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Reflections on an extended conversation with New Labour

Neal Lawson, Paul Thompson

First published in Renewal Vol. 15, No. 1 (2007)


The journal and its editorial team saw in New Labour the hope for a new politics. What we got was post-politics and an implicit agreement with the end of history thesis in which the USA and the markets were perceived to have won. 


Even with your favourite columnists, there comes a time when you notice that they are re-cycling the same issues and arguments. Whether anyone else has noticed, we have. There have been almost fifty editorial commentaries in fourteen years, allowing for the odd double issue and guest editor. Until 2001, most were written by Paul, with Neal appearing regularly from the sub’s bench, but most since that time have been co-written.

It might have been easier if the topics had ranged across every issue and part of the globe. And occasionally they have. Paul has written about class and science, Neal about crime. But most of the time the commentaries have been a long and critical conversation with New Labour. Sometimes that has felt a little one-sided and limited in its effectiveness. Not long ago a potential subscriber emailed Paul to say that having read the sample issue he’d been sent from 2001, New Labour hadn’t been taking much of our advice and were we saying anything different in 2006? Suppressing the instinct to reply with some variation on go and get a life, one had to admit he had a point. More on the consequences of a dialogue with the deaf later.

Despite our valiant efforts in recent years to discuss the environment, global governance and consumerism, Renewal now needs an even wider and broader conversation. And like all institutions the journal must do what it says on the cover – it must renew itself. From the next issue, there will be a new editorial team that we are confident can do just that.

But a change at the top doesn’t mean that our efforts have been wasted. Renewal’s prime purpose has been to articulate and sustain a left social democrat politics and a radical modernising policy agenda. We have not been alone in that, but our voice has been important in maintaining and expanding that political space. What’s more, that core conversation with Labour has been necessary. To understand why, we need a bit of time travel back to 1992.


Retracing the steps

When Renewal was launched by a group of five refugees from the Labour Co-ordinating Committee in the wake of Labour’s fourth successive election defeat in 1992, the fashion was to believe that Labour was beyond hope, not only unable to win, but even to think. In our first editorial, we took issue with these views, arguing that we had heard them before, notably after defeats in the 1950s and in 1970, and that parties of the centre-left have successfully re-fashioned relations with the electorate and become associated with modernisation projects.

However, it was certainly true that Labour had failed to learn anything significant from the 1992 defeat and was largely treading water under John Smith’s competent but cautious leadership. Our fourth issue contained a piece from one Tony Blair, then a shadow spokesperson, on ‘why modernisation matters’. It argued that Labour had not sufficiently changed with society and called for a new relationship between citizen and community, with an integral role for radical constitutional reform.

John Smith’s tragic death eventually gave Blair the opportunity to re-fashion the party. Renewal supported Blair’s candidacy and early policies because only he had ‘the language and the image to reach out beyond Labour’s core support’. We supported the symbolic change for Clause Four – ‘a poor clause and a poor cause’ as another editorial put it. 1996–97 was something of a honeymoon period between the journal and the new leadership. There was a well-attended symposium, hosted by Renewal, where Blair debated with a cross-section of the British centre-left intelligentsia. That gave rise to the brief flourish of Nexus– the virtual think-tank that searched in vain for the third way. Blair’s very brief flirtation with stakeholding and longer but no more fruitful grasp of a third way encouraged the view that the search for the ‘big idea’ might actually produce something radical and useful.

The promise of a new politics had yet to be seriously tested. We preferred to give the benefit of the doubt. Just prior to the 1997 election we asserted that, ‘there are still plenty of cynics around who claim that Labour’s commitment is skin deep and that once the Party gets its hands on the levers of parliamentary sovereignty and the quango state, we will see a modified version of business as usual’. Woops – not our most prescient judgement. We did better in the first post-election commentary, noting that the landslide was:

a result that Labour’s campaign in itself neither deserved or produced. It is important that Labour recognises the potential of this changed mood and takes the historic opportunity offered by the large majority and demoralised, divided opposition. We won as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour, is already out of date and out of synch with the new mood in the country.

What was plain then and now is that we won as not being the Conservatives and had much more space than we realised or the incoming government ever wanted.


