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Did Renewal make a difference?

Patrick Wintour

 

First published in Renewal Vol 11, No. 1 (2003)

 

Renewal has been one of the few spaces in which social democrats can have a grown up discussion without someone shouting betrayal.

 

Assessing the impact of something as amorphous as the influence of a political journal is a hazardous business. Influence is not a measurable commodity, even if the Treasury has – absurdly – set the Foreign Office a public target to increase its influence in the world by 2005-6. However, in retrospect, it is pretty clear that Tribune caught a wave in the 1950s. Socialist Commentary gave a focus for the social democrat revisionists. The New Statesman under Kingsley Martin became the journal of emotional protest, and more recently Marxism Today, edited by the inspired Martin Jacques, caught a political mood on the left as it struggled to come to terms with the popularity of Thatcherism. The New Left Review gave a focus to 1960s academic Marxism. Looking further back, the Left Book Club inspired by Victor Gollancz became a rallying point for the antifascist tide and helped unite the left in the 1930s. Robert Blatchford’s Clarion and his single volume Merrie England were there at the launch of the independent socialism. The New Liberals, led by J A Hobson, had the Nation in which to discuss their ideas.

So journals matter. They become part of the conversation of a movement. They test out theories and provide relief from the daily battle against ideas waged without remorse by most British newspapers and TV. To the extent that New Labour has been a set of ideas, as opposed to a campaign team to win elections, the crucible is found in the pages of Renewal. Now enjoying its tenth birthday and looking forward to the perils of truculent adolescence, Renewal was formed in the wake of Labour’s fourth election defeat. It was a pretty depressing time to try and revive Labour. The party was on the floor and did not seem to have a clue how to get onto its knees, let alone its feet. John Smith had many merits, but pluralism and a spirit of intellectual inquiry were not chief of them.

Simply by helping to give Tony Blair a sympathetic intellectual backdrop against which to operate, Renewal and its short-lived sister Nexus gave Blair a start as leader he badly needed. Looking down the cast list of early Renewals, few of the serious contributors to New Labour analysis are absent. They may not be household names outside modernising circles, but inside the party they have mattered. Geoff Mulgan, David Miliband, Tom Bentley, Dan Corry, Gavin Kelly, Sue Goss, Mathew Taylor, Neal Lawson and David Triesman. There has also been a smattering of MPs willing to send out distress messages from within the parliamentary party – Robin Cook, Peter Kilfoyle, Peter Hain, Douglas Alexander, John Healey, Angela Eagle, Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Hodge, Fiona Mactaggart, and even a suspiciously ghosted offering or two from Mr Blair himself. Neither a faction, support group, propaganda sheet, think tank nor academic journal, Renewal has been refreshingly different. It has been one of the few spaces in which social democrats can have a grown up discussion without someone shouting betrayal.

On a range of issues, the journal has been ahead of the pack, or has at least displayed an honourable and consistent critique. It has taken a serious interest in devolution from the outset and followed the Scottish and Welsh experiments when attention elsewhere flagged. Similarly, the championing of regionalism has paid dividends. Renewal was also one of the first to warn that public services delivered exclusively by Whitehall would fail. Well before the 2001 election, the journal started to ask now fashionable questions about the evaluation culture or the army of inspectors being created by the government. The impact of targets on public managers and the dangers of proxy indicators won a thorough airing through 2000. The dangers of the confusing plethora of area-based initiatives were spotted early. The age-old debate about the path to equality, and its consequences for welfare policy, has been kept vigorously alive in its pages. A critique of the Blairite policy of ‘redistribution by stealth’ has become ever more trenchant.

There have been disappointments. Working across the grey lines of academia, journalism and think tanks, the prose style has sometimes owed too much to sociology, and too little to clarity. Brevity has also been a neglected virtue. Convoluted language may give the author a thrill, but it does not help spread ideas. Some issues also seem to be conspicuous by their absence. The forces inspiring 11 September or the Republican victory in the US would have been news to Renewal readers. The Middle East and Africa have also been discussed too little. Transport is another lacunae. More decent empirical research would have been welcome, especially if the aim is in part to influence a government that prides itself on evidence-based policy. Elsewhere, the journal’s ideas have frankly failed to win support. Proportional representation for Westminster and a new relationship with the Liberal Democrats, two of Renewal’s great enthusiasms, have not taken root in the party. Tribalism is alive as ever.

Despite its inevitable reputation as a Blairite fan sheet, any close examination shows its pages becoming ever more frustrated by the direction of government. Disillusionment has not yet turned to hostility, but the mood is souring. Just after the 2001 election, an editorial confessed:

what we could do with victory four years ago was largely down to us. But on a blank canvas we painted by a set of numbers pencilled in largely by our Tory predecessors. We did it humanely and any Labour government is better than any Tory government, but that isn’t good enough. To make matters worse, the government machine exaggerated and double counted what it hadn’t done, while hiding the good social exclusion measures it had. The outcome – too many sections of the electorate misinformed and disappointed.

The latest editorial admits the record of the government has been patchy: ‘There has been progress on the democratic and equality agenda, but not enough. In too many areas the job remains unfinished or barely begun’. It would be good to think that Renewal in 2013 is still around. By then it would be a ‘pretty sussed 20 year old’, still demanding more of a Labour government – by then led by another younger member of the current Renewal Editorial Board.

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