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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.