The first term

So we refused to join the chorus of believers who argued that New Labour had somehow found the recipe to bake the cake of twenty-first-century social democracy. While the social democratic governments of Europe had an unprecedented opportunity to change the terms of debate and policy, ‘What New Labour discovered with brilliant effect was primarily a “local” recipe for winning by re-positioning the Party'.

A new recipe for governing never saw the light of day, at least once the flush of the early constitutional reform agenda wore off. Crucially the culture of democracy and pluralism was never embraced. Bogged down by their pledge to keep to Tory spending plans and an innate caution derived from years of permanent opposition, the new government quickly dissipated the early enthusiasm and goodwill on a diet of hype and spin. A prominent theme of editorials was the danger of a modernising politics based on passive adaptation to perceived social trends rather than an active process of social transformation. Even then it was never clear what New Labour wanted to govern for.

We began to develop the perspective which became our ideological guide over subsequent years – the idea that a modern social democracy was based on egalitarian economics, pluralist politics and a socially liberal culture. New Labour now faced a crossroads. Its first phase had been about constructing a coalition and a story to win. The future demanded a narrative and practice of governing based on equality and social justice. But by the end of the first term it was abundantly clear that despite positive achievements, such as the introduction of a minimum wage, Labour hadn’t been delivering enough on the ordinary things that voters judge good government by. As the pre-election commentary observed,

It was a case of too much New Labour, not enough New Britain. The electorate is no longer grateful to be delivered from Toryism. It doesn’t expect miracles but it expected something better and different from what Labour has so far delivered in office.


The second term

To be fair Blair had always promised caution and consolidation in a first term. We would have to wait until a second when the radicalism would kick in. In this he delivered – but the radicalism was of the wrong sort. Another uninspiring campaign, another large victory against a still demoralised Conservative opposition (with some gains for a principled Liberal Democrat campaign). We said:

In the second term, if we do not raise our game and do it differently, we will not just fail to win hearts and minds, but there will be a potentially huge crisis of legitimacy. There is now a grotesque gap between seats won, votes cast and actual public support.

On the domestic front the second term was about delivering on the Chancellor’s claim that Labour had asked for and won a mandate to invest in public services. That investment was, of course, welcome. But what has come back to haunt the party – the problem of finding the means and consent to deliver reform – was even then obvious as initiatives floundered in a welter of top-down, sometimes impossible and often contradictory targets. An editorial in 2003 argued that although the project of reforming the welfare state and the labour market was a legitimate part of a modernising agenda, New Labour had not effectively addressed the agency of reform – tending to alienate managers and employees alike.

Increasingly though the reform agenda began to be contaminated by the commercialisation of the public sectors. This was the ‘big idea’ of the second term – to make our schools and hospitals more like the high street through choice, competition and more and more work for the private sector.

But what dominated the second term was Iraq. Post 9/11 Renewal commentaries in 2002 and 2003 were sceptical of action in Afghanistan without an exit or an end game and strongly criticised entering into an American-led war with Iraq without UN support. Cabinet splits, party membership losses, significant blows to the prestige of Tony Blair, and a loss of progressive allies and opinion were predicted. At the same time we rejected 'the mono-causal myopia of those who only see faults in our own societies, but seem blind to the reactionary objectives and practices of the fighters who spout shallow and self-serving anti-Western rhetoric'.

In 2003 we marked the tenth anniversary of the journal. Gordon Brown hosted an event in the House of Commons and the prime minister hosted a seminar at Number 10. Despite our worst fears that New Labour’s time had come and gone, we still wanted to engage constructively. We gathered up speakers from within and outside our own ranks to make the case at the Downing Street seminar for a second wave modernising strategy based on non-market decentralised delivery of public service reform, a re-energising of the democratic and constitutional reform agendas, and an economic policy that moved away from a belief in a benign knowledge economy towards grappling with an increasingly financialised capitalism that brought insecurity in its wake for workers and managers alike. That we were able to set out a reasonably coherent and confident agenda reflected, in part, the good work that the journal had been doing in themed issues on equality, liberty and fraternity, new political economy and active citizenship.

Our ideas were listened to politely enough, but New Labour preferred the judgement that more markets and even less of the public realm were the way to re-launch and renew the project. Deaf to alternatives, the machine continued to define the debate as being between bold modernising reformers versus unthinking dinosaurs, and refused to accept that there are different roads to modernisation. Ignoring a semi-academic journal of ideas may be convenient, but dealing with public disquiet deriving from Iraq, attacks on democratic freedoms and patchy outcomes from public services is more problematic. As we commented at the time, ‘The problem is not so much (as the PM argues) that Labour has lost the will to govern, but that large sections of the British public have lost their willingness to be governed by Labour.’

