After New Labour.

Author:Katwala, Sunder
Position:Features - Viewpoint essay

There are two truths seldom acknowledged about Labour's future. The first is that New Labour has been the most successful governing project of the British centre-left for half a century. The second is that the New Labour project is clearly now over.

That these two truths are usually offered as opposing diagnoses--many Labour people will readily agree with either one of these arguments but vehemently reject the other--may go a long way to explaining why each of the most common arguments about where Labour must go next largely fail to convince. Too many of the debates on this autumn's Manchester conference fringe seem set to offer the party a choice of competing cul-de-sacs: whether to reheat the political scripts of the 1990s, or those of the 1970s.

Next Generation Labour's brightest voices (rightly) argue that Labour must recapture the mantle of 'change'. But if they go on to advance an argument for ever bolder, even newer Labour renewed, this risks sounding much more like 'more of the same'. When that counter-argument is (correctly) advanced, it can be hard to escape the nagging doubt that the speaker's true desire is for New Labour to be ditched so that it can be safely succeeded by what came before it.

Labour should not be afraid of robust discussion of its values, ambitions and policy platform. But the current framing of its internal debate looks set to doom any hope of political recovery to failure.

Firstly, this is far too much an inward-looking factional argument framed between two minorities on the right and left flanks of the party. Much mainstream left-of-centre Labour opinion, which understood why the party needed to modernise without ever forgetting what it was for, risks being crowded out of the debate about Labour's future.

Secondly, this 'New Labour: for or against' debate sets up a series of unhelpful binary choices: should Labour be proud or dissatisfied with its record in power? Does Labour rebuild its core support or target swing voters? Is the strategic argument for continuity, and defending Labour's record from reversal, or for a future change agenda? Does Labour need to be more clearly rooted in clear values and principles--or would that narrow the broad appeal needed for recovery?

Thirdly, for all of this internal soul-searching Labour has still yet to conduct a serious inquest into both the scope and limits of the New Labour project. That was missing from the Blair-Brown transition, while the current argument is over such a narrow idea of 'New Labour' that it is impossible to imagine how it could have been the dominant force in British politics for a decade.

After three election defeats, the Conservative Party became competitive again when, it finally began a serious inquest into why it was losing. Labour has struggled to adapt to the changed political landscape which results from its own political success. Having half-converted its political opponents into competing for Labour territory, Labour finds that its 1997 playbook no longer works (Katwala, 2007). Yet it has been unable to articulate its own positive social democratic argument sufficiently to re-establish clear public differences between the major parties for fear of being seem to lurch left.

This will leave the next election as a referendum on an unpopular government, not a choice between alternative governments: an unwinnable proposition.

The New Labour coalition

The mythology of New Labour is part of the problem. Phillip Gould, chronicler of the unofficial 'authorised version' in his book The Unfinished Revolution, portrays 'the project' as the creation a handful of individuals--Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Campbell and himself. This version of New Labour is avidly studied on the Conservative frontbench. It is popular too, with heroes and villains reversed, on Labour's left flank: the capture of a once proud political party by a tight-knit cabal who broke with Labour traditions and ideas (Gould, 1998).

This does nothing to explain how New Labour was possible. In fact, New Labour was once a majority argument within the party, which won the support of a broad internal coalition across mainstream strands of party opinion. So there were different strands within New Labour and different ideas about what it might become. It was much broader and more plural than it seems to have become today.

New Labour presented itself as a 'year zero' project yet the 'clause IV' moment of 1995 built on several earlier organisational, ideological, policy and electoral shifts: the expulsion of Militant, the shift of defence and European policy, and the introduction of 'one member one vote' under Neil Kinnock and John Smith; the push to elect a decisively greater number of Labour women to Parliament; Giles Radice's 'Southern Discomfort' Fabian pamphlets on electoral strategy and the ippr's Commission for Social Justice had helped to coalesce opinion around a modern social democratic argument.

To note that the Blair leadership and the public projection of New Labour came after all of this is not to underestimate their importance. Blair shifted gear on each front, replacing a 'how little change is necessary to win' approach with a 'breakout strategy'. New Labour was more than a marketing exercise in brand decontamination. It encompassed a historical critique of how to avoid the serial fate of Labour in power, brought down by economic crisis and government-party splits; a policy argument about how social democracy should deal with the challenges of economic globalisation; and (in its early phase, at least) an argument about the need to modernise the British state and do politics differently.

Only a relatively small minority...

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