THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE?


New Labour politicians love the phrase “Politics is the art of the possible.” The full quote is “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best” said by Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor (1862–1890) to Wilhelm I of the Kingdom of Prussia, an advocate of Realpolitik.

I am always irritated and puzzled by this use of the phrase by the Labour right because it implies that they think people like me on the left, are trying to achieve the impossible… and are thus irrational.

Corbyn’s modestly left, social-democratic, reforms were regarded by the PLP and the party bureaucracy as completely beyond the pale and not even anywhere near the so-called ‘Overton Window’!

So I would ask what is it the new, New Labourites actually want to achieve… other than being in power for its own sake? Because they do seem to be driven ONLY by the desire to win elections, with no vision of what they would actually do with such political power if they did win it?

The idea seems to be that all we need to do to improve the lives of British people is to replace the Tories as the government in parliament and that this in and of itself is the only political objective. That having a Labour government is ALWAYS better than having a Tory government, regardless of what the parties actually do when in power.

To me this idea is irrational. To me it is self-evident that a political party is not good or bad because of the name on it’s banners and rosettes but because of what it DOES when in power. However, my idea of what is politically valuable and rational is just as much driven by what I think is politically possible.

Thatcher herself proclaimed, there is in fact no alternative to the global neoliberal economic and political systems introduced over the last 40 years. And perhaps this is the idea at the heart of the current split in the Labour Movement?

IF you are a member of the LP but you believe that Thatcher was correct and that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, then New Labour does actually make sense.

And there are good reasons for believing that there is no alternative to neoliberalism. For example you could rationally believe that:

(a) Neoliberalism is supported by the rich and powerful – especially the owners and operators of our media, thus to openly oppose neoliberalism is to launch an unwindable culture war that will result in inevitable defeat.

(b) Neoliberal ideas are today accepted as ‘common sense’ by the majority of the electorate, thus to argue against them is to appear idealistically irrational to the electorate.

(c) The overwhelming power of International Capital now makes effective economic intervention by national governments impossible, thus a national government can do nothing effective to challenge neoliberalism and thus shouldn’t try to do so.

IF you do actually believe that ‘there is no alternative’ to the current neoliberal world-order, and that even a modest, mixed-economy, social democracy, is now a political and economic impossibility, then a party with the conservative (with a small c) economic and political ambitions of New Labour does sort of make sense.

If you are interested in a career in politics or the trade unions, either behind the scenes or as a potential leader and/or as a candidate for election, and IF you believe that ONLY a conservative party (with a small c) can ever win a UK General Election, then yes, New Labour makes sense.

Because IF you believe there is no alternative to the neoliberal world order, then even if you genuinely wished to represent the social, political and economic interests of the labouring classes in the parliamentary system, the very best you could EVER hope to achieve is to ‘pragmatically’ work with the rich and powerful to protect their interests, in return for some crumbs from their table that you can redistribute to the labouring classes by tinkering with the rules of the benefit/tax system.

IF you believe there is no alternative to the neoliberal world order, then the privatisation of the NHS and the BBC are in fact inevitable, and it would indeed make some sort of nihilistic sense to embark on that process even though you theoretically oppose such privatisation.

Capitalist Tories (as opposed to Nationalist Tories) believe in the global neoliberal order. They also believe that there is no alternative… it’s just they think that lack of an alternative is a good thing.

Some members of the new, New Labour party may not like the global neoliberal order, indeed some I know oppose it vehemently, BUT if they believe ‘there is no alternative’ to it, then the much-touted ‘pragmatism’ of New Labour makes absolute sense. What is the point of being ideologically attached to the idea of a better world if such a world is simply impossible to achieve?

Two people could agree 100% on what future would be desirable in an ideal world, but could vehemently disagree on whether such a future is achievable and/or how to achieve it. (Historically, that might describe the divisions in the post-war, ‘broad chrch’ LP.)

Some in New Labour (Mandelson, Blair etc) were/are actually neoliberal ideologues and have more in common with liberal Tories like Cameron and Osborne than with most of the LP membership, but many (most?) members are mixed-economy, social democrats and democratic socialists.

Thus the point of disagreement between myself and a supporter of Starmer’s new, New Labour, may not be about what type of social, political and economic future would be desireable but about whether such a future is possible.

A new, New Labourite may genuinely believe that the best ANY political party can ever achieve these days in terms of representing the interests of the labouring classes, is to tinker with the regulatory/benefit/tax system and that it is important to do that even while acknowledging that it is not ideal.

IF a person believes there is no alternative to neoliberalism then maybe it is rational to believe that “the next best” thing to do is to manage neoliberalism with as much sympathy to the labouring classes as is possible.

I however, still believe there are achievable alternatives to neoliberalism. Indeed, the 2017 election result demonstrated to me that a Labour Party fully committed to Corbyn and the 2017 manifesto could have overcome the media biases and won an outright (if narrow) victory and formed the government.

I see a mixed-economy, social democratic, government as not only desirable but crucially necessary and also as absolutely achievable. But for the social democratic alternative to become possible it has to be at the very least expressed in the public domain and people of good faith have to be seen to fight for it.

It seems to me that to accept Thatcher’s TINA narrative is to prematurely surrender and by managing neoliberalism according to the values of neoliberalism is to participate in the strengthening of the neoliberal order.

The new, New Labourites may regard my as ‘idealism’ as self-defeating but I regard their pessimistic, nihilism, as a form of entirely unnecessary surrender.

In fact I would go so far as to say that the depth of the crisis in neoliberalism means that there is in fact no alternative other than a social democratic, mixed-economy and that this is now inevitable.

The Tories are in effect introducing and overseeing mixed-economy, Keynsian policies, while trying to maintain their neoliberal, market economy, ideology. This makes their management of the economy disastrously incoherent and ineffective.

Today, the ONLY chance for the Labour Party to win an election is if it puts forward a coherent Keynsian, social democratic, alternative to Tory neoliberalism and firmly places the blame for the current crisis on neoliberalism. The small c conservatism of New Labour was clearly effective in the 90’s and naughties but today it is entirely misplaced.

About Chris Jury

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders.
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