Barely two years into his leadership, Tony Blair had succeeded where Hugh Gaitskell had failed, and Neil Kinnock had feared to tread, by ditching the party’s arcane Clause IV commitment to secure for the workers ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’.
Blair’s decision in his first conference as leader to call for the party to adopt a new statement of its aims and values marked the moment when New Labour went from marketing concept to political project. His central insight – that the old Clause IV epitomised the party’s longstanding confusion of means and ends and that Labour needed to disentangle the two – was the basis upon which the intellectual and political renewal of the party was conducted.
The politics which Progress has spent the last 15 years advocating and defending is rather less fashionable now in some quarters. Some blame New Labour for the mistakes which led to the party’s third worst election defeat in its history. Others believe that the term has become so intrinsically linked to the loathed practices of spin and ‘command and control’ as to be counterproductive. Ed Miliband is blunter still: New Labour, he declared during the leadership contest, is ‘dead’.
We disagree – and not simply because it would be foolish to think Labour has nothing positive to learn from a politics which delivered the party three historic general election victories, record investment in, and the renewal of, our public services, and a decade of economic growth and prosperity.
As Douglas Alexander argued at Progress annual conference in May, the discussion about the continuing utility and relevance of New Labour is too often confused by a failure to distinguish between people, policies and position. The policies which were developed during the early phase of New Labour were right for the times, but the times have changed. Old challenges have been overcome, new challenges have emerged.
However, the position which New Labour adopted in the mid-1990s remains the one which was responsible for the party’s past electoral successes and is the key to future ones. Alexander correctly identified four elements: first, that Labour must vigorously contest the centre ground; second, that economic credibility is the foundation of electoral viability; third, that we are unhappy to accede to a history in which Labour has been a minority force, able to win only an occasional general election; and, finally, that we aspire to change our society, the institutions of government and politics, and our economy, and should thus seek to be tolerant, diverse and pluralist.
None of this, of course, makes us blind to the failings of the last government. Regulation of the City was palpably too weak, although few argued that at a time when the financial sector’s taxes were filling the Treasury’s coffers. After an initial burst of energy, constitutional reform ground to a halt at the end of Labour’s first term. It should not have done. Whitehall and Westminster continued to hoard power and where it did let go – as in the creation of the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and the London mayoralty – it was too often to other institutions, rather than citizens and their communities. Top-down reform of, and control over, Britain’s public services left many much improved, but was too often unable to crack a hardcore of underperformance. Moreover, this method of public service reform left too many people without the sense of ownership, control and attachment which is essential if support for investment and services is to endure and be sustained. New ways to bring additional financing into public services – aside from PFI – were not sufficiently explored.
But many of the errors committed by the last government were because it was not new enough, not because it was not Labour enough. Polling released last month by the international progressive thinktank Policy Network underlines the scale of the challenge facing Labour (see commentary, page 12). Too many voters believe the centre-left taxes too much with too little public benefit and, while they may be deeply suspicious of concentrations of corporate power and concerned about market injustices, they have little faith in the state to stand up to and counter them. This is the harsh political context in which the coalition is attempting to usurp Labour’s position in the centre ground, demolish entirely its economic credibility, and paint the party as a minority, conservative force.
It is thus only when Labour understands the need to position itself as a reformer of the state, market and our political system that it will begin to speak to, and answer, the public’s concerns and respond convincingly to the coalition’s attacks. The position of New Labour remains the best way to address this new political challenge.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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