New Labour has been criticised since its birth because it was a new political project that sought to change the political landscape. Posing a direct challenge to the orthodoxies of right and left, it is hardly surprising that those who are tied to the status quo do not simply stand aside.
The right’s case, wishful thinking, has always been that New Labour was a pale version of the Tories. The only way for the right to explain away their humiliating defeat was to try to claim that, really, the electorate were voting for more of the same but from a different set of politicians. On this basis, they assumed we would soon be rumbled and that the Tories would quickly be swept back to power.
The old left has always hoped, wrongly again, that New Labour couldn’t last and couldn’t be successful; that the whole project was built on hollow ideas of a vacuous Third Way; and that, sooner or later, Labour would revert to being Labour of a 1970s and ‘80s vintage. Both sets of critics have been proved wrong.
Today, because of New Labour, our party has won a second and unique landslide. Never before in our history have we been able to look forward to two full terms in office, and possibly a third. As Thatcher’s record showed, it takes this time in power to effect the changes you want to bring about. The Tories now lie in tatters, unable to come to terms with their defeat, incapable of working out whether they are neo-Thatcherites, post-Thatcherites or, actually, just Thatcherites. New Labour has changed British politics. From a time when it was thought impossible for a government to be caring and efficient, we have shown ourselves to be both.
For we haven’t just won elections, we have won ideas. The minimum wage is here to stay. Tackling poverty is now mainstream politics. Devolution will not be reversed. Every party wants to join us on the political terrain of better public services. Investment beat tax cuts at the last election. Only the other month the Tories said that our policy of being tough on the causes of crime, not just crime itself, was the right policy.
But we know we have to do more. And in the last six months New Labour entered its third and critical phase. The first phase between 1994 and 1997 was becoming a modern left-of-centre party. The second phase 1997-2001 was becoming a modern, competent party of government with economic credibility. Now we enter the third phase. A more confident progressive phase in which we make the lasting changes this country needs.
That third phase is about shifting the balance of power in this country – so that power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many and not the few.
I speak as I find and on the doorsteps of Hartlepool at last year’s election, my constituents were more confident and they felt better off. In contrast to 1997 when I found depressed, sullen Labour voters who had given up hope that any party or politicians would make things better for them, this time they said – sometimes almost in disbelief – that the government had done well by them and their families. Not only did they have more money in their pockets, but their lives were going somewhere, their children had a better chance at school and jobs were available.
When I hear some in the party’s own ranks beefing on about how the government is not inclusive enough or is too interested in short-term media headlines or revolves around Tony Blair’s personality, I ask, if this is the case, how is it that the government has achieved so much and done so well by the people we speak up for and represent? Why is the economy so strong, with more in work and the New Deal in place to get many more into employment? Why have educational standards risen, and why, if you go into almost any primary school now, do you hear of higher teaching morale and greater success amongst all pupils and not just those who have the advantage of being well off at home? Why is there a strategy in place for getting the NHS back on track, local government enjoying the greater freedom it needs?
There is a long way to go to create the society we want in which everyone has the chance to realize their potential, where the daughter of a Hartlepool shop assistant has the same opportunity to become a high court judge as the daughter of a Harley Street doctor. This goal of social mobility, of creating the conditions in which genuine meritocracy can be built, should animate New Labour and give us an ideological marching tune for our politics. But in the meantime let’s not be put off our stride by those who have never believed in New Labour and want to see us fail.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.