Conviction, not triangulation
Ask a silly question, get a stupid answer. While Five Million Votes – the cross-factional group that is aiming to win back the five million Labour voters who deserted, died or stayed in and watched EastEnders during the 13 years of Blair and Brown – isn’t asking a silly question, it is asking the wrong one. That means that it comes up with the wrong answers.
New Labour is a lot like Chris Nolan’s Inception: almost everyone saw it, but very few of them understood it. At the heart of the Five Million Votes’ approach is a critical misunderstanding of New Labour. New Labour wasn’t based on ‘triangulation’. It was a philosophy built on conviction, not summoned into existence out of convenience. It was a deeply held, evidence-backed set of beliefs about how best to create a more equal society. Yes, it was part of the international ‘Third Way’, a progressive movement that set out to restore and revitalise social democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that isn’t the same as triangulation.
Triangulation was the strategy that Bill Clinton was forced to embrace after two years of progressive overreach saw the Democrats lose their Congressional majority. It was a creed of necessity, one that was obsessively and exclusively focused on retaining the White House in 1996. New Labour – or ‘Blairism’ – was not about winning. New Labour was not strategy but ideology. It was committed to using success from sector beyond the old public sector to bring the excellence of the private or third option to the general public. In foreign policy, it was fiercely internationalist: something which led to the foundation of DFID and the salvation of Kosovo and Sierra Leone, but also to the disastrous war in Iraq. What it wasn’t about was winning for winning’s sake. If it had been about winning, then it would have soft-pedalled on city academies, given way on ASBOs and tuition fees, and stayed out of Kosovo and Baghdad.
Five Million Votes is a category error: it’s an institutional answer to an ideological problem. The problem for Labour isn’t whether or not to have a mobilisation strategy, not least because, at no point in the Labour party’s history has anyone advocated a low turnout strategy, apart from in university towns and internal contests. The problem for Labour is far more complex and difficult than that. How is Britain going to get growth? How does that square with deficit reduction? How are we going to fight crime and improve schools? How are we going to ensure that all of our people are cared for in their old age? How are we going to pay for universal childcare? How are we going to fight poverty on an international scale? How are we going to protect ourselves? And the simple truth is: if Labour doesn’t have answers to those questions, then it doesn’t deserve to win.
Does Labour need to win back the voters it lost in 2005 and 2010? Yes, of course it does. But it wins them back by having the answers to the urgent questions of 2015, not by raking over the mistakes of 1997-2010. That was the mistake of 1992, when Neil Kinnock’s Labour adopted a policy of retreat and half-hearted compromise with the electorate, because it believed that was the way to win. The triumphs of 1997, 2001 and 2005 came because Labour had a programme that it genuinely believed in that was relevant to the concerns of modern Britain. To do so again, it can’t triangulate, but it can’t just knock on doors either. It has to come up with a policy programme that it genuinely believes in.
Department for International Development, Gordon Brown, Labour, Neil Kinnock, New Labour, Third Way, Tony Blair