How to kick back when you're left on the shelf

October 23, 1998

More academics should test whether New Labour can countenance argued opposition, says Angela McRobbie

This week saw two seemingly conflicting events. First, the government permitted the arrest of former Chilean dictator General Pinochet in London, where he had a drink with Mrs Thatcher before undergoing surgery.

Second, a one-off issue of Marxism Today hit the streets debunking New Labour and attacking its obsession with not upsetting Middle England, its absence of "heart" and spin doctoring. The coincidence of the two forced to the surface the question of what it means to be left-wing today.

The spectre of Mrs Thatcher haunts New Labour and MT alike. This is partly because it was the analyses of Thatcherism on the pages of Marxism Today in the 1980s by academics and writers such as Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm, Robin Murray, Martin Jacques, Bea Campbell and Suzanne Moore, that helped New Labour develop its own election programme. The present government was more able to draw from the apparently iconoclastic ideas in MT than from anywhere on the old left.

MT broke the mould. It called for a major shake-up on the left. It was no longer enough to hold on to old faiths and hope for a new dawn when the electorate would wake up and vote in a left Labour government. The left had to work out what it was that made Mrs Thatcher so popular and learn some lessons from her success.

Whether or not New Labour would have forged its agenda without the trickle of seemingly dangerous ideas from MT is impossible to say. Except that such figures as Geoff Mulgan, former head of the think-tank Demos and now special adviser to Tony Blair, have straddled both camps. Underlying a heated exchange between Mulgan, Hobsbawm and Hall on the opening pages of the special MT issue is the question of "critique" and the role of intellectuals.

Many contributors to the old MT were academics. Since the election the doors of Nos 10 and 11 have opened for Third Wayers from the London School of Economics (Julian LeGrand, Anthony Giddens, John Gray et al) as well as social policy experts from the mainstream left, such as Ruth Lister of Loughborough University. But there has been an absence of exchange with the very figures who helped turn the tide to a more popular left rhetoric.

Their interventions now are little more than whingeing, according to Mulgan. His MT article scorns that sector of the left, as he sees it, comfortably ensconced in the universities.

These academics appear to have retreated into the world of refereed journals and a culture of individualism. They no longer play an active political role in the wider community. They are strong on criticism but less able to say how to put things into practice. When it comes to thinking about how to turn around council estates or discourage girls from getting pregnant, they mutter and turn their minds to better things, says Mulgan.

What has made Mulgan so disenchanted with universities? Why are left academics so politically recalcitrant? One answer is obvious. The idea of grassroots activism after a long day of teaching, administration, research, preparation for assessments and family commitments is risible. These days we academics hold on to our jobs by focusing on our productivity and performance indicators. Mulgan must know this.

Some sectors of the old left fit his stereotype, but it is not so much that they are elitist as just disappointed and consequently inflexible.

MT was open to change and to the diverse political views coming up from a younger generation. It did not have that preciousness and self-righteousness that was a hallmark of many left organisations. Instead it opened the way for alliances and for what has been described as the extending of radical social democracy.

So what now is the way forward? Academics and journals like MT need to develop a more detailed analysis of precisely the projects and grassroots schemes New Labour has initiated, including those run by private and semi-private organisations. We need to monitor all the "social entrepreneurship", "community mothers" and mentoring schemes Labour has set running.

If Stuart Hall is right and the defining feature of New Labour is that it cannot countenance argued opposition, needs to be surrounded by the feelgood factor, and is reliant on good PR, then inevitably theory and analysis will provoke the charge of elitism. But the accusation of elitism will run its course. Academics should not be deterred. More should engage, research and analyse New Labour's initiatives. The challenge for the left in universities will be to see whether social theory can create better social policies.

Angela McRobbie is professor of communication at Goldsmiths College.

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