The Purple Book and the future of New Labour

Labour must guard against becoming a conservative force, stuck in the world of 1994 rather than 2011

In 1959, in the wake of Labour's third successive general election defeat, Hugh Gaitskell launched his bid to reform the old Clause IV of the party's constitution. Labour must adapt, he said, 'to be in touch always with ordinary people to avoid becoming small cliques of isolated, doctrine-ridden fanatics, out of touch, with the main stream of social life in our time'.

While Gaitskell's attempt to change Clause IV was unsuccessful, his speech captured well the essence of the party's revisionist tradition - that is, the belief that while values remain constant, the means to attain them must be kept constantly under review in the light of changes in society.

The notion that, as Gaitskell put it, the party should not, "wave the banners of a bygone age" was precisely the argument that Labour's revisionists of the 1980s and 1990s - Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown - made to the party and which set it back on the road to electability.

Without revisionism, Labour might have ceased to exist, clinging to what Kinnock famously denounced in his 1986 conference speech as policies that are 'out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs'.

The case for the continuing relevance of New Labour - with its insistence on the necessity of separating means from ends - hinges on its proponents' acceptance of this place within the revisionist tradition. As the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander argues in the forthcoming issue of Progress magazine, New Labour was "composed of positions, personnel and policies". The personnel have changed and the policies for the 1990s are not going to be the solutions to the problems in the 2010s. But the positions - a determination to prioritise credibility on the economy, to stick to the centre-ground, and a willingness to take bold steps on issues like crime and antisocial behaviour - are ones we reject at great cost.

But New Labour, too, must itself guard against becoming a conservative force, stuck in the world of 1994 rather than 2011. Indeed, Labour's revisionists have made this error before.

Writing in the aftermath of Labour's fourth general election defeat in 1992, the historian David Marquand noted that, 'the values embodied in the ... social democratic middle way - a combination of personal freedom and social justice; of individual fulfilment and public purpose - are as compelling as they always were. But ... the instruments through which the revisionist social democrats of the 1960s and 1970s tried to realise their values broke in the hands of the governments which relied upon them.'

For many, this would be an apt description of New Labour's final years in government. And the solution that Marquand proposed nearly 20 years ago is as relevant today as it was then: 'If revisionist social democracy is to recover intellectually as well as politically, if it is to serve as a governing philosophy after an election as well as providing a platform from which to fight one, it must itself be revised.'

It is as a first contribution to what we hope will be a much-needed new chapter in the story of Labour's revisionist tradition that, alongside Biteback publishing, Progress today publishes The Purple Book.

The book rests on a belief that we need a 'revising of New Labour' and that this requires four things. First, a willingness, in the words of Ed Miliband, to escape the 'false choices' around Labour's electoral strategy. Second, an honest account of New Labour's period in office and its lessons. Third, a willingness to confront the division within the left on the role of the state. And, finally, the development of new policies - guided by the principle of redistributing power - to confront the new challenges facing Britain over the next decade. Crucially, these must be explicitly based on a recognition of the need to restore the public's shattered faith in the ability of the state and the market to widen opportunity, demand responsibility, and strengthen communities.

Comparisons have been made between The Purple Book and The Orange Book. Both attempt to revive a tradition from our respective parties' history that we believe has relevance for the future. But while The Orange Book attempted to revive economic liberalism, The Purple Book attempts no such thing - this has, after all, never been part a central part of Labour's story. We, instead, attempt to revive Labour's decentralising tradition of participation, self-government and "moral reform".

It is the tradition of those such as the Levellers and Thomas Paine who fought and argued for a widening of political rights; of the ethical socialism of RH Tawney and the guild socialism of GDH Cole; of the cooperative movement, Robert Owen, the Rochdale Pioneers and William Morris; of the self-organisation ethos by which the working class built the early trade union movement, the friendly societies and other institutions that reflected their belief in self-help; and the municipal "gas-and-water socialism" of the interwar years.

However diverse this tradition, there is a common thread running through it. Resting on the principles of participation and self-government, it challenges the approach that says that Labour's role should be to win elections, seize the commanding heights of the state and use power to redistribute resources from the few to the many.

Instead, the decentralist tradition requires the left to "create new centres of governance, power and wealth creation, as an alternative to both the centralised state and the private sector". This should be the guiding objective of a future Labour government, and the narrative with which the party describes its mission. The Purple Book begins to set out how.

Robert Philpot is the director of Progress.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.