The Labour government ‘contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment’. So wrote the New Statesman in a 1954 biographical piece about Clement Attlee and the 1945-1951 Labour government. Amazing as though it may now appear, some contemporary Labour figures of the period were lambasting Attlee’s postwar government for its lack of ambition and for it not being ‘socialist’ enough. Sound familiar? Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader we have witnessed a trashing of the party’s many achievements between 1997 and 2010. It is as though we should be embarrassed for what we did not accomplish rather than celebrating and rejoicing in what we delivered for ordinary people.
In fairness, it is not simply the usual suspects who have been lining up to trash what they see as the wasted years of Labour rule. Many ‘bog-standard’ Labour members and supporters like me worried at the time that we had not been radical enough, that we had not made enough of the huge mandate the nation had given to us. The problem with this is that in truth most Labour members and supporters have opposing requirements. We want our party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic: to be a party that proudly honours its past while it shapes it and the nation’s future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but to also support aspiration.
When Labour took office in 1997, Britain was suffering from what Tony Blair later described as a ‘progressive deficit’. What he meant was that Britain was far from being a modern social democratic nation. The constitution was failing, with Scotland and Wales denied proper government and hereditary privilege still the foundation of the House of Lords. Unlike many of our European neighbours, Britain lacked quality childcare and universal nursery provision or schools and hospitals with proper equipment and enough well-paid staff. In the years up to 1997, Britain was a country that had spent billions of pounds keeping able-bodied people idle because of boom and bust, where unemployment often exceeded three million, and where the absence of a national minimum wage condemned millions to poverty pay.
Under both Blair and Gordon Brown Labour’s mission in office was to address this progressive deficit. On the constitution, Britain developed as a modern pluralist democracy – devolution for Scotland and Wales, mayors for London and other cities, House of Lords reform, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act. For working people, Labour delivered progressive rights that many other countries took for granted – a minimum wage, four weeks’ paid holiday, better maternity and paternity rights, the basic right to join a trade union. For communities and families torn apart by crime, antisocial behaviour, racial intolerance and drugs, Labour established major programmes of inner-city regeneration, excellence in cities for schools, Sure Start, and additional investment in youth and sport facilities.
All of this modernisation was for a purpose: to renew our public services and keep them faithful to an agreed ethos and set of values while at the same time making them responsive to the individual needs of the people they serve. Labour needed to create a patient-centred NHS and a pupil-centred school system, moving beyond a monolithic NHS and a uniform secondary school system. We needed to do this in order to further extend opportunity and social justice. Many of the changes Labour made while in office – on the constitution, economic policy, the minimum wage and public services – are likely to last. The challenge for today’s Labour party is to develop an offer to the British people that seeks to make an even more progressive agenda irreversible; changes that cannot be rolled back by a rightwing Tory governments that want to dismantle most, if not all, of the things that have been achieved.
However, the main challenge to the progressive wing of the party comes not only from a resurgent Scottish National party or an increasingly ideological Tory party but the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist in our own ranks. Labour did not lose in 2015 and 2010 because its message was not sufficiently leftwing enough but because it failed to address the ambitions and aspirations of ordinary people. The fact is – and it is an uncomfortable fact for many Corbyn supporters – that by successfully occupying the centre-ground, by modernising and reaching out beyond its own activists, the Labour party of the 1990s ended up turning the Tories into a replica of what Labour used to be itself – a party with a narrow base, a party obsessed about the wrong things and a party seen as old-fashioned and out of touch.
Today’s Labour party desperately needs to add new and imaginative contributions to the ‘pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment’ and the best way to do this is to pursue a progressive not a regressive agenda.
Mike Ion is a former parliamentary candidate and currently sits as the Labour party’s nominated representative on the board of the Centre for Public Scrutiny. He tweets @MikeIon
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