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Twenty years of Renewal - a retrospective

Ben Jackson

 

The articles assembled here take the reader on a fascinating intellectual and political journey.

 

For twenty years, Renewal has provided a space for the British left to engage in deeper debate than is permitted by the short-term horizons and constraints of day-to-day political controversy.

This special on-line issue celebrates Renewal’s twentieth birthday by collecting a selection of the most influential and original articles published in the journal since it first appeared in 1993. The articles assembled here – the vast majority of them unavailable on-line until now – take the reader on a fascinating intellectual and political journey. They range from the very earliest musings about what would become New Labour to the debates that surrounded Labour’s long period as the dominant party of government to the critique that accompanied the eventual dissolution of New Labour as a governing project. Many of the key thinkers, policy-makers and commentators of this era are represented here, as are some of the most reflective of the politicians who held office under Blair and Brown. The themes explored are diverse, but characteristic of the agenda of the journal in that they all wrestle with the question that still haunts the British left today: how can we construct a more social democratic Britain in the wake of Thatcherism? In that vein, these articles showcase Renewal’s analysis of key issues such as macro-economic policy and Britain’s growth model; the revival of public services; poverty and social justice; gender relations; constitutional reform and political pluralism; and Britain’s place in the world, uneasily wedged between American and European forms of capitalism.

Aside from illuminating the recent history of the British left, what is intriguing about this selection from Renewal’s back catalogue is the parallel that emerges between the debates in the Labour Party of the 1990s and the direction being charted today by the Labour Party under Ed Miliband. Reading Andrew Gamble and Gavin Kelly on ‘Stakeholder capitalism and one nation socialism’, for example, it is clear that the questions about corporate governance and industrial policy that stand at the centre of Labour’s current rethinking were well-established topics of debate as New Labour took shape, even down to styling Labour as a ‘One Nation’ party. Reading Tony Blair himself on ‘Power for a purpose’ demonstrates a rather neglected anti-establishment side to Blair’s early political style, with the elites that benefitted from British social hierarchies squarely in Blair’s sights. And Philip Gould and Patricia Hewitt on the lessons to be learned from Bill Clinton even stress the need to attend to the economic grievances of the ‘squeezed’ middle class. The analysis developed in the earliest phase of New Labour was not in fact radically different from the analysis of the problems faced by Britain taking hold in Labour circles today. The need for a government strategy for industry, for the reform of corporate governance, for a new distributional settlement to protect bottom and middle earners, for a less predatory labour market, for greater investment in training and skills: these are all themes that were accommodated just as comfortably in Labour debates of the mid-1990s as they are today.      

This raises an unnerving question: if this sort of analysis was available in the 1990s, what happened to it when Labour entered government in 1997? As the later articles collected in this on-line issue demonstrate, contributors to subsequent issues of Renewal were on the whole agreed that the reforming promise of mid-1990s Labour had in office gradually given way to a still worthy but much less radical model of modernised social democracy. While some of the explanation for this shift probably lies in the political idiosyncrasies of Blair, Brown and their immediate circles, a fuller answer would surely have to broach the question of how far economic and political constraints fenced in Labour’s ambitions in office, and channelled New Labour in practice towards a less radical course. It is likely that the architects of New Labour drifted away from their earliest sketches of a modernising Labour government chiefly because they came to the conclusion that they were too radical to work politically: too remote from the concerns of disengaged, middle of the road swing voters; too challenging to the interests of the City and other sections of business opinion; and too redolent of an earlier style of Labour politics to win support from newspaper proprietors and editors. The calculation of this generation of Labour leaders was that the power dynamics of post-Thatcher politics meant that it simply wasn’t possible to undertake any radical changes to the structure of British capitalism (McIvor, 2010).

The question which hangs over British politics today is whether, in the wake of the financial crisis, a rational office-seeking politician could legitimately revise that calculation and revive core elements of that early New Labour analysis. Ed Miliband is currently placing a sizeable wager on the answer to this question being ‘yes’, but it will only be under a Miliband government that the truth of this answer can be tested. After all, as the articles collected here show, at the same point in the electoral cycle in the mid-1990s similarly iconoclastic thoughts about Britain’s economic model were being floated by sources close to the Labour leadership.  

So as Labour develops its new agenda, the publication of this on-line issue gives us the opportunity to reflect on how Labour and the wider British left reached its current position; the strategic questions that now confront it; and whether, contrary to the assumptions of both left and right, Ed Miliband is in fact in the process of rediscovering insights gleaned by New Labour before 1997.

 

Reference

 McIvor, M. (2010) ‘The lessons of power’, Renewal 18 (3/4): 6-8.

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