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

Getty Images.
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad