Wanted: new-thinking pioneers

The intellectuals whose thinking underpinned Labour's return to office in 1997 have moved on. Where

What if people who want to see this government re-elected could see beyond the horrors of the past few weeks (the 10p tax-rate fiasco, the crumbling poll ratings, Labour's pitiful "anti-toff" campaign in Crewe and Nantwich, the growing triumphalism of the Conservative Party) and look at the wider political horizon? What would they find there?

The truth is that they would see a landscape largely barren of ideas. This is the true state of progressive opinion today. It is difficult to think of a single academic, writer or intellectual who is fully signed up to the Labour project as it exists in 2008. In fact, it is difficult to describe it as a project at all.

This is odd, because Labour's recovery under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was founded on a solid intellectual bedrock. The philosophy of the New Labour project, once described as the Third Way, is sometimes written off as an empty shell, but this is unfair. Even its most eloquent detractors recognised the attraction of its message. In his 2001 book Against the Third Way, the Trotskyist Alex Callinicos, then professor of politics at York University, wrote: "The attraction of the Third Way lies in the promise it offers of escaping the dead ends we have inherited from the past. Confronted with the unpalatable alternatives of Stalinism and Thatcherism, who wouldn't prefer a third way?" Who indeed? Not the generation of young politicians which now dominates British politics. Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Balls and David Miliband all grew to adulthood between the miners' strike of 1984 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. All three major parties practise a form of Third Way politics. Despite its apparent collapse, the politics of the 21st century will be built from the rubble of New Labour.

Callinicos has argued that Labour under Tony Blair was never a genuine alternative for the left. Instead, New Labour became an essentially right-wing, neoliberalist exercise, outstripping even its Tory predecessors in its fervour for the private sector. The columnist George Monbiot made a similar point on Tuesday in the Guardian when he argued that the present government was the most right-wing since the war.

Like it or not, however, New Labour was always as much an intellectual concept as it was an electoral strategy. It emerged from left-wing think tanks, the pages of publications such as Marxism Today and New Left Review and, to a certain extent, from the ashes of the Social Democratic Party. For a time it appeared to offer a genuine alternative to traditional socialism.

In the early days, intellectuals of the Third Way put themselves at the service of New Labour. Roger Liddle, a founder of the SDP and the author, with Peter Mandelson, of The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? (1996), became a special adviser on European affairs to the new prime minister, Blair. Geoff Mulgan, a founder of the think tank Demos, became director of the government's Strategy Unit and later head of policy in the prime minister's office.

Hugely influential was the New Statesman contributor Professor Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics, whose 1994 book Beyond Left and Right is often seen as the founding text of the Third Way. Although Giddens never worked for the government, his thinking influenced those formulating New Labour policy.

Another important figure, Matthew Taylor, went from the Labour Party to work as director of the Institute for Public Policy Research before becoming chief adviser on strategy to the prime minister in 2003.

Interestingly, each of the figures above has retreated from direct involvement in the political sphere. Although some important New Labour thinkers, such as David Miliband and Andrew Adonis have gone on to become ministers and retain a role in the post-Blair world, most have not. Liddle now works on European issues for the international think tank Policy Network. Mulgan, perhaps the single most important intellectual figure in New Labour's history, left No 10 in 2004. He now leads the Young Foundation, an organisation based in east London, which attempts to put new political ideas into action on the ground, free from the restrictions of central government. Taylor has become the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, which he has turned into a forum for new ideas very much independent from his old political masters. Of the younger generation of New Labour intellectuals, Patrick Diamond, who worked in Blair's policy unit, now works as director of policy and strategy at the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

Recent publications by these New Labour thinkers suggest that they are no longer entirely focused on domestic policy. Diamond's Shifting Alliances (2008) examines Britain's increasingly troubled relationship with Europe and America, while Mulgan's Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government (2006) hoovers up examples from around the globe through a thousand years of political history.

Intellectual rebirth

The present occupant of No 10 Downing Street would be proud to describe himself as an intellectual. At the same time, his three closest political allies - Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander - are all quite capable of knocking off a political pamphlet for a think tank. But, crucially, they have yet to establish themselves as pioneers of new thinking. In the present political climate, even exceptional behind-the-scenes strategists such as Dan Corry, the present head of the No 10 Policy Unit, or Nick Pearce, Brown's strategy adviser, are in no position to think in the long term.

Those who left the heart of government may be better placed in this regard. It is as well not to be too conspiratorial about these things, but many of the Blair-era intellectuals continue to work closely together. For instance, Giddens, Diamond and Liddle are the co-authors of Global Europe, Social Europe (2006). Giddens and Diamond also co-wrote The New Egalitarianism (2005). All three are associated with Policy Network, on whose board they all serve, alongside the Blairite former cabinet ministers Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn.

There are signs of intellectual rebirth on the left, mostly driven by the women who lead the left-wing think tanks, as Richard Reeves has pointed out in these pages. Catherine Fieschi at Demos is a genuinely independent thinker, Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim at IPPR have both worked in government and Ann Rossiter at the Social Market Foundation is pure New Labour. But none could be described as a Brownite, and they have not been driving the Labour policy agenda.

As the anniversary of Brown's coronation as Labour leader approaches, murmurs of a challenger grow in volume. Charles Clarke has denied he will stand as a stalking-horse candidate, despite his criticism of the government's direction from the back benches. The website Politicalbetting has reported that Alan Milburn is planning a leadership bid after Crewe and Nantwich, when the Prime Minister is likely to be at his weakest. Whether or not this is true, the machinery and personnel remain in place to continue the intellectual tradition of the Third Way.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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