For an ideology grounded in modernity, New Labour now feels very behind the times – and so do Labour’s moderates. So what comes next, asks Anthony Painter
As New Labour headed towards a decade in power, the world of mid-2007 looked remarkably similar to the world of 1997. In many ways, that is a marker of political success. It is difficult to remember, in economic terms at least, a more benign decade. Growth was consistent, growth of inequality was checked, public services were replenished, and inroads had been made on poverty, especially among pensioners.
How then was it similar given that many of these factors are key to a ‘New Labour as radical change agents’ perspective? Our basic perceptions about what Britain was, how it operated, and its place in the world remained largely unchanged across that decade. There was more optimism but the fundamental assumptions remained similar.
The free market economy that had grown out of Thatcherism would produce growth. Britain was a major world player, a leader in Europe and the wider western world, despite tarnish to its reputation from Iraq. As a society we were individualistic, broadly open and connected – further fuelled by the growth of the internet – and a country of incremental innovators in politics, economy and society. Politics was a battle for a narrowly perceived centre-ground, a narrow space with progressive and conservative hues. All of this applied as broadly in 2007 as it had in 1997. New Labour made things better without fundamentally shifting the United Kingdom in economic, political and social terms. By applying ‘traditional values in a modern setting’, it had become the true custodian of one nation politics, the brand of UK politics that prevails in the good times.Yet Britain was not quite a nation at ease with itself. Storm clouds had gathered and were gathering. There were undercurrents; riptides hidden from view. The feelgood was debt-fuelled. Persistent inequality, stagnating wages, global imbalances and regional disparities belied this one nation. Immigration was creating an increasingly vocal backlash: the extreme right was moving into view and a rumbling and unspoken wider cultural discontent was gathering force. Quietly, relentlessly, the country was culturally separated, and this separation was refracted through economic divisions. The economic lives of too many were too insecure, uncertain, and increasingly fraught. Assets – including housing, pensions and savings – were unevenly dispersed, as was secure work with prospects, and there was a regional dimension to these divisions. Attempts to tackle both issues – through child trust funds, the saving gateway and regional development agencies – had not yet reaped the benefits that were hoped for at their creation.
Economic and cultural divisions are fuelled by very different forces but when they combine, the consequences can be ferocious. That is precisely what has happened in the past decade. And that is why the world – from the vantage point of 2017 – looks so dissimilar to that of early to mid-2007. We are experiencing a world that seems to be an entirely different place to a decade ago. And there is a distinct possibility that things will get worse before they get better.
As the economy seemed benign in 2007, it now seems to be characterised by in-built volatility. We are assured that the banking system has been fixed. We will see about that. However, the fundamentals that revealed themselves post-crash – of an economy that is unequal, insecure, asset-boom prone, and unbalanced – remain. New Labour redesigned the welfare state around contribution and responsibility. What seemed fine in political philosophy has been a disaster in practice. The result was sanction, arbitrariness, coercion and misery. Austerity, with the addition of the thoroughly Victorian institution of the food bank (for all the great work that volunteers do), has made things significantly worse but this should not deflect from the fundamental design flaws – social security was replaced with social insecurity. Simmering cultural and economic discontent boiled over in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Do not underestimate the possibility for this to turn even uglier in some circumstances. As things stand, the UK is leaving the EU and has already trashed its international standing to a far greater extent than even the Iraq war’s biggest critics believe it has achieved.
Politics is no longer characterised by a march for the centre-ground. The 2017 election suggests to many that the New Labour (and Neue Mitte and New Democrat) strategy of reaching for the centre-ground as a means to building a majority is redundant – for now, at least – as we are now a nation of two largely distinct political tribes. In Scotland, the cultural divides fuse more into a constitutional discussion; divides that are different in form, but no less real. Generational conflicts have opened up as those under the age of 45 become a political counterweight to the cultures, values, and asset endowment of the over-50s. Age, class and culture interweave and tangle. This caused the consensual society, that New Labour was able to occupy, to fade.
In 2007, the internet was a tool for information, basic connection and e-commerce. Ten years later, the internet is vigorously social, characterised by giant tech platforms that are incredibly powerful – whether that power is put to good use, or ill. They have become a significant independent factor in who we are, how we interact, who occupies cultural, political and social power, and how, when and where we work. For almost two decades the first ‘internet election’ has been forecast. In 2017 (and 2016 for that matter), all the parties lost and it was Facebook ‘wot won it’ without even needing an explicit editorial line – the website’s editor is algorithm and software design.
Faced with such abrupt and abundant change, the temptation is always to turn back. This year’s general election was in many ways just that – a turn to the rear. Full credit to Jeremy Corbyn for the campaign he ran and for his ability to bring together a coalition of resistance to the disastrous economic, cultural and social course we have taken. Notwithstanding that, Labour’s manifesto leant too much towards a backwards-looking statism that is not sufficient for the challenges we face, where every issue required either taxing, banning, centralising or nationalising. It has purpose as a political package but not as an agenda for government. Similarly, the party’s position on Brexit remains unresolved.
