Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The inaugural Philip Gould Lecture

Check against delivery, and listen to the lecture here.

Philip was not just an inventor of New Labour and the third way. At its best and at his best, he personified it. Facing life, he was brilliant. Facing death he was magnificent. In both, he was an extraordinary fusion of principle, passion and purpose. Not a day goes by where I do not think of him, and remain inspired by him. Today I set out why this philosophy of progressive politics remains as relevant, powerful and necessary now as it was when first articulated 20 years ago. And I want it and us working hard for the next Labour government, in 2015, with Ed as prime minister. Philip only ever wanted Labour to win; I only ever want Labour to win.

Back then we stood in the shadow of our fourth election defeat. That last defeat, though it looked close in terms of seats, in reality indicated a chasm between us and the British people, some seven points adrift of the Tories.

So we wanted to win. But as Philip was the first to insist, the shift we were seeking in progressive politics was to win for a reason: to advance the interests of the people, to give opportunity, hope and a decent chance in life to those denied it; not to discard our beliefs but to implement them. Indeed I always hated the argument which said that, in effect, our policies had to change because unfortunately those we believed in were unsuitable for the British electorate. This implied that we had to do things we didn’t believe in; and that they – the electorate – were just too stupid or remote from us ever to accept us as we really are. Neither sentiment is a good basis for government. And from the outset we wanted to govern not for a term, but for an era. Why?

Because, up to then, in its 100 years of history, Labour had never won two, let alone three, consecutive terms in office. Never! Yet it is completely obvious that without a substantial period in government we can never bring about a more just and fair society and any change that is accomplished is likely to be swiftly jettisoned by a returning Tory government.

Power was not the governing purpose. Principle was.

We’re change-makers. It is a different political character from Conservatives. Nothing unprincipled about being a Conservative by the way. But it is a different motivation. They are motivated by order, tradition, by the need to preserve and through that disciplined stability, to provide opportunity for those able to seize it.

Twenty years ago we were, as now, motivated by injustice, poverty, by a desire to help those unable to access opportunity and to help those who aspire to do better, achieve their potential. We want society to change and actively to lift up those who are down. Back then, I could see children without opportunity, facing a dead end life; those who were sick, who if they could not afford private healthcare, would stay sick or even die. I could see communities blighted by crime; and always the poorest communities. And I thought that we as a nation had a proud history but needed to develop a zeitgeist for the approaching 21st century. I wanted that zeitgeist to be progressive.

Today my work is global. But what gets me up in the morning is the same. I have just spent a week shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo. I am sad and angry about the tragedy of the Gaza conflict, its people pawns in a wider struggle, hundreds of Palestinians including many children losing their lives in this nightmare. I witness the fear and insecurity of Israelis who still see their right to exist under challenge. I long to see two peoples and two states side by side in peace. I know there is a bigger picture in the Middle East and beyond, partly to do with religious coexistence, the cause of my Faith Foundation.

Next week, I will be in Africa where my Africa Governance Initiative does fantastic work helping some of the poorest nations on earth put in place competent systems of Government.

In all of this work, I am still finding third way progressive solutions and trying to implement them.

This is important to what I want to say today.

Third way progressive politics is not a cast of policy, but a cast of mind. It isn’t a programme. It is a philosophy. Its essence does not lie in a particular set of solutions, but in a way of thinking. For that reason, it is not time-limited. It is perpetual. But because it is about modernisation, it is therefore also dynamic not static.

So when I compare my first conference speech of 1994 with my final conference speech of 2006, the policies, programme and direction are absolutely different. The agenda for 2014 would be different again. But the method of thinking would be absolutely the same. So what does this way of thinking consist of?

First, its values are the classic progressive values. But it distinguishes between the values and the way they’re applied. Policies are for each time; values for all time.

From 1997-2007, when I was prime minister, and Gordon the chancellor, we fulfilled objectives that were completely progressive:

Ten years of growth; highest ever levels of employment; rising living standards across all classes; child and pensioner poverty radically reduced; average debt-to-GDP lower than the previous Tory government; the first government since the war to cut crime; an NHS with lowest ever waiting times and highest ever levels of satisfaction; big improvements in education and child care; the largest ever school and hospital building programme; improved maternity rights; paternity rights; the first ever British minimum wage; the guarantee of full time rights for part time workers; devolution; the first London mayor; civil partnerships; the winning of the Olympic bid in 2005 to host the 2012 Games; the first black cabinet minister; record numbers of women MPs. And the Northern Ireland peace process.

We were a progressive government and don’t let anyone forget it!

In foreign policy, whatever you think of the controversies post-9/11 and particularly Iraq, we led in the world: strong alliances in Europe; closest ally of the USA; leaders in development with a tripled aid budget; and putting climate change at the top of the world’s agenda.

But most of what we achieved came through policies that were innovative, put aside traditional thinking and method, often cutting across left-right divides.

Third way politics begins with an analysis of the world shaped by reality not ideology, not by delusionary thoughts based on how we want the world to be, but by hardheaded examination of the world as it actually is. The same applies to how we interact with people. This has to mean real people. Not the ones you find in the committee room but the ones you find at the bus stop or the bar or the cinema.

In the first half of the 20th century, people looked to the state to deliver what the market could not. In time, however, they could see that the state could also become a vested interest and was often not an efficient provider of services. As people became wealthier, they became taxpayers. Their entire attitude to the state changed as a result. They funded not only their own services, but benefits for others.

In addition, from the end of the second world war onwards it has been very clear that the scope, scale and speed of change represent the world’s single most defining characteristic. Technology, globalisation, demography – all of these are producing vast changes in the way we live, work and think.

The worldwide web alone has given people personal choices unthinkable to our grandparents.

Put all this together and it means that the relationship between the individual and the collective changes fundamentally. No political philosophy today will achieve support unless it focuses on individual empowerment, not collective control. The role of society or the state becomes about helping the individual to help themselves, and to gain control over their own lives and choices.

This is why some of the Thatcher changes were inevitable and we kept them. It is why our changes in public services – parent and patient choice, bringing in new providers, even Bank of England independence – were also inevitable. These are not policy changes that represent a moment in politics, but a trend in modern time that is beyond politics.

A changing world means changing policies and a changed party. It did then and it does now. For the trend we identified has intensified not abated.

It is why when we come to view the world post-financial crisis, we have to be careful. We didn’t spot it coming, in common with almost everyone else. We now know that the modern financial markets with their plethora of different instruments, securitisation and global trading, can have profound and unforeseen effects which in this case produced a global crisis and recession in the developed world. So we adjust, we reform, we regulate and supervise with the knowledge of this experience.

Does this invalidate the trend I elucidated? No! It simply reinforces what we have always known: markets regulated with imperfect understanding of how they’re operating can lead to dangerous consequences. But what the financial crisis doesn’t alter is as important as what it does. It doesn’t mean that people have fallen back in love with the state; it doesn’t mean that the individualising force of technology has retreated and it doesn’t mean that whole private sector is somehow contaminated. It doesn’t even mean that in the financial sector itself, though of course we need to make the system more robust and resilient so as to minimise the systemic risks of future crises, we don’t still need innovation, liquidity and enterprise.

It was by analysing economic and social trends not with ideological blinkers but by reference to real life observation that we realised that there was no possibility of the British people accepting a programme which either pivoted on more atate control or which didn’t open up power for people as individuals. The same is true today.

It is then from this that we create the partnerships between public, private and voluntary sectors; we build the coalition that encompasses business as well as unions; we want the state beneath the people not on top of them; that we look to make public services as responsive and effective as private ones. This way we also have policies that can be implemented in government as well as paraded in opposition.

In the many different countries where I work, the prime ministers and presidents all struggle with the same challenge: how we do we get things done? How do we build the infrastructure and finance it? How do we attract the right type of long-term investment? What are the best ideas for education and healthcare?

Today they don’t seek answers based on ideology. They just want to know what works.

Third way progressive politics is really part of this global movement away from strict ideology and towards practical evidence-based solutions.

Derived from this is then the concept of fighting, winning and governing from the centre ground. That centre can and should be radical. But it will cut across traditional right-left lines because over the past 100 years or so people have learned from their experience about the state and the market that neither, untrammelled, is the route to the future. There will inevitably be a partnership between the two. And there will be a host of new ideas around how each might work and in combination with each other and the voluntary sector.

The challenge for us – since we are more linked with the collective side of history – is: how can we be the effective reformers of the state? We should be the ones most interested in making government effective, most prepared to be iconoclastic in reshaping public services because that is the way best to serve the people who depend on them.

The financial crisis, as Ed was rightly saying at the NPF, puts even greater weight on value for money. This is precisely what makes this type of progressive politics even more pertinent.

Throughout, however, the purpose is to realise our core beliefs of social justice and opportunity for all. It is because we have strong ideals that we should allow no preconceptions or misconceptions to stand in the way of that purpose.

If a school is not delivering sound education for its pupils and a different way of running the school would yield a different and better result, it is our duty to institute the change. Even if it means we take on one of our own interest groups or it means changing a previous policy position of the party. Otherwise the goal of social justice is blunted and we are the conservatives. Old ideas in new clothing are still old ideas and are visibly so when undressed by reality.

