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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.