There is little doubt that more action is needed from the central state to build affordable housing, invest in the industries of the future including automation and artificial intelligence, and develop key transport infrastructure, among other things. But a freedom-loving, devolved, digitally-enabled, global society (which Britain remains, even in anticipation of Brexit) requires a less clunky approach.
Theresa May for her part proposed a set of nostalgias of her own. What else was ‘strong and stable’ but a flight of fancy towards a suffocating nostalgia of know-your-place English shire Toryism. Her hard Brexit strategy is just as significantly a return to a pre-European Communities Act world of plucky Britain and its Commonwealth taking on the world; Dunkirk denuded of context and historical honesty. An increased May majority in 2017 would have been a disaster. Labour did well in difficult circumstances to avert that. It is churlish to ignore the importance and significance of this fact.
Reverse gaze is not just afflicting the leadership of the two main parties, however. Labour’s moderates suffer from a similar malady. The world has changed since 1997, significantly so. The 2017 modern setting is vastly different from 1997’s. The gap between now and New Labour’s 10th anniversary in office is far greater than the distance between that anniversary and its first electoral landslide. Some minor policy refresh is not enough. A far more fundamental rethink of narrative, ideology, politics and policy is needed. The basic New Labour settlement with an overlay of fighting Brexit and a few warm patriotic words will not suffice. For an ideology grounded in modernity, New Labour now feels very behind the times – and so do Labour’s moderates. This, as much as the electoral system, is why any new centrist progressive party would likely fail.
We know that disparities of security, income and wealth create unsustainable volatility as well as misery for individuals and communities. It is equally apparent that a ‘proceeds of growth’ approach ends up in severe harm when times are not so good. Inclusion is not an outcome of growth; it is its corollary. When we allow society to be divided into deserving and undeserving then harm is dispensed. Sustainable change comes from embedding support for progressive values rather than through covert operations. Growth masks questions of distribution and if we do not have a frank discussion about why a more equal society is an ally of individual flourishing, then when growth deserts us those questions of distribution will come to the fore. Globalisation is not simply a benign force and nor is technological innovation; both require shaping forcibly if they are to work for all. By 2007, none of this was established strongly enough. By the time the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition entered office, it was able to slash away the New Labour legacy with relative ease. A bolder and more ambitious politics is needed for these times.
What might this new progressive statecraft look like? Paradoxically, it would simultaneously promote more state, more society and more individualism.
Britain cannot meet its economic or social needs without more state. However, it has to be the right sort of state. It is unthinkable that the needs of an ageing society can be met without further investment in health and social care. Equally, there is little hope that wealth and opportunity can be spread without very significant investment in affordable housing in the south and transport connectivity in the north.
And the notion that as artificial intelligence and machine learning has the scope to parcel up work in ever more insecure chunks fits with a welfare state that creates insecurity through complexity and arbitrary interference just does not sustain. It is welcome that the Scottish government has committed to developing experimentation into universal basic income to support working lives. That is the type of state that is needed: one that creates supports and platforms rather than promotes insecurity and sanction. Furthermore, the state is needed to help better regulate a capitalism that is resulting in enormous pools of wealth and capital – and that will require stronger international action.
Yet the state is not a singular answer. A bigger society – one that supports rather than hectors – should sit alongside the supportive state. Any progressive politics should seek to nourish the nation’s associational life. There has to be a serious civic push to supporting the development of a new wave of trade unionism. It is impossible to see a fair economy without increased union membership. Existing trade unions are increasingly supporting innovation in organisation – including into the so-called ‘gig economy’. A progressive political movement should proactively support them where it can.
In cities and localities – where progressives have political power – there is a need to nourish a thriving civic life. A rich civic environment creates wide benefits – even in the context of concentrated poverty. A progressive civic strategy means thinking beyond formal politics into the relationships that give people a fighting chance in whatever challenges they may face. Research by Robert Sampson into Chicago’s communities has shown the importance of community organisations in developing trust, efficacy and wellbeing. Progressive statecraft should see civil society as central.
And finally, a new progressivism would promote individualism but, again, the right sort of individualism. Our sense of ourselves is driven too much by our identities as consumers. We are creators and citizens too. Progressive politics needs to relentlessly make that case and seek new means to enable us to participate. Should we have a greater say in local budget setting? Should citizens be asked to make decisions alongside traditional experts in policy formation? Might we think about the role of widening personal accounts in lifelong learning, housing, access to work support and care, and provide support for these vouchers to be used collectively? Are there means of providing support for entrepreneurs alongside a basic income to help their business succeed? Very quickly, when we think about ourselves as creators and citizens we seek to blend the right sort of state, with the right type of society to help individuals enjoy greater security and more creative lives: a rich notion of powerful freedom.
Just a couple of months after New Labour’s 10 year anniversary, the economy began to crack and then shattered. It became apparent that we were not match-fit as a nation to confront that strain. A decade later and the changes are relentless. As the UK faces a new geopolitical situation, with a nation culturally divided, with further deep technological changes on the way, and embedded economic insecurity and injustice, is it any fitter to face the future now? It seems unlikely without very different thinking. Political nostalgias will not suffice. There are hard questions. There is comfort in the old tunes. They do not, however, provide answers.
Anthony Painter is contributing editor to Progress
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