Ten years have been wasted but New Labour’s instincts and approach remain relevant
The iron curtain fell, Thatcherism was defeated, our schools and hospitals were rebuilt, equalities were enshrined in law and communities became ever more tolerant.
My political generation grew up assuming that progress at home and across the world was inevitable.
Shocks and defeats have shattered the naive illusion of what already feels like a bygone age. We are desperate to pick ourselves up off the floor and fight, yet if we are to face these profoundly changed and frightening times effectively, we must embrace an uncomfortable truth about ourselves and our party. Namely, that this false sense of comfort and security about the inevitability of progress bred a decade-long complacency and introspection within Labour and parties of the left across the globe that has literally left us facing annihilation.
We, the successors of the New Labour government, assumed its gains were so safe (or worse, so insignificant) that we could define ourselves against the basic approach that had secured them. In doing so we have wasted the 10 years since the main engine of New Labour, Tony Blair, left the scene.
Some indulged in the fantasy that a different tack would have achieved far more. Others diverted years of energy trying to reinvent what we allowed ourselves to believe was a fatally contaminated brand. The failure of progressives to strain every sinew to protect the gains we had made and work together to renew our offer has left us woefully flat-footed against the return of dark forces we thought belonged in history books.
Here is a test worthy of Progress magazine readers: take a moment to try to recall all the different niche labels we have created since we lost power. By my reckoning, there have been nearly a dozen attempts to create a fresh distinct identity by people who would broadly have welcomed or considered themselves part of New Labour.
If we are to have a credible hope of another Labour government, we must understand why none of these new names or groups have stuck.
It was emphatically not because they were all useless. All have made important points about the future of our party or the country. Even my attempt as chair to rebrand Progress as ‘Labour’s new mainstream’ was well-intentioned, even if subsequent events sadly proved it utterly misguided.
But every rebranding or repositioning has failed to catch hold because they all to varying extents accepted the basic fallacy that New Labour was either fundamentally flawed or fatally out of date.
It was neither, and the values we hold dear will not survive another decade of prevarication and teeth-sucking.
It is time for today’s generation to rediscover its passion and determination to win. We should explicitly refound New Labour to meet the new challenge and focus on how to make it popular again against a resurgent right. There is too much at stake to continue bumbling along.
And as for the branding question, for all its baggage New Labour is a label which means something to people; its continued absence still leaves a jarring void. Put simply, we failed to fix it because it was not broken to begin with.
New Labour 2.0 must not reheat the 1990s or seek to extend the Blair appreciation society (though it speaks volumes about us that the most compelling case made so far against hard Brexit has come from a man who left office a decade ago).
The world has changed and the answers New Labour 2.0 offers must be different. The impending economic turbulence from leaving the European Union, on top of the long-lasting repercussions of the global financial crash, makes the massive increases in public investment we made in our health and education systems unrealistic for the time being.
The last Labour government won election after election while being full-throated in its embrace of the opportunities of globalisation; currently, the ideas of those who would close us off, look inwards and ferment nationalism are in the ascendency.
Faith in the authority of established institutions has drained away and the British people’s sense of identity and belonging is fractured. The EU referendum demonstrated that the public has indeed ‘had enough of experts’; an expansionist Russia and Islamist extremism are threatening the international rules-based system we had come to take for granted while public support for international intervention has been eroded; the far-right is on the march in European countries; and the United States has turned to Donald Trump.
Yet New Labour’s instincts and approach – albeit not its policies – are needed more than ever to meet these problems. Old-fashioned statism cannot speak to the millions disenchanted with the public realm, nor hope to harness the amazing potential of a world in which transformative computing power resides in a smartphone. The funding crisis in our National Health Service and social care system demands a hunger for new radical ideas to make our public services fit for purpose.
The impending crisis of automation, in which technological advances will wipe out whole professions, begs a major rethink of how future generations will make a living and how communities based around old forms of employment will find new purpose.
New Labour’s determination to give people genuine hope and engage in reality rather than populist sophistry is critical if we are to win back the support of communities who are currently wedded to a hardline position on immigration and a more isolated relationship with the world. If we are ever to govern again, or deserve to, we must successfully expose the snake oil salesmen who will do the opposite of what they promise, making them and the country poorer.
So. New Labour 2.0. Who is in?
John Woodcock MP is the former chair of Progress. He tweets at @JWoodcockMP
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