From cloth caps to champagne flutes: forsaking socialism for mammon

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 29 January 2012


An interview by commentator Michael White with former “New Labour” Minister Peter Mandelson in the UK’s Guardian newspaper on 27 January 2012 contained the the following passage:

‘Back in 1998 when he was (for just five months) in charge of the old Department of Trade and Industry, Mandelson was challenged on a trip to California by Lew Platt, boss of Hewlett Packard. “Why on earth should we come and invest in Britain when you have a New Labour government introducing socialism, that’s no good to me,” he said.

 ‘It prompted Mandelson to assure Platt that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” – still near the top of any Google search for Mandelson – though the full quote that goes on to say “as long as they pay their taxes” is rarely raised by Mandelson-baiters, prescient though it is.

The phrase picked out in bold type by Antigone1984 is of mega importance in the recent history of British politics.

Mandelson, who is now, according to the Guardian, “a globe-trotting business consultant”, was a key mover and shaker in the so-called New Labour Project promoted by anti-socialist New Labour leader Anthony Blair (Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007). The aim of the project was ruthlessly to prune the historically socialist Labour Party of all socialist principle and policy – to transform it into an identikit version of the rival rightwing Conservative (Tory) Party – whilst retaining the name “Labour” in order to deceive gullible voters into imagining that the party retained something of its socialist origins.

The phrase used by Mandelson in response to Lew Platt’s complaint has been much quoted as bringing out into the open the conversion of an erstwhile mildly socialist party into a fanatical exponent of capitalism red in tooth and claw.  One cannot blame Lew Platt, an American, for failing to have clocked Labour’s relentless switch to the right.

The abandonment of socialism by New Labour is often thought to be a relatively recent phenomenon initiated to all intents and purposes by “New Labour” under Blair.

Previously, the party had been known simply as the Labour Party. The “New” suffix was intended to signify the severing of ties with the party’s cloth cap origins. These champagne socialists were new men and women in slick city suits completely at ease with the “loadsamoney” ideology of the zeitgeist.

However, the newness of New Labour can be exaggerated. One can trace a direct ideological line to Blair from previous Labour leaders such as Hugh Gaitskell (Leader 1955-1963), James Callaghan (Prime Minister 1976-1979) and Neil Kinnock (Leader 1983-1992).

Nonetheless, it has to be said that a sea change occurred with the ascent of Blair to the Labour leadership in 1994: Blair went on record as an admirer of Margaret Thatcher (Tory Prime Minister 1979-1990), whose policies were the very antithesis of socialism.

Perhaps the defining moment for the party was its decision, under Blair’s leadership in 1995, to get rid of the commitment to nationalisation contained in Clause IV of the party constitution. This text, drafted by the socialist theoretician Sidney Webb, was adopted in 1918. Settting out the aims and values of the party, it reads as follows:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

Blair had this version supplanted in 1995 by the following more anodyne text which makes no reference to the need for nationalisation:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

Although this new text refers to Labour as a socialist party, its adoption marked the death knell of socialism as a mainstream political force in the UK – as became increasingly obvious during Blair’s decade in power when each of the two main parties, Labour and the Tories, competed only over the extent to which they could outdo each other in cosying up to the City of London and the corporate business elite.

Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Labour Party in 1900 and its leader from 1906 to 1908, has been turning in his grave ever since.


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