounded by courtiers of his own. The succession was thought to be sanctioned by divine law, but commanded little respect among the people at large, with whom neither father nor son has any contact. The new king then ruled over a troubled country devastated by an economic recession directly related to his past policies, though neither the old nor the new monarchs are willing to take responsibility for this state of affairs.

The inevitable consequence was the election in May, 2010 of new government, a coalition between two parties which shared the neo-liberal policies of the old but was able to offer a new veneer. It has cut public expenditure savagely, offering the excuse that the dismal state of public finances was the fault of the preceding government and has begun to attack some of the basic precepts of the welfare state including privatisation of the NHS. However, most of this has been based upon policies initiated by New Labour thus preventing the Labour opposition from offering any real alternative.

The dismal descent from confident opening to ultimate defeat. stems from New Labour’s ambiguous relationship to its Conservative predecessors. When they took over in 1997, Blair and Brown argued that what was needed to repair the damage caused by ‘Thatcherism’ was a new marriage between ‘social justice’ and ‘economic efficiency’, a formula that conjured up images of regulating markets and taming capitalism. But the New Labour project was not about bringing traditional social democratic values to bear on global capitalism. Rather, it was been an exercise in neo-liberal social engineering seeking to redesign social institutions, reshape cultural norms and redirect individual behaviour in pursuit of boundless economic growth and the extension of market relations into ever more spheres of human life. In this sense, it is the continuation of Thatcherism by other means.

Like Mrs Thatcher before them, New Labour’s leaders insist “there was no alternative” and, indeed, if some version of ‘old’ or ‘real’ Labour were the only other option on offer, this claim might pass muster. But we believe the time is long overdue to dispense with ‘labourism’ altogether and build a modern democratic left. There is no need to start from scratch. The groundwork was done in the 1970s when the contradictions of Keynesian social democracy came to a head and the Wilson and Callaghan governments, beset by inflationary crisis, tried to manage the economy in partnership with the unions. The collapse of the social contract gave the radical right the chance to crush militant labourism, overturn the post-war settlement and entrench neo-liberalism as the dominant paradigm of public policy. Seeking to understand and learn from these disasters, a number of activists and intellectuals who were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain or were associated with its monthly magazine Marxism Today drew on the legacy of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist who died in a fascist prison in 1937. Several pamphlets and articles written in the 1970s and 80s and informed by Gramsci’s key concepts of hegemony and civil society are reproduced here. Recently, there has been a revival of interest in the period. We have, therefore, also included some contemporary reviews dealing with various aspects of Gramscian politics.

Of course, the conditions under which a Gramscian left first emerged have now gone. However, the basic issue remains the same: the need to develop policies capable of uniting a national historic bloc around a hegemonic socialist project. The nature of this bloc and the policies that can unite it are the subject of various exploratory pieces. These include our recent booklet, Feelbad Britain, which develops an analysis of the current British situation. We include a recent set of essays, Left Out, on how a positive set of left policies could be used to oppose the new coalition government. The project is in its early stages and we are keen to receive responses from anyone who shares our view that labourism is dead and that a new political formation is required to challenge the hegemony of neo-liberalism, tackle the global environmental crisis and work towards a democratic, post-capitalist economic order. Accordingly, we welcome relevant comments and additional material.