Attacks on New Labour may win a few votes in the leadership election - but at what cost?

Drifting into complacency

It was sad but perhaps unsurprising that a number of the leadership election contenders chose to use the occasion of the publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs to fire another round of salvos at the so-called ‘New Labour establishment’ – an establishment of which, if it even exists, all but Diane Abbott have arguably been card-carrying members for the past decade and a half.

One might have expected that, after a three-year silence, the words of Labour’s most electorally successful leader might be of a passing interest to those who now seek the job. More worryingly, however, the attacks betray a mistaken understanding of the core insights of New Labour, and suggest a failure to come to terms with the scale of the challenge confronting the party’s new leader.

Three principles rest at the heart of the progressive politics which delivered Labour three unprecedented terms in office. First, that Labour must assemble a broad coalition of its loyal ‘core voters’ and the millions of Britons who have no allegiance to any party and who may, indeed, vote on occasion for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The steady erosion of the kind of strong party loyalties and class-based politics, which characterised the country’s voting habits in the 30 years after 1945, make any other strategy an electoral cul-de-sac.

Second, elections are decided on the centre ground of British politics and that, as is the case elsewhere in Europe, centre-left parties win when they show that they stand for aspiration as well as equality, wealth creation as well as redistribution, and economic efficiency as well as social justice.

Finally, in keeping with the Croslandite tradition of which it is the heir, New Labour recognises that while values are enduring, policies are simply a means to deliver those ends. In government or opposition, Labour has to be able to disentangle outdated policies from the aims which they were originally intended to achieve if it is to remain relevant to the country’s current and future challenges.

Each of these progressive principles has, at the very least, a degree of relevance to the situation in which Labour now finds itself. This was, after all, Labour’s second worst share of the poll since 1918, eclipsed only by the debacle of 1983. The defeat stemmed from the fact that whole regions of the country have become Labour-free zones. The party won less than a fifth of the votes across southern and eastern England, gaining just 10 of over 200 seats. Skilled working- and lower middle-class voters (let alone higher-earning professionals), who sustained Margaret Thatcher in power in the 1980s and then swung heavily behind Labour in 1997, abandoned the party in droves.

As in the aftermath of Thatcher’s election in 1979, we are now told by some that Labour lost because it was not leftwing enough. It betrayed the interests of its ‘core’ voters who, properly mobilised and sufficiently energised, constitute a large enough constituency to win a general election.

But this is utterly illogical. By what rationale do large swathes of the country switch to the Conservatives – and let’s not forget that their share of the vote was akin to that which produced a Labour majority in 2005 – because they wish to signal displeasure with Labour for being insufficiently leftwing?

New Labour’s adherents should, though, make their arguments with care and without hysteria. 2010 is not 1979. No candidate in the leadership election has preached the political madness spouted by the Bennites, Militant and their fellow travellers in the early 1980s. The danger, therefore, is not so much of a lurch to the left as a drift into complacency.

We’ve heard the arguments rehearsed several times in the leadership campaign. Sit tight and allow the coalition’s cuts to bite and its unpopularity to soar. Continue to fire broadsides at the Liberal Democrats in the expectation that their disenchanted voters – especially in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands – will simply fall back into the party’s lap. Say nothing explicit on the deficit in the hope that nobody will notice Labour’s silence. Talk endlessly about the last Labour government’s failings on a handful of issues that are likely to have little relevance to most of the country by the time of the next election.

This ‘safety first’ strategy has uncanny echoes, not of the arguments mounted by the hard left in the early 1980s, but of those conservatives within the party who, in the aftermath of the 1992 general election defeat, were convinced that ‘one more heave’ was all that Labour would need to win next time.

It was also the kind of thinking which too often paralysed Gordon Brown’s premiership and prevented the development and articulation of an agenda for a fourth term Labour government. Labour’s new leader should avoid it at all costs.

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Comments: 1...

  1. On September 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm Richard Greening responded with... #

    The oft repeated mantra that after 1992 only fundamental change would do is at the heart of what went wrong with New Labour. The facts are that the Tories were bound to lose the election after black Wednesday and the tragedy is that had he lived John Smith would also have led the party to a landslide victory in 1997, but with a much sharper focus on tackling inequality and using the tax system to redistribute wealth. If we are serious about tackling long term worklessness and income inequality and addressing the very clear analysis in the Spirit Level that it is inequality, not just low wages that is the source of poor health, high crime and many other ills, we need a new approach. Of course, the party needs to appeal to aspirational middle classes. A successful Labour government needs that support, but it also needs to tackle the fundamental ills in our society which New Labour failed to do until it was too late.

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