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.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.