The New Labour That Wasn’t: lessons for Miliband

If there is a lesson to be learned from the road not taken by New Labour, it is that economic reform and political reform are necessarily connected.

Labour currently faces a period of challenging redefinition. New Labour is emphatically over and done. But as New Labour recedes into the past, it is possible to speak of a road not taken – the ‘New Labour That Wasn’t? And what relevance does it have for Labour today?

The New Labour That Wasn’t found expression in a number of important works from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Perhaps the key early contribution was David Marquand’s The Unprincipled Society, followed by Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher and Associative Democracy. Will Hutton’s The State We’re In (1995) arguably pulled the ideas together in the way that had the biggest impact. Another important feature of the context was the rise, from 1988, of Charter 88 as a pressure group and wider political movement arguing the case for comprehensive constitutional reform.

The New Labour That Wasn’t argued that the UK’s economic problems had deep institutional roots. In The State We’re In, Hutton argued that the UK’s competitiveness in manufacturing had been undermined historically by the short-termism of the City, making for an excessively high cost of capital and consequent underinvestment. German capitalism, he argued, offered an alternative model based on long-term, ‘patient’ industrial banking. It also illustrated the benefits of structures of governance of the firm that incorporate not only long-term investors but also labour as long-term partners – ‘stakeholders’ – in enterprise management.

For Paul Hirst, the UK’s economic revival depended on manufacturing renewal in particular. At its heart would be small and medium-sized firms adapted to the production of high-quality goods, targeted to the needs of varied customers, on the basis of highly and broadly skilled workforce. Institutionally, Hirst argued, this kind of production is supported by ‘corporatist’ arrangements that facilitate collaboration between labour and capital, as well as a strong regional dimension to economic growth strategy.

The second key plank of the New Labour That Wasn’t was the advocacy of a pluralist polity: Charter 88’s platform of devolution, a UK Bill of Rights for the UK, electoral and House of Lords reform and freedom of information. Pluralism here also entails an idea of cohesion and the common good. The individual citizen should be able to argue their case in dialogue with other citizens both in the workplace and in the wider public sphere.

The third key element of The New Labour That Wasn't lies in the claim that economic and political reform are necessarily connected. Power is shared across parties: industry and finance, labour and capital. But it is difficult to create the framework for this kind of pluralism to flourish when the state itself is so centralised and majoritarian.

Actual New Labour was partly inspired by this current of thought. But it was also defined, in some important ways, by a strong rejection of it. On the economy, New Labour briefly, and somewhat superficially, adopted the language of stakeholding. However, Hutton's relational idea of stakeholding gave way to a much more individualistic understanding of the term, a matter of individuals holding assets which increase their options in the marketplace. This reflected a key strategic decision on Labour's part to accept the existing financial system and (to a large extent) the rules of corporate governance.

While New Labour took a much weaker line on reforming the economy, on the side of political reform, New Labour of course adopted and delivered on a number of the pluralists' commitments. There were, however, also some major elements of the pluralists' agenda that Labour did not deliver on: while most hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords, Labour did not go further in reform of the second chamber. The Jenkins Commission on the voting system reported in 1998 only to be politely but emphatically shelved. This was not accidental. Labour’s attitude to Charter 88 was marked at the outset by wariness and a degree of hostility. The pluralist republicans saw political process not simply as a means to an end but as valuable in itself. By contrast, New Labour adopted a decidedly more instrumentalist view, and took a significantly more managerialist approach.

This offers an interesting way of looking at the emerging perspective of ‘one nation’ Labour. On the one hand, there are some clear similarities between one nation Labour and the New Labour That Wasn’t. This is particularly true around the economy. First, there is the judgment that economic revival must involve industrial renewal. Second, there is an interest in exploring what lessons the German and Nordic economies might have for achieving industrial renewal. But the similarities are much less marked with the political pluralist dimension of the New Labour That Wasn’t. There are, however, important ways in which Labour’s politics could be usefully informed by this spirit. For example, if Labour is serious about radical economic change then it needs to consider how it can build an alliance of social and political forces to support it. Of course it will call on people to join and vote Labour. But it must recognise that many people whose support and energy it needs will belong to other parties or to none.

Positive economic change requires a broad movement and Labour cannot credibly claim simply to be this movement. Nor can it just demand that others follow. It must try to earn leadership through argument in open debate with others – including trade unions, religious groups, community organising initiatives and anti-cuts campaigners.It is encouraging to see that Labour is starting to grapple with the need for serious economic reform. But if there is a lesson to be learned from turning back to the insights of New Labour’s road not taken, it is in seeing that economic reform and political reform are closely intertwined.

This piece originally appeared in Fabian Review

Stuart White teaches political theory at the University of Oxford; Martin O'Neill teaches political theory at the University of York

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stuart White teaches political theory at the University of Oxford; Martin O'Neill teaches political theory at the University of York

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder