Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Past imperfect

Labour has had seven leaders since Harold Wilson stepped down as prime minister in 1976. Allowing for John Smith’s premature death, only one of these – Tony Blair – has thus far succeeded in securing the party victory in a general election, a feat which he achieved on three consecutive occasions.

But 20 years after he was first elected its leader, Labour’s relationship with the former prime minister and his time in power has become needlessly fraught. In 2010 Ed Miliband declared that the ‘era of New Labour is over’. In the wake of a general election defeat which was second only to 1983 in its scale, it was clear that a break with the past was necessary. The ‘restless and radical’ character of New Labour which Miliband correctly identified as its greatest asset had begun to ossify into a rather conservative mindset – a reflex defence of policies and institutions, an unwillingness to think anew about how its values were best realised, and a desire to hoard power in Whitehall and Westminster.

That break, however, needed to be managed with a great deal of dexterity. The ‘era of New Labour’ was, after all, one when millions of Britons voted for a party which appealed far beyond its traditional supporters.

It has been managed with anything but. Thankfully, Miliband’s failure to remember to talk about the deficit in his conference speech this year meant that he did not utter, as planned, the following line: ‘One Nation Labour has changed from New Labour – businesses have a responsibility to pay their taxes, respect their customers and treat their workers fairly.’

New Labour may not have fulfilled all the hopes invested in it, but surely the notion that a government which, among other things, introduced a windfall tax on the privatised utilities to fund welfare-to-work programmes for young people, toughened consumer rights legislation, and introduced a minimum wage and the right to union recognition can hardly be accused of encouraging tax evasion, the ripping-off of customers, and the exploitation of workers.

Examples of this careless validation of the hard left’s critique of Labour’s record abound. Last month, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, Margaret Curran, wrote that, ‘the Labour party of today is not the Labour party of a decade ago. We have a leader across the UK who has learned the lessons of Iraq and opposed military action in Syria [and] who refuses to kowtow to vested interests like the banks and the energy companies.’

Put to one side that another 100,000 Syrians have died and Islamic State now menaces the region since Labour ‘stopped the rush to war’ in Syria last summer. What possible purpose does it serve to suggest that in government Labour ‘kowtowed’ to ‘vested interests’ like the banks and energy companies? Curran is, however, right about one thing: a decade ago, Labour was on the brink of winning a majority of 66 at the following spring’s general election. Few would predict such a result next May. In that respect, at least, Labour has changed, but maybe not wholly for the better.

And, predictably, the recent appointment of Sadiq Khan to woo those tempted to vote Green was accompanied by an assurance that the London mayoral hopeful would highlight how much Labour has changed from those aspects of New Labour that Green voters dislike.

Such tactics seriously undermine the Labour leadership’s assurances that it is not vacating the centre-ground and pursuing a ‘35 per cent strategy’ designed to cobble together a coalition of those disgruntled Liberal Democrats and other left voters who abandoned Labour in 2005. The danger of such a strategy is not simply that it leaves no room for error – if Labour falls short of 35 per cent it will have virtually no chance of forming a government next May – but that such an appeal to the left risks alienating centrist voters, driving them into the arms of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Labour would do well to recall how attempts by the Swedish social democrats to follow a similar strategy in 2010 – complete with a play for Green voters – met with electoral disaster.

The failure to offer a more intelligent and nuanced story about Labour’s past poses other dangers, too. Fear of alienating voters to Labour’s left means that the party now only tells a very partial story about its time in government. It expresses its pride in introducing the minimum wage and reducing poverty, but stays silent on the welfare reforms which helped cut worklessness. It talks about the way it reduced NHS waiting times but refuses to acknowledge that the introduction of patient choice and independent treatment and diagnostic centres, not simply more investment, played a critical part (something which the absence of both in the NHS in Wales graphically demonstrates). And it trumpets the way standards were dramatically raised in inner-city schools without mentioning the important role played by the academy programme.

The consequences of this will be keenly felt next May if Labour forms a government. By making its record largely a tale about investment, it will disappoint those who believe that the public spending spigots are about to be turned on again. They will not be.

But it also has more immediate and unfortunate consequences. The failure to develop a narrative about public service reform means Labour is reduced to belated attempts to bolster its economic credibility by gimmicks such as the recent pledge to cap child benefit rises. There is, as we have previously argued, a strong case for shifting investment from cash benefits to building a universal childcare system. But Labour’s proposed cap makes no such link. If anything it simply resembles the single parent benefit cut imposed by Gordon Brown to prove Labour’s toughness in 1997.

This, surely, cannot be what those who were so keen to abandon New Labour intended, which simply underlines the fact that, until it develops a better account of its past, Labour will continue to be muddled about its future.

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