Into the unknown
A chapter has closed. The era of New Labour is over. It is living history to some, but history nonetheless. A Next Left chapter must now be written for Labour.
The last Labour government was a great success socially, economically and culturally. It made Britain a stronger, more cohesive, place. It was not just the list of achievements, but the way they totalled up to more than the sum of their parts. And it changed our country so much that the Tory party had to move towards it to become electable again. That government’s biggest failure was losing office and letting the Tories wreak havoc on this country. It simply failed to provide a credible forward offer to the country in 2010.
As this magazine has previously argued, the three tenets of New Labour – the people, the policies, the political positioning – were right for Britain and the party at the time.
The people made great things happen but they have moved on and so should we. The policies were an independently verifiable success. Not everything was perfect but, more important than debating all the pros and cons of that era, is that times change – so the policies now have to as well. The positioning – a Labour party that no longer equivocates between social and economic justice but marries the two in a centre-ground, country-first, on-your-side stance – is how the left wins elections. This winning position will not change but it must rise from the ashes in which it currently resides.
In the last parliament, under any of the leadership candidates before the party in 2010, a ‘continuity’ project could have defeated the coalition. Had we admitted the mistakes that actually led voters to remove Labour from office, Labour could have returned to government within one term. But this road was not taken. Instead, Labour’s leadership joined the Tories in trashing the record of its longest and arguably most successful period in office ever. It is impossible to identify the precise moment when the final nail in coffin of the last Labour government was knocked into place. But when the leaders’ Question Time audience, four days before the May 2015 poll, openly mocked Ed Miliband’s claim that the last government did not overspend, it was clear the corpse’s container had been hermetically sealed.
Those who pay the price of this grave error are those who were relying on the abolition of the bedroom tax.
The current reality for anyone involved in or inspired by the last Labour government is pretty bleak. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – both heroes to many in the party – cannot save us now. They have done incredible service to our party and country over three decades. Both will contribute now and then. For good or bad, no well-written or well-intentioned op-eds or speeches can provide an argument to win over the couple of hundred thousand who signed up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader nor provide a future for our politics. Advice is always welcome but the baton must be handed on. It is time for a new generation to step up.
Indeed we should not be longing for them or even describing ourselves as a follower of either. Being a Blairite or a Brownite under Corbyn is like being a Gaitskellite under Michael Foot; it is tired, dated and redolent of a time that has been and gone. New Labour had what co-chair of the thinktank Policy Network Patrick Diamond called ‘an unbroken line back to the New Liberals’ who founded the party, via Ernest Bevin and Hugh Gaitskell. In the same way, the politics that inspired 13 years in government will have a future beyond New Labour. This is what we have to now build.
New Labour did not come out of the previous Labour government, nor the rightwing of the party alone. It was a rejection of the machine politics that wanted to control the party but not lead it; and it was centred around ideas for the world to come. Crucially it did not argue for simply a more moderate version of far-left poses. It drew on the Tribune group in the parliamentary Labour party as well as the rightwing Solidarity grouping. It owed as much to the Labour Coordinating Committee as it did to Labour First. It was nurtured on the pages of Marxism Today and rejoined by the Jenkinsites who wanted to come home to a pro-European, modern Labour party. It was inclusive and forward-looking, albeit a challenge to both the old left and old right of the party, which may explain some of the difficulty it later had in finding a home.
It is a Next Left project on New Labour’s scale, and not New Labour’s blueprint, that must be built. It will include different people, friends and allies. Too often over the last 20 years we have let personalities, politics and minor policy differences lead to giant rifts in the party. No one side was entirely to blame but we all have to be determined to leave it in the past and work together in the future.
The Next Left should be the result of rigorous debate and active inclusion of the blue Labour tradition, the ‘old right’ in the party and those traditionally at home in Progress. It will embrace thinking from social democrats abroad and the ‘soft left’ at home. It will be informed by practice in town and city halls across the country. And it will have in its sights winning the hearts and minds of the party so we can put Labour values into policy and Labour policy into action.
Winning for a purpose will be its aim. As LabourList’s Conor Pope has written, ‘Some things remain as true as they always were. Non-voters tend not to vote. Protest voters do not vote for parties who want to govern. And, perhaps most importantly, Tory votes count double – every vote you take off your main rival [simultaneously] brings you closer to their tally.’ Our party must always keep this at the forefront of our mind as we look to get Labour back into government.
Only a modernising Labour party can win the trust of voters and change Britain for the better. The precise form that takes in 2020, 2025 or 2045, no one yet knows. For anyone who wants to be back in government – and engage in a thoughtful, rigorous and challenging debate about how we get there and what we would do with the resulting power – please join us as we journey into the unknown.
Conservatives, Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour, Michael Foot, New Labour, Next Left, Patrick Diamond, Tony Blair