Refounding New Labour

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?

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John Woodcock MP is the former chair of Progress. He tweets at @JWoodcockMP

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Comments: 14...

  1. On March 7, 2017 at 8:13 am Verity responded with... #

    A more sophisticated New labour 2 would not claim to be such. It would be sufficiently radical to not need the association. As long as there remains the desire for continuity then remains the failure to offer new solutions. The great problem for those largely seeking the market/globalisation solutions is that the conditions that gave rise to it: good supply of natural resources (North sea Oil), opportunities for considerable sales of state assets; opportunities for disguised diversion of communal Assets (state assets, PFI schemes); public housing sales, have now passed. New Labour lived off former directions away from unpopular (i.e. marginally democratic) features of communal ownership to the market. When most of it has gone there is nothing left for New Labour to build support upon – you may as well go with the real privateers.

    New labour foreign policy is equally locked into a bygone age. Take Woodcock’s obsession with the the Soviet Union – he has not noticed it is neither Communist and is considerable less despotic than China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and two dozen other despotic nations. All pose a threat if threat is not a disguise for promoted, exaggerated divisions. Woodcock’s obsessive one trip pony of a non existent Communist threat is hardly a new message that is recognise by a new generation. The status quo’ers have now truly become the bygone age. We need Labour MPs that have moved on. A pity that Labour is not agile enough to loose them respectfully.

  2. On March 7, 2017 at 10:58 am Alf responded with... #

    No-one wants Labour to go back to just being Tory-lite.

  3. On March 7, 2017 at 11:16 am Matt London responded with... #

    “No-one wants Labour to go back to just being Tory-lite.”

    Except, perhaps, the electorate?

  4. On March 7, 2017 at 12:51 pm Mike Stallard responded with... #

    Jeremy fails to inspire me as Mrs May leads us into economic disaster.

  5. On March 7, 2017 at 1:15 pm richard responded with... #

    I’m in. the current leaderships of the labour party are depressingly useless and guiding us to oblivion. communist or not ,Russia is a very real threat to world piece and will need to be dealt with sternly by western powers something Mr Corbyn would not be willing or able to do. any potential labour government must embrace the modern working environment and be seen to be open to all comers who want and dream of a better world and standard of living for all.

    Richard

  6. On March 7, 2017 at 2:09 pm JP Janson De Couet responded with... #

    If Mr Streeting wants to leave Labour to found “New Labour 2.0” he’d get my support.

  7. On March 7, 2017 at 3:27 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    It’s Woodcock, but you did make me laugh that you thought that they were the same person.

  8. On March 7, 2017 at 3:53 pm Christabel responded with... #

    Count me in John. Even if we only dip into the New Labour playlist for the media management and message discipline, it would be a massive improvement.

  9. On March 7, 2017 at 3:59 pm Maxine responded with... #

    I agree with you re: Blairs Brexit analysis. It showed us how much we are missing real leadership.

    I disagree about New Labour 2.0. Branding is important but I think a genuine new direction is needed to tackle a new age of problems. I detest people using the luxury of hindsight to trash the last Labour Government when it achieved so much. But all governments make mistakes and must learn from them then move on. New Labour 2.0 would spend too much time explaining to everyone that it wasn’t living in the 1990’s and it would be forced to constantly defend New Labour 1s decisions. The decade is over.

    The New Labour brand was an inspired way to show solidarity and respect for Labours roots while signaling a new modern outlook. I got it immediately without explanation. We should take the principle of the New Labour modernisation movement rather than copy the name.

    Before any of that, we need to inspire. Yesterday I was very impressed and inspired by Chukka’s New Stateman ‘think piece’. The right thinking is being done. The thinktanks are on track to deliver the right policies for the furture. We just need a very brave leader to emerge and knit it together into a coherent strategy. And that’s the hard part right now. So many of our voters are being seduced by populism on a daily basis. We simply cannot let this slide for too much longer. That leader needs to develop the narrative to speak to anyone who wants a vision of the future where: prosperity, security, health and education can be delivered for all without throwing out our hard won values.

  10. On March 7, 2017 at 4:18 pm JRC responded with... #

    For the last ten years the Labour left have tried to defend the legacy of New Labour and Old Labour whilst the right have joined the chorus of opposition decrying them as hard left. While the Blairites have been desperately trying to claim ownership of past successes instead of defending them along with their comrades, the left has argued against the denuding of public services and social protections. The right meanwhile has been arguing that acceptance of austerity and scapegoating the poor is the price we have to pay in order to prove we have ‘learned our lesson’.

    Once the right wing of the party start talking about policies, narrative and real solutions to people’s difficulties then they might learn how to actually do politics again. Until then I suppose we are going to be told for ever how calling yourself a Blairite automatically endows the claimant with electoral superpowers.

  11. On March 7, 2017 at 4:42 pm BarryE responded with... #

    The biggest vote the Blair/Brown leadership ever got was 13,518,167 in 1997, before they had enacted a single policy. By 2001 they had lost 2,793,214 votes (20.66%) from the 1997 total. B7 2005 another 1,157,364 votes (10.79%) had been lost and by 2010 another 961,071 votes (10.05%), meaning over a third (36.33%) of the votes cast in 1997 had been lost after 13 years of New Labour rule.

    By contrast, after five years of Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour’s vote increased by 740,808 votes (8.61%), almost up to the 2005 figure. Indeed, if the votes for other parties had fallen the same way as in 2005, Ed Miliband would have bcome Prime Minister.

    I don’t see how a switch to someone arguing for the same policies that 4,911,649 former Labour voters had rejected by 2010 is likely to produce a Labour victory.

  12. On March 7, 2017 at 4:55 pm Martin Yuille responded with... #

    “New Labour 2.0” just won’t hack it, however correct John Woodcock may be in his analysis.

    It would be no more convincing than “Daz 2.0” or “Persil 2.0”.

    “New Labour, New Britain” was a slogan that won the 1997 election. It was elevated to an analytical concept because its synonym – the Third Way – was obscure.

    At the heart of the New Labour concept was (and is) the intention of overcoming the atavistic tribalism that has bedevilled the centre ground for generations. Remember the attempts to form a Lab-Lib pact between Blair and Ashdown? This was an (abortive) mission to reconstruct the centre ground of politics putting to rest the Stalinist “one party, one class” ideas of the 20th century.

    While the Lab-Lib pact is now further away, something extraordinary is happening: Open Britain. This is a pact between Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs (and former MPs like Tony Blair) plus a grassroots campaign to defeat Hard Brexit (and thus, more positively, to work for a democratic and fair United Kingdom within the single market and customs union).

    Open Britain is re-building the centre ground of British politics. Its aim is John Woodcock’s aim.

    It combines the ideas of “openness” to which Blair adheres, the idea of a “broad popular coalition” that Umanna advocates in the New Statesman (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/03/chuka-umunna-labour-alternative ) and it opens the possibility of cooperation in elections between political parties (as advocated by More United).

    For those of us sticking in the Labour Party (and in Progress) so as to be able to pick up the pieces when the current chaos ends, if we want to get back on track, we could perhaps do worse than call ourselves “Open Labour” in homage to Open Britain.

  13. On March 7, 2017 at 9:33 pm Elizabeth McIntosh responded with... #

    Is this the John Woodcock who represents the interests of BAe and Trident in Parliament? Someone should tell him there is a Labour Party he can join but he may need to accept party discipline and not make statements supporting Tory Government policies. He may even have to condemn some BAe customers like Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses.

  14. On March 8, 2017 at 1:08 pm Eddie Clarke responded with... #

    Quite simply, spot on! This is the only realistic hope for the left.

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