Twenty years after sweeping to power in 1997 and a decade after its figurehead left office, New Labour is dead and buried. That’s about the one thing that commentators from the left and right of the Labour Party are united in reading into the 2017 General Election – with varying degrees of disappointment and glee.
Owen Jones tells us to rejoice. Peter Mandelson challenges the party’s moderates to think again. Paul Mason, taking a break from starring in a play he wrote based on a book he wrote about his experiences reporting on the Greek crisis, comes to the Progress annual conference and accuses attendees of being wedded to a vanity project – apparently with no sense of irony. ‘We’ve got our party back’ is the clarion call of the left as it moves forwards with plans to reshape Labour in Jeremy Corbyn’s image at Conference.
All of this is based on one of the biggest misconceptions in British politics – that New Labour, or Blairism if you will, came as a bolt from the blue in 1994. That it was a wholly new force in the Labour Party or a hostile takeover of it, depending on your politics. Thirteen years of anomaly, a chapter that can be closed off as we revert back to ‘pre-Blair Labour’ under Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It suited almost everybody in the 1990s to portray the Blair project as distinct from the party’s traditions – for the Blairites it was key to their strategy to convince voters that the party had learned the lessons of the 1980s and cast off its unpopular policies, and for the left it was convenient to explain away the popularity of New Labour compared to the unpopularity of Old Labour by pretending it wasn’t really Labour at all.
At its heart, though, New Labour was well within the tradition of revisionist social democracy that has existed in the party since its founding – the tradition of Arthur Greenwood, Hugh Gaitskell, Anthony Crosland and Roy Hattersley. Blair and Mandelson absolutely rebooted and refreshed that tradition for the 1990s and took it further, in government, than before, but the fundamental tradition – a belief that victory for Labour comes from the centre-left, a rejection of dogma on nationalisation, a commitment to NATO and multilateral nuclear disarmament and a focus on expanding opportunity and prosperity by supporting aspiration – has been with Labour since the beginning.
It’s easy to forget now, reading the gloomy or gleeful editorials that announce the death of New Labour, how vital and energetic it was. Long before Jeremy Corbyn got his own football chant, Tony Blair was almost universally popular in 1997. It seemed as if he could do no wrong and his vision of Britain – modernising and rebuilding the country for the new Millenium, convinced of human potential and the need to unleash it with new technology and new ways of doing things, relentlessly new and ready to race the future – was bought into by nearly half of the electorate. As John Prescott famously said, it was ‘traditional values in a modern setting,’ not some alien entity that had captured Labour’s colours.
So what happened?
In my judgement, in that success lay the seeds of New Labour’s eventual fall from grace. The horror of Iraq alienated many, yes, but the party won a substantial majority in 2005 even as the questions were beginning to mount and the war had turned into a quagmire. In essence, a movement which had been about challenging outdated dogmas and seeking new approaches became too wedded to its own articles of faith – on PFI, the market, a fixed view of where the centre ground in British politics lies. Having been so zealous in reminding the party that it was no longer the 1980s, it failed to realise quickly enough that the 1990s had ended and the financial crisis of 2008 had changed the rules of the game. And having displaced the party’s old guard, it bred followers and not leaders – the ‘second generation’ of Blairites failed to keep control of the party and renew its platform, either in office or in opposition. Blair himself believes that the party was no longer recognisably New Labour by 2010 and it is my judgement that if it had been, it would have at least been the largest party in that election.
Since then, there has been an overriding sense of sclerosis on the party’s right – out of control, out of favour, and arguably out of ideas. John Woodcock, writing in Progress in March, said much the same – a “false sense of security” about the gains of the New Labour years “bred a decade-long complacency” which has left it on the edge of annihilation. Not for nothing was Philip Gould’s seminal book on the New Labour project called ‘The Unfinished Revolution.’
What this election, and the resistible rise of Jeremy Corbyn, represent is not death of New Labour but its apogee. Clearly, both Corbyn’s elevation to the leadership and his unexpected performance at the last election show that there is a desire in the country for new approaches and a new way of doing politics, one that is rooted in the Britain of 2017 and the challenges it faces – but a majority was not delivered by the leadership’s leftwing prospectus. It is the challenge of the party’s right, the inheritors of New Labour, to face up to the fact that while Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t found the right answer, they appear so far not to have an answer at all.
The next Labour majority will not be built on either ‘Old Labour’ or ‘New Labour,’ but on ‘Next Labour.’ It is still true that lasting change comes from the radical, vital centre – but the party’s moderates must understand that where it lies has changed and seven years of Tory rule have given rise to a new centre. That centre will have a solution to the miserable penury of austerity that rises above unfunded spending commitments; a response to the pressures of globalisation and automation on the job market that goes beyond fantasy economics; a plan to overcome the rise of populism other than ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’; a plan for Britain’s future outside the EU that can bring the country together instead of promising everything to all and delivering for none; and a plan to strengthen and empower the working class communities which, even as Labour achieved 41% of the vote in June, denied it a majority and turned to the Tories. That is the new centre – Labour’s moderates in 2017 must own it as aggressively as Blair and Crosland sought to before them.
New Labour is not dead, despite what you might have read. It’s been sleeping, and it’s time for it to wake up.