Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The new Spanish Inquisition

The meaninglessness of terms like ‘neoliberal’ reveals Labour’s deep intellectual fragility

Politics is a trade littered with meaningless terms. Ask a roomful of political types to define any of the big political words such as ‘socialist’, ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the state’, ‘neocon’ or ‘internationalist’, and you may as well ask a kindergarten class to do your tax return. Each of us may have our definitions, but these are seen through the prisms of our own values, beliefs and prejudices. To attempt to agree definitions would lead to anarchy, if only we could agree what that meant.

The absence of clearly defined terms permits sloppiness, laziness and downright sophistry. Without precise terms of trade, politicians can appear idealistic while venal, and principled while self-aggrandising, by invoking some half-understood phrase such as ‘freedom of the individual’.

As George Orwell, our perennial guide in such matters, pointed out, bad writing is the product of bad thinking. The opposite is also true: ugly writing leads to ugly thoughts.

In August 2015 Jennie Formby, political officer of the union Unite and Labour National Executive Committee member, stated that, ‘I totally disagree that neoliberal multimillionaire war-mongerer Blair has anything useful to say.’ It is a fairly typical use of language on the hard left, and serves to demonstrate the wider point.

We can park, for now, the wisdom of the advice that we should ignore a three-times election-winner after two election defeats. And we can ignore the use of ‘multimillionaire’ as an insult, because, in the world of leftwing trade unionism, all rich people are the enemy, apart from Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach, Russell Brand, Billy Bragg, and pretty much every trade union general secretary.

We should, perhaps, give Formby the benefit of the doubt and assume her use of ‘war-mongerer’ is an unfortunate typo. As a 10-year-old can tell you, the word does not exist. She means ‘war-monger’, based on the word ‘monger’, meaning one selling or promoting something. So let’s assume she made a simple mistake after a long day battling the boss class.

Let us focus instead on that use of the word ‘neoliberal’. What does it mean? To describe a former Labour prime minister as one should suggest that the speaker has a definition in mind. It may be that Formby was using it in the sense it is used by economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, to mean one who believes markets should pervade aspects of civic life. This is an odd thing to ascribe to a Labour prime minister who ensured state intervention into the free market in wages to deliver a statutory minimum wage for workers, and led the renaissance of a state-owned, tax-funded health service.

It might be that Formby takes ‘neoliberal’ to mean anyone who accepts a role for any market of any kind. Within the Labour movement, there have always been those opposed to markets, preferring the state to direct goods and services. They have tended to be on the extremes, such as the People’s Assembly, who want civil servants to run your mobile phone provider. Harold Wilson sarcastically referred to them as people who wanted to make ‘Marks and Spencer as efficient as the Co-op’, and Aneurin Bevan complained of those ‘who appear to threaten the whole of private property but who in practice would threaten nothing; they are purists and therefore barren.’

The challenge to those using ‘neoliberal’ as a putdown to those accepting economic realities is simple: what system do you propose instead? There has been no form of non-market economy throughout history which is preferable to a stroll to the shops in every British town or city, where goods are efficiently distributed, prices set to people’s pockets, and innovations driven by the desire to make profits. What nightmarish dystopia might the alternative be? Government-owned restaurants and supermarkets? Government-run cinemas and pubs? The local council cutting your hair? You see how lazy use of language covers up intellectual laziness.

‘Neoliberal’ has become a catch-all for anyone with whom you disagree, and this how I strongly suspect Formby was using it. In this, she is not alone. It has become the stock-in-trade of the British left, and will be heard with ever more frequency as the battle for Labour’s soul intensifies. It joins similarly vacuous terms such as ‘neocon’, ‘Blairite’ or ‘Tory’ as an easy insult aimed at Labour’s mainstream moderates.

The issue is not that people at the top of the Labour party believe this is legitimate language to be fired off at people within their ranks, nor that it creates an orthodoxy to rival Spanish Inquisition. Nor is the fact that terms such as ‘neoliberal’ give, in Orwell’s famous phrase, ‘an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. No, the issue is that it serves as a substitute for the intellectual reconstruction that Labour must undergo in order to win an election. In short, by masking the failure to provide a workable and popular alternative, it helps the Tories win.


Photo: John Keogh

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The Progressive


  • Sorry, but this is as lazy as the loose use of the term ‘neo-liberal’. Until the Blair leadership, Labour was always unambiguously in favour of a mixed economy: markets can bring great benefits, but they have their limitations; and the state has the duty to provide some services. A strict neo-liberal believes that all goods and services, perhaps apart from defence and law, should be provided by private enterprise, and the Progressive knows full well, I suspect, that there is a established literature exploring this position. Most of those on the left who use the term also know what it means. And if you want to see a neo-liberal in action, try the current Chancellor of the Exchequer.

    The problem for the mainstream membership of the Party and the hundreds of thousands who defeated its establishment in the recent leadership election, is that in recent years the preferred boundary between private and public sectors has appeared to move. Labour became pro-market in sectors where there is no natural market, such as energy and public transport, health and education. We could have a debate about whether the degree of movement was sufficient to qualify its proponents as neo-liberal – but no, too much movement for mainstream Labour and, I believe, the majority of the electorate if the issues are fairly put.

    And please do not misinterpret this as a call for council hairdressers. It’s a question of balance, public and private.

  • “We should, perhaps, give Formby the benefit of the doubt and assume her use of ‘war-mongerer’ is an unfortunate typo. As a 10-year-old can tell you, the word does not exist. She means ‘war-monger’, based on the word ‘monger’, meaning one selling or promoting something. So let’s assume she made a simple mistake after a long day battling the boss class.”

