The new old
Labour is stagnating. Geoff Mulgan argues that any renewal will have to be just as dramatic and far-
Just over a thousand years ago, a minister in the Tang dynasty listed the maladies that he had seen afflicting China's emperors the longer they stayed in power. They included "preference for winning, embarrassment at hearing of one's mistakes, indulgence in sophistic debates, showing off one's intelligence, increasing one's authority, and failure to restrain one's strong will". Once emperors contracted these failings, the minister warned, they stopped listening to the people and the seeds of chaos and downfall were sown.
For delegates gathered in Brighton there will be little shame in admitting to a preference for winning. But in the back of everyone's mind will be the fear that even now the seeds of downfall are being sown. The delegates have an awful portent of their possible future in plain sight. In the early 1990s the Tories looked invincible and it was a columnist's cliche that their party was the western world's most ruthlessly successful political machine. Yet it was casually digging its own grave. It embodied all of the Chinese imperial maladies. It stopped listening and stopped evolving as a bunch of ageing men pursued their fights and their causes, oblivious to a world that had moved on and a public that came to view them with contempt.
The lesson is that parties do not naturally renew themselves. Many die. Many stagnate. Many seem programmed to wander off into their own world of make-believe. It takes hard work, often against the odds, to battle against the twin vices of complacency and delusion that so often afflict political parties.
Labour's leaders know this because it is precisely what they did in the early 1990s. But then they were helped by previous failure. The litany of electoral defeats helped silence dissent as they refashioned Labour into a leaner, more disciplined machine, better suited to the times. Now, by contrast, Labour's very success may make the necessary job of renewal much harder. As the Tories found, it is incredibly difficult to overhaul a machine that appears to win all the races. It's much easier for members and MPs to fall back on old ideological divides than to engage with an uncertain future.
So, amid the beer and smoke and the bad carpets, the big question for this conference is not what it signals about the precise temperature of the Blair-Brown relationship, or whether the Iraq invasion has been forgiven. Instead the right question to ask is whether the party has what it takes to begin another thorough-going process of renewal which may have to be as far-reaching as the creation of new Labour was.
By the time of the next election in 2009, 15 years will have elapsed since Tony Blair first became leader. Fifteen years is an eternity in politics. It would be extraordinary if the formulae that worked so well in 1994 still worked then, and even more extra-ordinary if they were suitable for the 2010s. In the mid-1990s Labour was responding to the utter dominance of the Conservatives and their cheerleaders in the right-wing media, and to a landscape in which Labour looked both anachronistic and alien. Now that landscape has been transformed and there are very different anxieties, aspirations and divisions.
To reach the next election ready for success, Labour will need to get three difficult things right. The first is humility. Labour has been adept at learning some of the habits of power. It has achieved Harold Wilson's dream of looking like the natural party of government, which is no mean feat. In times of uncertainty, proven competence at keeping the ship of state afloat and avoiding the icebergs will count for a lot. We live in an anti-political age where it is not enough to be competent, however. To the public, many of the habits of power look deeply unattractive. These habits include an undue attraction to the bureaucratic apparatus of targets and audits, controls and centralisation ("failure to restrain one's strong will"). They include brittleness in response to criticism ("embarrassment at hearing of one's mistakes") and a bias towards vested interests - big institutions that can do deals and deliver results.
Renewal, by contrast, requires precisely the opposite mindset: remembering what it feels like to be an insurgent, an outsider looking in, and remembering that whereas from the inside power seems cool and rational, from the outside it often looks capricious and mean. Renewal requires an ability to listen hard. One of the fascinating features of the "Big Conversation" exercise was that although a minority of ministers and MPs grasped brilliantly the need for a new, more open and conversational style of politics, the majority simply didn't know how to do it.
The second thing Labour needs is to rediscover its values. Many governments drift into a technocratic pragmatism which leaves them almost embarrassed by their values. Yet any party wanting to renew itself has to remember what motivated its members in the first place, what made them angry or hopeful enough to put up with the dull grind of leaflets and committees. Values are the renewable energies of politics, and over the next few years Labour's values of mutuality and fairness, cultural progressivism and internationalism, are likely to be essential resources for renewal - and far more useful than the armies of consultants and lobbyists camped in the plush hotels of Brighton.
The third essential for renewal is a programme that is equal to the times. For now, Labour has a comprehensive programme to be implemented. There is no shortage of policies and strategies, and there is little point in changing policies for the sake of it. Against the odds, Britain has become one of the better examples of a north European social and economic model which is now outperforming all of the alternatives, and Labour is right to take credit for having got many of the big judgements right. But in time new policies will be needed.
There will need to be new solutions to the wicked issues of pensions, local government and transport, which were swept under the carpet before the election. At the same time, one of the tests for any party will be whether it can grasp the nettle on an issue such as climate change, where there will be more losers than winners. Just as important, if the public is to believe that Labour has a new spring in its step as 2009 approaches, policies that don't work or don't add up will need to be junked ruthlessly (high on many people's lists would be ID cards, still a solution in search of a problem), so that a fresh and distinctive message can accompany a new leader into battle.
Labour party conferences are not the obvious places to kick off any process of renewal. In the past few years they have become increasingly reminiscent of the character in William Morris's News From Nowhere who asks the locals about politics in the fictional utopia and is told: "We are very well off as to politics, - because we have none." Yet it is politics that keeps political parties alive and politics that keeps them away from oblivion.
That is why the preparation needs to start now. According to the psephologists, the fact of holding power tends to cost parties something like 3 per cent of the vote at each election. For a party with an electoral majority of roughly 3 per cent that is a sobering thought. Labour needs another bout of renewal. New Labour is no longer new, and if it is to avoid the curse that afflicted Chinese emperors it needs to remember that truly great organisations don't wait for crises - they pre-empt them.
Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation and a former head of policy in the Prime Minister's Office