Has New Labour left British activists spoilt?

Tuesday, 31st August 2010 at 6:00 UTC 9 comments

This might seem like a very bizarre question. New Labour provided a huge wealth of issues on which to campaign, and saw several massive outpourings of emotion from numerous quarters, including Stop the War, Make Poverty History, and much of the previous “Jubilee 2000” initiative. There were part-privatisations and uncountable breaches of civil liberties, but was there something qualitatively different about the biggest issues under Blair and Brown?

None of this is an apology for New Labour. Millions died as a result of their policies, and millions will suffer for years to come, from cluster munitions in Iraq, ongoing wars in Afghanistan and compliance with the growing neo-liberalisation of the world economy.

But if one thing marked the years under New Labour it was a lack of movements concerned with domestic issues, which were largely the preserve of specific sectors (students protesting fees and top up fees) and the right (fox hunting and the fuel protests organised by truck drivers for example).

I’ve been thinking over this in a big way, and linking it to the current path of more-socially oriented government in America. Obama has been able to carry out a series of limited reforms on the domestic front, including vital health legislation, but at the same time, has failed to bring the War on Terror to a meaningful conclusion, with Iraq now facing a permanent US presence.

This trade-off, of doing good for the citizens of one’s own country whilst allowing the rest of the state’s machinery to do its worst in other areas of the planet, seems a common trait amongst socially-orientated capitalist governments – a reminder that the elected government holds much less than half the power in a given state alongside the military and corporations, who are prone to making life very difficult for any government that is not directly working for their interests and ever growing ambitions. As such, Brown in particular did attempt some battles, but had to concede others without a fight. Perhaps Clinton once thought he genuinely could teach the US military to act for the betterment of humanity when he proclaimed the New Humanitarianism that ultimately resulted in thousands of deaths in Kosovo.  [Edit: I said ‘millions’, which was clearly wrong, should be ‘thousands’]

This dynamic creates an interesting position for the activist, who’s resolve to see a more just world does not subside with a change in governments. But for the first time in 13 years, we are faced with the necessity of campaigning around issues of our existence – not as activists (in the sense of Labour’s civil liberties legislation) but as humans.

Where Labour still very much believe in the NHS, but made trade-offs with corporations and loop holes for greed to keep certain elements happy, the Conservatives are out-and-out the party of private interests, and so we are forced to consider issues in which failure will have a direct effect on ourselves. We leave the comfort of being Western Activists, concerned with issues ‘out there’ that we are implicitly the perpetrators of, rather than explicitly the targets of. We can’t return home to safety at the end of the day.

And so, in a sense, we have been spoilt. We have had plenty of time to demand justice for the victims of international trade injustice, debt regimes and neo-colonialist attitudes. Enter an economically hard-right government, one that will see, if not the privatisation of the NHS then the end of any kind of principled NHS that exists for the benefits of all citizens equally. Suddenly it is not a question of 30,000 children a day in countries afar, but of the suffering of individuals we know. If not our own survival, it is the survival of people we know.

This could be a very harsh lesson for those who have seen activism as an optional add-on to life, casting us right back into the 70’s and 80’s. We may find that we have to listen directly to the concerns of communities previously uninterested in our work, lending ideas and skills rather than acting directly, if we want to make a real impact.

(With particular thanks to Adam, with whom I discussed and developed this idea at length a couple of weeks ago).


Entry filed under: Activism, Community, Conservatives, Development, Labour Party, Politics, The Right.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Tuesday, 31st August 2010 at 10:10 UTC

    I fail to see any link between fuel protests and fox hunting. What makes them both “right”? Are you sure you aren’t inventing a category especially to fit them both?

    As for “an economically hard-right government”, it isn’t so just because you say it is. When the NHS, schools and universities are completely private and unsupported by the state, I may believe you. Until then, get some perspective please.

  • 2. Jon  |  Tuesday, 31st August 2010 at 22:03 UTC

    To Greg:

    In reality, few governments in the world are “hard right” enough to have completely private healthcare, schools, and university systems. Even the U.S., generally considered far right on economic issues (unless you’re Glenn Beck or Milton Friedman), has Medicare and Medicaid (recently expanded), mostly public schools (although there are some charter schools, as well as private prep schools for the elite), and more public than private universities (although most of the best universities are nevertheless private). In addition, the U.S. has Social Security, the Veteran’s Administration, Americorps, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as many public hospitals that don’t fall primarily under any of the above institutions.

    I think what Graham is saying is that although New Labour cut millions of pounds from services while increasing the tax burden to fill the pockets of private contractors, they at least pretended to favour social democracy. The Tories don’t pretend this so much, and so the issue becomes more whether they’re cutting fat (added under New Labour), or meat (the whole thing at once, irrespective of frauds, etc.). My sense is that most people on the British left today figure it’s the latter, since it’s hard to believe (at least for them) that the Tories would be principled enough to cut only the fat.

    In practice, few conservative governments anywhere ever do. The Bush administration spent the U.S. further into deficit than any in history, mostly through runaway military spending and tax cuts funded through credit, while cutting funding for the New Orleans levee system (which was one of the main factors that made Hurricane Katrina so destructive, along with the complete failure to evacuate the poor and the infirm). Bush also cut veterans’ benefits (as he went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq) and has often been accused of underfunding education as well, although it could just as easily be said that his preference for charter schools produced the opposite, in other words runaway waste. I don’t know who’s really right on the education issue.