    The hypothetical child, referred to in the above paragraph, would be correct but unfortunately the author of this article makes a similar error, The actual word is ‘warmonger’, without the redundant hyphen. Pedantry can backfire!

    Wikipedia, in this particular instance, is useful in illustrating how the definition of neoliberalism has changed between the late 1930s and early 1970s, The author, by referencing Joseph Stiglitz and the linked Progress article is using the latter definition, where the term has become perjorative and neoliberalism is castigated as a failed economic experiment.

    Was Tony Blair actually an ordoliberal? Margaret Thatcher saw him and New Labour as perhaps her greatest achievement, so perhaps a case could be made. As to whether Tony Blair has anything useful to say, the multimillionaire ii his own words: ‘I’ve done British. I suppose where I think I can make most difference is a global level, working on things that had interested me as Prime Minister but was not able to devote myself to in the same way.’

    Tony Blair – reviled ex-leader, causing havoc, wherever the opportunity arises?

  • Actually I think one important recent component of neoliberalism is the ‘new public management’ implemented in the NHS and Education where the emphasis is on consumer choice in quasi markets.

  • I think it can be defined as comprising people who are followers in one way or another of either of the mass murderers Stalin or Trotsky. I always cut through their rhetoric to get them to say whether they think the Bolshevik coup de etat was a good thing or not. They will hum and ha but always say that it was necessary.

  • This is another Aunt Sally. I know of no-one on the Left who subscribes now to the notion that the State should run the corner shop – not even Militant in its daftest moments did that. What is equally unacceptable is that somehow “the market” (yet another undefined entity frequently called in aid) cannot be bucked and is, therefore, the answer to everything. Horses for courses would be a better bet – natural monopolies need to be subject to state control, even if not run as state-owned companies, for example, otherwise they finish up abusing their market strength. PLCs need to have a broader remit than simply shareholder value, which often results in short-term thinking. Essential services, such as health, defence, education, fire and police cannot thrive under competitive market conditions and need different models to work best in the public interest. In many respects, the only markets that work quite efficiently, as in the “perfect market” construct of conventional economics, are the ones that used to line High Streets througout the country before the assault of the supermarkets.

  • Neoliberal, Red Tory, call it what you like. One thing which always shows the left in a bad light is the belief by many that anyone who has views that are even slightly to the right of their own is somehow morally flawed rather than wrong. When I mentioned that I voted for Liz Kendall in the leadership election someone told me that I should F-Off and join the Liberal Democrats because I have no right to call myself a socialist. And this was in a pub in her own constituency. All it shows to the average person is that many of the left are intolerant to alternative points of view.

    Looking around social media you don’t have to look far to find memes etc… describing the Tories as Nazis or that they somehow get off sexually or whatever from hurting people with spending cuts. This is simply preaching to the converted and very bad propaganda, people seriously need to get some perspective. It’s like comparing Alan Johnson to Pol Pot, it’s just ridiculous. The swing voter who voted Tory at the general election and is having second thoughts about them reads it and thinks “Well these guys think I’m some kind of Nazi sympathiser, I’m not voting for them”. Another reason UKIP is is doing so well despite the infighting and appalling policies.

    I was brought up to believe that the left was all about tolerance and acceptance. And far too often since May I’ve witnessed the complete opposite.

  • I don’t think anyone ever argued that Blair wanted the whole of life controlled by the markets. So much of this argument is an enormous straw man charge – an inquisition, one might say.

    Neither did Stiglitz or Krugman by the way. The idea that the market touches every area of our life is perfectly demonstrable, and it’s influenced by models of reform which New Labour undertook on the one hand, and by its light touch towards those who benefited from the finance, e.g. terrible PFI deals and lax financial regulation.

    To be a neoliberal your immediate demands do not have to be total. They have to head in a neoliberal direction.

  • But then that ‘I think’ gives the author the point in the first paragraph – that all these words are totally subjective and seen through your own prism, and thus, really, meaningless.
    This piece does get a bit lost in the ‘council-run hairdressers’ thing, but the central point- that the use of the term ‘neoliberal’ is a sure sign of a vacuous buffoon who actually means ‘person to the right of me whom I don’t like’ – is spot on.

  • Well its why each hospital until a few weeks ago bought its own paracetamol. and Manchester id clogged with buses in different colours but with same numbers going to the same places ‘competing’ and it’s why schools go bad.

  • The fact that some people use words carelessly, and without knowing what they mean, is no reason to eschew those words. Equally, the fact that people misuse the word neoliberal as some sort of insult (having unwisely picked up on its unflattering nature as being the core meaning) is no reason to abandon the word and indeed the concept.
    The misuse of this particular word is just one of a myriad instances of miss-use: focusing on it disproportionately without discussing its true meaning suggests a political agenda from the (shrinking) Labour right, as opposed to a concern with the widespread deterioration of language.

    Neo-liberalism clearly upsets post Blairites and Progress “thinkers” because it gives a name to the lie… – that their politics are in any sense “radical” or even close to any kind of socialist tradition! They (the Labour right) are modifications of the destructive neo-liberal politics of our last 30 years that we need to see the back of.

    Thank God for Corbyn and Mcdonald!

  • That article was nit-picking waste of time. An exercise in pointless semantics pretending to critique an exercise in pointless semantics. If anyone is confused by the term neoliberal, I would refer them to Stiglitz and Krugman (as mentioned in the article). At least those guys can write – and actually know what they are on about.

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