"Moderates have failed to engage with the way the world has changed. Not just in terms of the impact and aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis or Brexit, but in the way in which politics is conducted."
New Labour’s election campaign and landslide victory in 1997 has become a myth for many on the centre-left. Labour wrestled the hallowed ‘centre ground’ from the Conservatives by promising to maintain low taxes whilst improving health and education services and it built on the modern image of the party promoted first in 1987 under Neil Kinnock. It represents technical and strategic genius. For many politicians, commentators and journalists, this is the only way to win an election.
This conventional wisdom is correct. Albeit, it was correct for 1997. In 1997, Britain’s economy had real growth and the electorate felt it. This isn’t to play down the devastating impact of nearly eighteen years Conservative on manufacturing or inequality. But the reality was that in 1997, 85% of people felt very or fairly confident about their future. In 1997, as much as the public may have wanted better services and an alleviation of poverty, they did not want a complete reworking of Britain’s economic model. Knowing this, New Labour represented a form of “revisionism”, a tradition that holds that Labour must adapt to operate in different contexts and environments to build social democracy. It accepted that the social democracy of 1945-1979 was no longer workable: Globalisation had made high taxation economic suicide and the backbone of traditional social democracy, the trade unions, had been decimated by Thatcherism.
New Labour had a diagnosis of how the UK had changed and it had a plan to adapt Labour, and social democracy accordingly. With an electorate of “salariat” homeowners, a globalised financial capitalism and an emerging 24-hour media cycle, it realised Labour had to guarantee the stability of the existing system before it could win an election. Accordingly, it promised to adopt Conservative spending plans for the first two years and not to raise income tax in its first term.
You can argue New Labour was wrong, but you have to accept it was viable and for over a decade it worked. It had a theory of politics which allowed it to win and to make a difference.
New Labour provides no blueprint for victory or government today. In 1997, wages had not been stagnant for ten years, intergenerational inequality had not become seemingly insurmountable and our politics was nowhere near as divided or divisive. Nor had the internet not democratised and divided our media. Moderates have failed to adapt to either the strains in the current economic paradigm or changes in how politics is actually done.
In terms of policy, the vital ‘centre ground’ has shifted. Even before Corbyn, the right of the party failed to appreciate how popular the left-wing aspects of Miliband’s platform, like the energy price freeze, actually were. New Labour didn’t rock the boat, it kept within the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Today in contrast, the public is determined to rock the boat. Growing public dissatisfaction with the market-led order means “Blairism” as a position is politically irrelevant.
Anthony Crosland, the grandfather of revisionism, elevated ends over means: as Neil Kinnock said in his 1985 conference speech, what happens is the results, not “how you play the game”. New Labour embraced this tradition. But most ‘moderates’ who worship New Labour today are no longer pragmatists. Instead, they have become as ideological as the people they oppose. Until they change, they will remain politically irrelevant.
Moderates have failed to engage with the way the world has changed. Not just in terms of the impact and aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis or Brexit, but in the way in which politics is conducted. For example, before 2017, Corbyn’s fondness for rallies was a cause for despair. They were seen as a repeat of Michael Foot’s preaching to the crowd in 1983. What many failed to appreciate was that due to the wooden, tepid manner of other political campaigns, these rallies were extremely powerful. Easily shareable videos and pictures of enthusiastic support for Labour spread like wildfire on social media. Today, it is these events, not stage-managed speeches to journalists, which have power to cause political upset. As good a documentary series as “Labour: The Wilderness Years” is; it tells us nothing about Labour in the 21st century.
Saying this, why do we need revisionists in the Labour Party? The short answer is we need that pragmatic streak. For many on the left, it seems that what matters is “how you play the game”. For example, in 2017, Labour’s manifesto promised to eliminate tuition fees. But eliminating tuition fees would disproportionately benefit the middle class and wouldn’t eliminate the real issue of student poverty; The Liberal Democrat manifesto was also calculated as better for Britain’s poorest households in cash terms. A Labour party focused on the “ends” rather than the “means” would see this as unacceptable. Today’s moderates aren’t necessarily pragmatists, but the left certainly aren’t either.
With the country being more difficult to govern than ever before, a Labour government-in-waiting needs a pragmatic streak.
Noah Froud is a Young Fabian member and contributing writer. Follow him on Twitter at @Yesah_