There is no going back to New Labour, only going forward with its ‘attitude of mind’
The Labour party finds success a challenge. It is much more au fait with failure – it expects it. The Conservative party ran Britain for 57 years of the last century. This century started with an attempt to change those numbers. However, the decisions of Labour members of parliament to not have a contest in 2007, to insufficiently back David Miliband in 2010, to not prevent certain defeat under Ed Miliband in 2015 and to abandon their role as gatekeepers by allowing Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper mean Labour will be extremely lucky to form a government again in the next decade.
As the party celebrates the 20th anniversary of its greatest ever victory and subsequent three full terms in power – or does not; apparently, on instruction of the leader’s office, there will be nothing formal done to mark this achievement – there is much to reflect upon. Only three people have won elections for Labour; only one remains alive: Tony Blair. His name was booed at Labour party conference 2011 and Ed Miliband did nothing. Instead, he developed an analysis of the last Labour government that did not reflect why 900,000 voters abandoned Labour for the Tories in 2010 – a feeling that there had been too much spending, particularly on welfare, and a sense we had been too lax on immigration – but one that better reflected why the liberal left had grown tired of the 1997-2007 leadership. Iraq. Civil liberties. That not every inequality had been removed.
When Miliband tried to right these alleged wrongs, the policy cupboard was bare – all the would-be-socialist proposals that New Labour ‘ignored’ in office never materialised. He spent four and a half years as a poor man’s Corbyn supporting the ‘Occupy’ movement. His half-hearted conversion to fiscal conservatism four months out from the 2015 general election has allowed the hard-left to claim that Miliband was the third New Labour ‘pro-austerity’ leader. He was nothing of the sort. In fact, New Labour in office was anything but pro-austerity. Gordon Brown at the Treasury owned ‘prudence’, yes, but that period saw historic levels of investment in Britain’s public services. The NHS was saved by both investment and reform.
Blair, in his interview for this anniversary edition, says this is why ‘we have got to demystify New Labour’. It was, he rightly argues, ‘an attitude of mind. And that attitude of mind by its very definition never loses relevance.’ There should be no talk of going back to New Labour for it is not possible. It, by definition, is about moving forward. ‘To say the values remain fixed but the means of their application shift with shifting times.’
So, how do we best reflect on 1997 and the years that followed it? On the 1997 election itself, Labour must understand victory was not a given, nor would it have won ‘with a pig’s bladder on a stick’ as leader, as the disgraced former mayor of London Ken Livingstone argues. The parliamentary arithmetic was tight following the 1992 election but John Major’s Tories beat Labour by seven percentage points.
On its record, New Labour did not fail in office on any historic Labour terms. It was not thrown from power and as late as October 2007 would have won a fourth term.
However, New Labour did fail to notice various trends that emerged on its watch and renew itself in office. While a new generation was able to come through, 1992 – by definition of them being younger – no longer loomed large in their minds and nor did the tremendous work that went into stretching Labour’s reach into the centre-ground in the run-up to 1997.
On the legacy, as Progress argued in July 2011, New Labour was about three component parts. One – the policies. Mostly, these were right for their time. Occasionally proposals might have been lacking in ambition or proved insufficient to the challenge, but the result was overwhelming positive – things really did get better. Some have lasted the test of time and the Tories have been forced to adopt them. Others have been so hated by them – because of their redistributive nature – that they are now abolished, undermined or impeded on a daily basis. Many of these are defended by good people up and down the country, in council chambers and by cross-party alliances in the House of Lords. Two – the people. They did great things – but their time as frontline politicians has been and gone. Three – Labour’s political position: a grown up party of government, economically credible, keen to shape and own the future. The progressive centre-ground is the only position Labour has ever won from. Moreover, it is where lasting political change is made. Two realities the current Labour leadership refuse to accept.
No one wants to go back to the particular policies – or to the people – but continually rejecting the approach and the broad church that was New Labour is why the party has been in decline since late 2007.
Labour is now at a fork in the road. Its brand is being damaged day in, day out by the hard-left leadership and a failure to provide proper opposition. Blair asks, ‘in Tory high command, how much time do they spend worrying about the prospect of a Labour victory at the present time?’ He ‘would guess zero’ – and you can see why.
If Labour emerges from this failed hard-left experiment – and this is no certainty, particularly if Jon Lansman gets his secret plan to take over the Labour party resourced, Unite affiliates to Momentum and the ‘McDonnell amendment’ passed at conference – it will not be enough for the Labour party to prove it is not ‘ultra-left’, as the former prime minister puts it. ‘Labour has only ever won when it has been at the cutting edge of modernity’, he says.
Those who want to see the Tories thrown from office must internalise this reality. There is no going back to New Labour, only going forward with its ‘attitude of mind’.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.