Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at last year's Labour Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images
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Tony Blair: Labour must search for answers and not merely aspire to be a repository for people’s anger

The centre has not shifted to the left, says Tony Blair. Labour must resist the easy option of tying itself to those forces whose anti-Tory shouts are loudest.

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The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly. The risk, which is highly visible here in Britain, is that the country returns to a familiar left/right battle. The familiarity is because such a contest dominated the 20th century. The risk is because in the 21st century such a contest debilitates rather than advances the nation.

This is at present crystallising around debates over austerity, welfare, immigration and Europe. Suddenly, parts of the political landscape that had been cast in shadow for some years, at least under New Labour and the first years of coalition government, are illuminated in sharp relief. The Conser­vative Party is back clothing itself in the mantle of fiscal responsibility, buttressed by moves against “benefit scroungers”, immigrants squeezing out British workers and – of course – Labour profligacy.

The Labour Party is back as the party opposing “Tory cuts”, highlighting the cruel consequences of the Conservative policies on welfare and representing the disadvantaged and vulnerable (the Lib Dems are in a bit of a fix, frankly).

For the Conservatives, this scenario is less menacing than it seems. They are now going to inspire loathing on the left. But they’re used to that. They’re back on the old territory of harsh reality, tough decisions, piercing the supposed veil of idealistic fantasy that prevents the left from governing sensibly. Compassionate Conservatism mat­tered when compassion was in vogue. But it isn’t now. Getting the house in order is.

For Labour, the opposite is true. This scenario is more menacing than it seems. The ease with which it can settle back into its old territory of defending the status quo, allying itself, even anchoring itself, to the interests that will passionately and often justly oppose what the government is doing, is so apparently rewarding, that the exercise of political will lies not in going there, but in resisting the temptation to go there.

So where should progressive politics position itself, not just in Britain but in Europe as a whole? How do we oppose smartly and govern sensibly?

The guiding principle should be that we are the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger. In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion. In the second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all, people want leadership.

So, for Britain, start with an analysis of where we stand as a country. The financial crisis has not created the need for change; it has merely exposed it. Demographics – the age profile of our population – technology and globalisation all mean that the systems we created post-1945 have to change radically. This is so, irrespective of the financial catastrophe of 2008 and its aftermath.

Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it “created” the crisis. In 2007/2008 the cyclically adjusted current Budget balance was under 1 per cent of GDP. Public debt was significantly below 1997. Over the whole 13 years, the debt-to-GDP ratio was better than the Conservative record from 1979-97. Of course there is a case for saying a tightening around 2005 would have been more prudent. But the effect of this pales into insignificance compared to the financial tsunami that occurred globally, starting with the sub-prime mortgage debacle in the US.

However, the crisis has occurred and no one can get permission to govern unless they deal with its reality. The more profound point is: even if it hadn’t happened, the case for fundamental reform of the postwar state is clear. For example:

  • What is driving the rise in housing benefit spending, and if it is the absence of housing, how do we build more?
     
  • How do we improve the skillset of those who are unemployed when the shortage of skills is the clearest barrier to employment?
     
  • How do we take the health and education reforms of the last Labour government to a new level, given the huge improvement in results they brought about?
     
  • What is the right balance between universal and means-tested help for pensioners?
     
  • How do we use technology to cut costs and drive change in our education, health, crime and immigration systems?
     
  • How do we focus on the really hard core of socially excluded families, separating them from those who are just temporarily down on their luck?
     
  • What could the developments around DNA do to cut crime?

There are another 20 such questions, but they all involve this approach: a root-and-branch inquiry, from first principles, into where we spend money, and why.

On the economy, we should have one simple test: what produces growth and jobs? There is roughly $1trn (£650bn) of UK corporate reserves. What would give companies the confidence to invest it? What does a modern industrial strategy look like? How do we rebuild the financial sector? There is no need to provide every bit of detail. People don’t expect it. But they want to know where we’re coming from because that is a clue as to where we would go, if elected.

Sketch out the answers to these questions and you have a vision of the future. For progressives, that is of the absolute essence. The issue isn’t, and hasn’t been for at least 50 years, whether we believe in social justice. The issue is how progressive politics fulfils that mission as times, conditions and objective realities change around us. Having such a modern vision elevates the debate. It helps avoid the danger of tactical victories that lead to strategic defeats.

It means, for example, that we don’t tack right on immigration and Europe, and tack left on tax and spending. It keeps us out of our comfort zone but on a centre ground that is ultimately both more satisfying and more productive for party and country.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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