As we approached the 2005 election the party’s view appeared to be – if you don’t like it hard luck, this is a good as it gets and the alternative is the nasty Tories and you don’t really want them, do you? But the days had passed when the electorate could simply be frightened into voting Labour by the prospect of a Tory victory. And so it proved to be.


The third term and beyond

Labour survived a disengaged electorate and its own disillusioned membership, very few of whom could be persuaded to come out and campaign, to secure the historic third term. The occasional crocodile tear was shed for the other ‘historic’ low turnout, but little or no responsibility was taken for an outcome that merely confirmed the process of gradual disjuncture and disengagement between government and people. Even when the opposition was led by Michael Howard.

New Labour was in office with the weakest mandate and without an effective, trusted leader. Predictably the third term has oscillated between (further) disappointment and disaster. Public and party waited for Brown. Meanwhile the Blairites sought to cement their legacy and to tie any successor’s hands – notably deepening choice and marketisation agendas in public services.

We recognise, as a recent commentary put it, that ‘many of the social democratic successes of this Government belong primarily to Gordon’ and we wish his leadership well. The heartbeat of the Brownites is social democratic and we hope the litmus test of their leadership years will be whether they leave the country more equal than they found it. At the same time, ‘waiting for Brown’ is an inadequate strategy for the modernising left. If the past is a guide, there have been too few signs that he will embrace a new politics or ditch an accommodation with the demands of global capital. Labour and the country need a new direction in domestic and foreign policy, not just a new leader.

As Labour was written off before – so it is again. There is no inevitable law of politics that says we must either lose next time or go into opposition to renew ourselves. But tough decisions lie ahead.

Against our own expectations back in the bleak days of 1992, Renewal has existed and thrived as an independent and voluntary endeavour. The same team has carried it through. It remains a unique and valuable space where ideas can be generously elaborated on, discussed and debated. For that we owe a huge dent of thanks to everyone who has worked on and around the journal. In particular we would like to thank all of the contributors and all of the subscribers – who helped us pay the bills and shared the journey. We are sticking with Renewal– helping and assisting the new editorial team without becoming back seat drivers.

In this issue the process of renewal gets a major kick-start. First, Stuart White sets out the case for ‘civic republicanism’ to become the left’s new ‘big idea’. This is early thinking but important work. Republicanism is not an easy term but covers a multitude of issues and values important to us: participation, equality, common goods, deliberation, power and autonomy. All of these are traced through the history of the journal and will play an important part in future debates. Since the demise of the third way there has been no attempt to develop an organising set of principles for the centre-left. A refined and popularised form of republicanism looks like the best place to start. Second, John Denham and a group of thinking MPs make a strong case for the New Labour coalition to be rebuilt on the basis of the opportunities and threats that face Labour today. Again this is an important political intervention and one the journal will develop in the future.

The journal and its editorial team saw in New Labour the hope for a new politics. What we got was post-politics and an implicit agreement with the end of history thesis in which the USA and the markets were perceived to have won. As social democrats we refute the notion that neo-liberalism has claimed a final victory and see around us movements and ideas that are reshaping the centre-left. New Labour itself could have taken any one of a number of turns. The politics of communitarianism or stakeholding could have taken root. The fact that they didn’t says more about our inability to popularise and mobilise for them than any notion of ‘leadership betrayal’.

If the past years have taught us anything, it is this – expecting Labour to renew and radicalise itself solely from within its own resources is a waste of time. To mark the changed circumstances, Renewal, under a fresh editorial team, will make a modest symbolic change in our strap line to a journal of social democracy. We have emphatically not given up on Labour. But the conversation that has taken place in the pages of this journal must be widened. The search for a radical, credible governance project has to be based on dialogue, debate and alliances with those on the left and in the wider progressive and labour movements who share our social democratic goals and desire a more transformative political strategy. What we have also learned is that ideas – even good ones – are not enough. Our dialogue with New Labour turned into a monologue. The birth of Compass is a recognition that, as Lenin said, ‘the victory of ideas needs organising’. From that position of strength and independence, Labour and British society can be changed.

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