Come on, David, admit we failed

Deep within a filing cabinet, I keep a copy of the 1998 Marxism Today special that just said "Wrong" on a cover adorned with a picture of Tony Blair. I thought of it while reading David Miliband in the New Statesman of 6 February.

Miliband proclaimed that Labour should "insist that the list of gains far outstripped the mistakes. After all, even David Cameron said on coming to office that Britain was better in 2010 than 1997."

What Miliband gets wrong is the idea that we judge a government's record on some balanced scorecard, rather than overall success or failure. Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher succeeded, whereas Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and John Major failed - even if they did some good things. What defines success is a legacy that others have to follow when they don't want to.

Even if we take the most modest definition of the New Labour project - that of humanising neoliberalism - it is a project now in ruins. Unemployment is soaring; the poor are being targeted and humiliated with housing benefit and a hundred other cuts; education and health are being broken up and commercialised. Democracy is weaker and inequality greater, while resistance comes from outside the Labour Party: Avaaz,
38 Degrees and UK Uncut.

Before you ask, "What did you expect, a revolution?" let's go back to Miliband, who was right when he said: "The role of social democrats is to take the values of ethical socialism and put them into practice in a gradual way."

Labour is a party of gradualism and pragmatism. It means slowly and cleverly heading in the right direction, not stupidly and quickly going in the wrong direction. New Labour broke the state in its manic attempt to set markets free and then prop them up when they inevitably failed. In the process, it destroyed its electoral base. The promise of 1997 ran through its fingers. That is why Cameron thought Britain was a better place in 2010 than 1997 - because Labour had failed, not because it had succeeded. Marxism Today has been proved right. Unless and until Labour recognises its failure, it cannot move on.

The core of this failure can be found in the rejection of the politics of a good society and the countervailing forces to make it happen. You can't humanise the market by giving in to it. You humanise it by moral arguments and political strength. That is why Ed Miliband is right to talk about responsible capitalism - but he now has to package it within a compelling vision of a good society and a progressive alliance of forces, parties and organisations that will deliver and sustain it.

Undead Labour

Labour has to reconnect with the centre of British politics but only in order to relocate it on a new, more left-wing common ground. The crisis of capitalism is an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate that it can tax and spend well and regulate the worst excesses of the market effectively while building a new and responsive state.

Labour is in what Antonio Gramsci called an "interregnum". The old is not yet dead; the new is not yet born. The party can be blighted for decades by a generation of politicians who refuse to admit they got it wrong. But failure is acceptable if you learn from it. To do the best for the country, Labour has to say it failed. Then it can move on.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.