New Labour’s transformation of party management was part of a much wider social transformation across the West, argues HUGO RADICE.
The Blair Supremacy is subtitled ‘A study in the politics of Labour’s party management’, and it is in his relentless focus on the management of the party that Lewis Minkin’s contribution to the evaluation of the Blair phenomenon is so original.
At the outset, he writes that by management “I do not mean the administration of the party’s organisational apparatus … I mean … the attempt to control problem-causing activities, issues and developments in order to ensure that outcomes were produced which the managers considered to be in the party’s best interests.”
This focus on party management is in sharp contrast to the Party’s recent report commissioned by the National Executive Committee, Learning the Lessons From Defeat, which concentrates on failures of policy-making and leadership in 2010-15. In this respect, the report does little more than echo the criticisms made throughout that period by those MPs, party officials and centre-left journalists who were unable to come to terms with the unravelling of the New Labour project after the Iraq War.
Understandng the role of party management in the project helps us to understand the profound disillusionment of party members before, during and after the May 2015 defeat, and thus to understand the remarkable success of Jeremy Corbyn in winning the leadership contest.
I leave the detailed assessment of Lewis Minkin’s analysis of events to those who have the necessary knowledge and experience. Instead I want to suggest that the transformation of party management in the Blair years was part and parcel of a much wider social transformation, across what we used to call ‘the West’, in the nature of party politics and of management methods.
As regards party politics, Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void summarises extensive academic research in many countries into the decline of party membership and electoral participation since the 1980s. This is partly a matter of citizens becoming more focused on their own individual private interests and well-being, and less on class or other collective interests; in the words of Dardot and Laval, the rise of ‘Entrepreneurial Man’.
But equally, political parties have – as both cause and consequence of citizen withdrawal – shifted their focus from the representation of collective interests to the governance of society through controlling the state. Taking these two trends together, we can see why the views and values of party members became far less important to the party leadership than the careful tracking of public opinion and an unremitting focus on electoral credibility.
Turning to management, here too there has been a profound shift in how we understand its purpose and principles. From the 1890s to the 1960s, the professionalisation of management functions in large firms led many observers, on the left as well as the right, to argue that capitalism as a whole was now ‘managerial’, and that profit-seeking was being constrained by the need for continuity and collective purpose in the administration of the production of goods and services.
Overcoming this constraint and restoring profit as the supreme purpose of production was a crucial element in the neoliberal transformation of capitalism that gathered pace thereafter. The economic common-sense of our society now centred once more on the idea that markets are efficient, and it is the state’s role to ensure that no collective interests (especially those of labour) are permitted to undermine their efficient functioning.
In the 1990s, the project of the ‘new public management’ extended this economic philosophy across the public sector, and into other forms of collective organisation such as mutual societies and charities. In these spheres, it is ostensibly not prices and profits that guide activity, but the objectives set by the organisation’s leadership, translated into measurable performance targets.
All staff are assumed to be motivated solely by personal goals of income, status and power, rather than by agreed values, purposes and norms of behaviour. They cannot be trusted to put the organisation’s stated purposes first, and must therefore be controlled directly by a tightly-woven web of incentives and sanctions. The individual worker, regardless of their educational or professional standing, must focus on discovering and nurturing their competitive advantage in the labour market; this entrepreneurial self-management must not, of course, subvert their performance of the tasks set by ‘management’.
If we set the shifts in party management charted by Lewis Minkin in this broader context of the rise of neolberalism, we can avoid the easy diagnosis of present conflicts in the Labour Party as being between ‘left’ and ‘right’. These terms are usually understood by reference to a simplistic reading of the party’s conflicts of the late 1970s and early 1980s: hence the assumption that Momentum is a re-run of ‘Bennism’ and/or the Miltant Tendency, or that Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are merely diehard Blairites.
What matters is not simply the choice of values and policies between ‘left’ and ‘right’, but also the relation between the party’s leaders, its management (by lay activists and employed staff alike) and the party membership at large. And this is what is revealed, if we read The Blair Supremacy from the standpoint of the many thousands of members, old and new, who want Labour’s policies to be based on clear and enduring principles and purposes.
Hugo Radice is secretary of Dales Branch Labour Party and Life Fellow of the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. He writes here in a personal capacity. Comments to email@example.com.
The Blair Supremacy: A study in the politics of Labour’s party management, by Lewis Minkin, is published by Manchester University Press. Priced £26.99 paperback. Click here for more information or to buy the book.
 Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy, Verso 2013.
 Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, Verso 2013.
 See Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World, Part Two: The New Rationality.
 To use Andy Friedman’s terms (in Industry and Labour: Class Struggle at Work and Monopoly Capitalism, Macmillan 1977), this represents the triumph of ‘direct control’ over ‘responsible autonomy’ as a strategy for managing the workforce.