Has New Labour left British activists spoilt?
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).