    What is true is that there is gross inequality in the U.S. between the education of the rich and the poor, in spite of the education system being primarily public. The health care system, while more mixed, is also grossly unequal, so it’s possible to have gross inequality without complete privatisation.

  • 3. Tom  |  Thursday, 2nd September 2010 at 5:17 UTC

    What on earth do you mean when you say: “the New Humanitarianism that ultimately resulted in millions of deaths in Kosovo” . What are you talking about? Even if this wild statement was true, it is un-cited and not given anything the attention that is due.

    I am often put off being a so called activist on issues I feel strongly about because of the fanatical nature of other activists. This I often find is found manifest in throw away statements such as your statement above. Those of us who wish to campaign on issues but stick to the facts are hindered and undermined by those who throw around figures without due diligence. The academically minded (to sound arrogant) can see the ludicrous nature of these so called ‘facts’ and the facts used, I believe, undermined both the credibility of the activist and the argument of the activist.

    So would you care to devote a whole blog to how millions died in Kosovo???? With citations??? Perhaps you are right, my point is more that you should not be so flippant in the points you make. I would be happy to debate with you that period in the 90s onwards and the benefit of the use of military for example in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone.. but I would like to do so transparently (this does not mean I agree with the military tactics of this period).

    • 4. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 3rd September 2010 at 23:44 UTC

      There was clearly an error here. I got carried away and wrote “millions” when I meant “thousands” or perhaps “tens of thousands”. I’ll get round to answering the rest, but for now I’m just going to edit the article to make it clear what I meant.

      • 5. Tom  |  Saturday, 4th September 2010 at 16:54 UTC

        Admittedly I am being a little provocative as it was fairly unlikely that you did believe it was millions- and I am fishing to wind you up a bit with the “this is why I am not an activist” line/

        However, I wish to stand by the point as I think that it is important that things such as the ‘new humanitarianism’ are critiqued (particularly as it is often looked back on as a time when things were done right, before Afghanistan and Iraq messed things up) – and I think that being flippant or loose with the fact seriously undermines valid arguments.

        Keep up the blogging – doing a great job.

  • 6. Greg  |  Thursday, 2nd September 2010 at 12:54 UTC

    Jon, you’re correct and you spotted my hyperbole. As a global power, I don’t think we can put the US out on the fringes by calling it ‘far right’, and yet it’s to the right of us in both health and education, as you point out. David Cameron isn’t even far right by the standards of the Conservative party: we need look no further than Simon Heffer in the Telegraph for proof of that. If the ‘heir to Blair’ is far right, I’m Genghis Khan and I hate to think what Cameron’s leadership rival David Davis counts as, let alone an ex-Tory like Nigel Farage.

    Indeed, the current coalition government looks to me more like (in Tony Blair’s words) “the Conservative party version of a centrist government”, and Graham needs to stop devaluing terms like ‘far right’ by using them on anyone with whom he disagrees.

  • 7. John Cooper  |  Sunday, 5th September 2010 at 9:25 UTC


    It’s good that you’re back in the blogging saddle and veering away from parrotting a party line. I am struggling with this post.

    For me issues such as Deveoping Country debt are not a luxurious add on. We live in the fifth richest country in the world, with a history that is built upon exploiting around a quarter of the globe. With this comes some form of responsibility to be at the forefront of not repeating the mistakes of the past while building for the future.

    Consider food – for example. Reports recently indicated that we import 60% of our food meaning we are reliant upon the whole world and if our period of economic growth has taught us anything it is that growth cannot be built upon the backs of the poorest in the world – both at home and abroad – therefore we need to live this out in the harsh times, not just the economically positive.

    If someone doesn’t have enough to eat – does it matter where in the world they are – don’t we have a responsibility as a member of the human race to help in the most effective way possible?

    • 8. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 5th September 2010 at 10:05 UTC

      This point is definitely valid. I suppose in a sense I was saying that often it felt like only the International stuff mattered, that anything at home paled into insignificance beside the suffering of others. But I was also reminded of the statement “everyone knows more about poverty in other countries than about poverty in their own, except the Americans, who lack an understanding of global poverty”. The way this government is continuing, homelessness is about the rise dramatically, and we too could be seeing homeless figures rise by tens of thousands before our very eyes.

  • 9. transactivist  |  Thursday, 9th September 2010 at 9:35 UTC

    Interesting post 🙂

    I think the “survival” issue depends upon which western activists we’re talking about. Speaking as a middle-class trans activist who’s done pretty well off the NHS, most of the queer and feminist activism I’ve been doing doesn’t relate directly to my own survival, but it can for other trans activists, who regularly face extreme harassment and violence. Our legislative gains have been massive under the Labour government, but on the ground people are still suffering and sometimes dying…

    Environmental and anti-poverty activism (for example) have always been important to me, and they always will be because they affect millions of lives and the planet itself, but I suppose trans activism has an immediacy for me because people I know are regularly being threatened, beaten up or refused vital services…I figure this was also the case for others (e.g. many mental health activists) under the Labour government. Things may well get worse, but the situation already feels like an urgent one.


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