What is left of New Labour, beyond a buzz-phrase that recalls a more confident and careless era: Cool Britannia, Noel Gallagher at No 10 and Tony Blair emoting over the death of Diana Windsor?
Gordon Brown can partly blame the apparent lack of coherent direction in his government on his predecessor. Mr Blair was always very good at articulating what New Labour wasn’t. It was “neither old left, nor new right”. It was anti-nationalisation; anti-explicit redistribution; anti-socialist. In fact, Mr Blair defined his politics as being against traditional Labour Party and leftist positions.
Mr Brown, as one of three (along with Peter Mandelson) architects of New Labour, cannot escape blame for the shedding of all ideology for the sake of popular electability: New Labour was a coalition of pragmatism founded, above all else, on the desire to gain and then hold on to power, at all costs – indeed at any cost – even if it meant Labour allying itself with the extremist and repugnant Bush administration and launching an illegal and ruinous war in Iraq.
New Labour, with Mr Brown as Chancellor, was seldom more than good on rhetoric. Mr Brown did, however, seek to remain true to Labour’s social-democratic heritage by attempting to pursue redistribution during a time of plenty, albeit largely by stealth.
Now, the government drifts, at once unable to decide on how to combat David Cameron’s Conservatives and unsure of its own values: for so long a party of neoliberalism, Labour is, in extremis, seeking to reinvent itself as a party of greater equality and fairness. Certainly, in recent days, the government has made several promising moves which may appeal to the electorate more than to the Cameron-loving and Brown-hating media. (The Guardian can scarcely contain its admiration for Mr Cameron; its interview with the Tory intellectual Michael Gove on 25 April was a model of swooning sycophancy of the kind that the riven and troubled newspaper regularly serves up when reporting on the Conservatives.)
The trick in the run-up to the next general election will be to ensure that such initiatives form part of a larger narrative – and crucially one that is social-democratic in nature. As the events of the past week have shown, Labour has much to say about some of the most pressing issues affecting the UK. The move in the Budget to raise the top bracket of tax was symbolic: even with measures to crack down on tax evasion, the most it can aim to raise appears to be several billion pounds. Nonetheless, the idea that the wealthiest 1 per cent of society should not shoulder more of the burden during a recession is absurd. If Barack Obama can succeed George W Bush as US president on an open platform of “sharing the wealth”, Mr Brown, likewise, should be able to articulate convincingly the case for what in practice is a mild tax increase at the top.
Second, the Equality Bill, introduced on 24 April, is promising in its attempt to create a legal framework against discrimination on class and gender grounds. Both have been criticised as heralding a “return to Old Labour”, whatever that means. But action on social inequality is necessary, however belated, and even Mr Blair should be praised for his commitment to social liberalism, helped by Labour’s policy of all-women shortlists for incoming MPs.
The Conservatives and their avid supporters in the press resolutely refuse to contextualise the economic crisis. This is not a crisis of capitalism, they say. Instead, the recession and Labour’s wild spending merely vindicate a return to monetarism and the need to slash spending now.
The urgent issue of national debt, from which the opposition is seeking to make maximum capital, must be set in perspective. True, there is a hole in the public finances, not least because of a new lack of revenue from the City, rising benefit payments and the ailing housing market. But, as a proportion of GDP, the UK’s debt, at roughly 44 per cent, remains smaller than that of the United States (60 per cent), Japan (170 per cent) and France (64 per cent). On debt, indeed, Britain remains positioned mid-table around the world.
However, the economy shows no sign of a quick-fix recovery. Much will depend on whether the Chancellor’s revised forecast of an upturn in growth comes good by next spring. But this is surely wishful thinking from Mr Darling: this recession will be deep and long, and the nation and our politics will emerge from it profoundly changed.