The hallmark of this progressive politics is that we should never be afraid of new ideas. We embrace them; we search for them; we scour the globe for them. Not out of an absence of principle; but from an abundance of it. We should always be uncomfortable in the ‘comfort zone’, because the only comfort found there is for the already privileged.

We’re not blind to the challenges of globalisation. But we are awake to its opportunities and we relish the way it brings the world closer together. In the battle between the open-minded and closed-minded attitudes to the world, we’re for the open mind.

That is why to be against Europe – the biggest economic market and political union in the world – is unthinkable, backward, not representative of our national interest but destructive of it. It is why we know that though immigration needs rules which protect against abuse, we despise playing politics with immigration. The most successful countries of the world today succeed in part precisely because of their openness to others.

So when we look at the Britain of 2014, we should be the radicals, but radicals not playing to the gallery of our ideological ghosts but to the contemporary stadium of the progressive majority.

I welcome many of the recent policy proposals that the party and associated thinktanks have produced: the Adonis review on Mending the Fractured Economy the case for a smarter state and better jobs; the IPPR report on the Condition of Britain. In each case, they confront brilliantly the hard realities we face with new policy solutions at a time of limited resources.

I advise reading the speech of the new head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, my old NHS adviser, setting out new directions for the health service; and Matthew Taylor’s RSA speech on the ‘Power To Create’, both of which show how it is only through harnessing technology in ways which open up opportunity and creativity, that we can bring modern answers to the challenges of inequality and well-run public services available to all.

The point is we should at all times be leading the battle of ideas and where, as with the academy programme, the Tories are forced to follow, that should be a matter for rejoicing, not anguish.

In some cases, this will mean a certain convergence of thinking with the centre-right. Relax. It happens the world over and where it doesn’t – see the polarisation of American politics today – a country is the poorer for it.

In the end parties can please themselves or please the people. There is a mindset that speaks to government and one that usually leaves you in opposition. For that period, possibly for the first time in our history, we had the character of a governing party and it was the Tories who seemed like the shriekers at the gates outside.

We should, of course, listen to the interests associated with us, and the assortment of pressure groups banging on our door but never conflate their noise, which with social media can seem deafening, with public opinion or let them decide policy. Those who shout the loudest don’t necessarily deserve to be heard the most. That is also third way politics.

Philip was always the one who had us chained to the aspirations of real people. He understood we served them best by freeing ourselves from our own chains first.

He had a further characteristic which defines this politics.

Progressives should be optimists. He was an optimist and he was right to be. Step back from the challenges of the here and now; and look at the progress humanity has made. In 2015 we will review the Millennium goals of the UN. Some we will not meet; but in virtually all areas, there will have been substantial progress. Some we will meet, including the goal of reducing extreme poverty. We will do it largely because of China. But that in itself is a huge sign of change for the better. Six out of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world today are in Africa. And for all the challenges of the developed world, especially around social mobility and the gulf of opportunity between those at the top and those in the middle, we should recognise the amazing progress we have made in so many ways over the past decades.

Here in Britain these last years have been, for many, grinding and harsh. But consider our extraordinary advantages. The world works today through connectivity. We have a great geography, the English language, a history which gives us roots and connections the world over, a world class university system, fabulous art and culture, still one of the globe’s most powerful economies and a people respected and admired. We are an island of connectivity. Our strengths are bigger than we think and our weaknesses can be addressed.

Around the world today this philosophy of progressive politics is not losing ground. It is still the surest route to electoral success. It is about the future. Though guided by an old compass, it is ready to steer a new path. Its temperament chimes with that of the 21st century. It takes courage the sort that Philip had but it works.


Tony Blair was prime minister (1997-2007) and leader of the Labour party (1994-2007). The Philip Gould lecture was organised by Progress and took place 20 years to the day since Tony Blair’s election as leader of the Labour party


Photo: Paul Heartfield

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Tony Blair

is former prime minister and leader of the Labour party


  • Quite frankly it was just superb. He is as relevant today as he was 20 years ago – wish Ed would take a bit more notice of what he says.

  • it is sad beyond comment that the brilliant plans for the UK that were put in place – and transformed the country – that the memory of these – should be destroyed by the Iraq folly
    as an American i can say that while i can not identify a dodgy builder – and an English person can it is very very hard for English people to judge Americans -American women could the usual Republican women voted against Bush even first time around because the intuited his character
    but England blossomed under the last labour government – and it has been a privilege to life here during that time

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