In this guest post, Young Fabian Rob Newman reflects on the analysis of New Labour throughout the Labour leadership contest.
I’m still waiting impatiently for my ballot paper to arrive so that I can cast my vote in the leadership contest. I supported David Miliband from the moment that he announced his candidacy. My view has been reinforced over the course of these interminable months – not by the candidates’ visions of the future, but rather their assessment of our recent past.
There has been a lot of accurate analysis of New Labour – its undoubted strengths (an unprecedented three election victories) and its acknowledged weaknesses (too hands off with the market, too hands on with the State, in the words of James Purnell).
But there’s been a lot of inaccurate analysis, too – predicated on a persistent, but sadly mistaken, belief about what exactly New Labour was.
The argument goes that New Labour was simply a marketing device; a coup by people who weren’t ‘really’ Labour who compromised on our founding beliefs to get us in to power. Ed Miliband showed that, unfortunately, he falls somewhat for this myth when he wrote recently that “New Labour nostalgia says that there is a tension between our values and our electability”. According to this view, New Labour can be reduced to certain policies (ID cards, tuition fees, the war in Iraq – as if war can ever be a ‘policy’), or even to certain people (Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, John Hutton – choose your bête noire!).
Therefore, with those certain people no longer on the front line and the junking of those policies – hey presto, we will have ‘changed’.
The truth is that New Labour did not identify a “tension” between our values and our being in government. What it identified was the fact that we had failed to broaden our appeal beyond certain groups in society; the “tension” was between our party and the electorate.
It identified other things, too. That economic prosperity and social justice were two sides of the same coin – and that you couldn’t have one without the other. That matters of crime and security profoundly affect our voters – much more so than the better-off Tories who could escape the fear of crime in their leafy suburbs. That the responsibility not to walk by on the other side doesn’t end simply because of a line drawn on a map.
Most of all, it identified that while our values remain immutable, the methods of putting them into practice must forever be in flux. The Labour of 1945 was of course different to the Labour of 1964, 1974 or 1997, with programmes which would have been unrecognisable or indeed antithetical one to the other. But each manifesto was right for its time – a bewildering fact, until we realise the truth of Herbert Morrison’s statement that “Socialism is what a Labour Government does”.
New Labour, then, was an understanding of the need for a broad-based appeal to the whole country – irreducible to Policy A or Person X. Some candidates seem to have bought the myth, moving from astute analysis of the last Labour Government’s failings (the failure to correct the excesses of the City; the lack of affordable housing; not addressing the rising tide of resentment at the speed of change in our communities) to a position of detachment from what is, in truth, a profound record of service to the country.
By all means let us examine what kind of appeal we can fashion for the whole country, not just parts of it, in 2015. By all means let us recognise that a political party, whether in opposition or in government, needs to maintain its connection with the public whose support it seeks. But let’s not pretend that anyone is going to be voting on Iraq, tuition fees or ID cards in 2015. They will be asking whether we have come up with a vision – not for big, interventionist government, or government which retreats and leaves people to sink or swim. Rather, they will be looking for a government which enables people to fulfil their potential; which curbs the excesses of the market while recognising that private enterprise is a wealth creator in our society; which asks people to take up their responsibilities to one another as well as protects their rights.
That government can be a Labour Government. It won’t be branded as ‘New Labour’ – but it will be buttressed by the same understanding that gave that electoral phenomenon such dramatic life.