Out with the old, in with what?

June 5, 1996

By Sue Riley

Beatrix Campbell — feminist, author, film maker and former leader of the now defunct Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) — on a national speaking tour sponsored by the Search Foundation, addressed gatherings in Canberra (May 21) and Sydney (May 24) of 90 and 120 people respectively.

Campbell outlined what she saw as the lesson for the left and labour movement based on the experience of Thatcherism. Nothing will defend the old structures of trade unionism and collectivism, she said. The only form of community and self-defence possible for the left is to bring about the kind of inventiveness shown by Thatcherism in its implementation of neo-liberalism.

Unfortunately, Campbell failed to outline what these innovative alternatives would look like.

She explained that the British Labour Party, the trade unions and the CPGB faced a challenge in the 1970s which they failed. While they claimed to speak on behalf of the working class for equality, democracy and egalitarianism, in reality they were profoundly anti-egalitarian. In particular, they excluded the private sphere of the home, the wife and family.

Both the left and the right in Britain opposed the social contract of the 1970s. The left and the labour movement put forward instead a free market viewpoint which privileged those already advantaged in the working class (skilled male workers), and reinforced wage differentials. They thereby lost an opportunity to improve women's and poor workers' wage levels, as well as to raise the importance of the social wage.

This led to working-class disillusionment and laid the basis for Thatcherism.

According to Campbell, instead of the conservatism of the labour movement, Thatcherism represented a more pluralist moral agenda which never undid the expansion of civil liberties of the previous period. In this context "community" replaced class as the dominant category in a social analysis which rested on a unity of family, community and nation.

Today, under the leadership of Tony Blair, these sentiments are being reiterated as the basis of "new Labour", Campbell said. This conservatism is also reflected in an increased authoritarianism in the Labour Party.

Campbell argues that Blair is seeking to chart a return to the core values that enabled the Thatcherites to succeed. She says this solution must be rejected by the left, whose only option is the constitution of new practices, structures and priorities.

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