New Labour or Old?
has been the dominant party locally since the mid-1980s. It won control
of the then Brighton Borough Council in 1986, the first time ever. Even
more astoundingly it won control of Hove Borough Council in 1995, the
first time ever. And then it won control of the new unitary authority
of Brighton & Hove, when the two towns merged, in 1996. And has held
power since. It crowned its achievement in 1997 by winning all three
parliamentary seats and holding on to them in the two successive general
elections. The true blue Tory towns had gone red - New Labour red. But
since 1997 its grip on local power has been slipping.
Between 1987 and 1997 Labour nationally had changed
profoundly, even if locally many of the same political actors remained
in post. The change can be summed up like this: in the 1980s Labour's
former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, was a leading figure on the right-wing
of the party. By 1997 he was an outsider on the left of the party!
Of course, many books have been written about Blair,
Blairism, and New Labour. Put simply, they can be expalined thus:
equality is not a part of Blair's political lexicon. Tony Blair is a
meritocrat, maybe, but he is not an egalitarian. The only leverage he
offers working people in the capitalist system is the promise of a better
education to aid their employment search in the labour market. Hence
his oft-repeated mantra "Education, Education, Education".
The belief in a publicly-owned and publicly-accountable
sector of the economy has been abandoned, and with it the egalitarian
ideals of Old Labour.
Undoubtedly, a good education improves a person's opportunities
in society, but education is only one determinant of opportunity. Income
and wealth and also critically important, and unfortunately but predictably
- given New Labour's worldview and policies - the wealth gap has grown
during the Blair years, and has not diminished.
Party in Decline
As the direction of New Labour has become clearer and
more entrenched through its years in government, party membership has tumbled
as disillusionement has set in. This did not weaken the New Labour electoral
machine, because of the stream of money to the national party which Blair
secured from 'millionaire socialists'. This meant that New Labour could
professionalise its electoral machine, buying in campaigners and activists
- in much the same way that charities sub-contract fundraising these days.
This also gave a top-down, centralised control over the
Party's message to the electorate.
However, the scandal over peerages for paymemt has threatened
this source of funding, and may have weakened New Labour's professionalisation
of the Labour Party. What impact that will have on next May's local election
results is uncertain, given that all parties are short of active members
in these days of political apathy.