August should be the month in which Gordon Brown reboots the Labour Party. Faced with a wall of criticism and media hostility, the opportunity to upgrade to a fresh script - articulating Labour’s message of fairness and fair play in times of economic austerity - should be seized.
There is no shortage of advice about tactics and stylistics. But at the end of the day Labour’s salvation can only come from clear policy leadership, boldness and ideas that inspire.
Eleven years ago, Labour needed to break in to new territory to prove its credentials and demonstrate it could govern competently. Today, Labour needs to break out of the establishment mode and free itself from the administrative mindset, that stifling managerialism which risks conveying a sense of bureaucratic torpor.
Ministers need to raise their sights, step back from the daily churn of micro-management, and apply the core value of fairness to their portfolios. Instead of defensive politics, standing on a stage explaining to a frustrated audience that everything is under control, Labour politicians should be in the stalls, on the same side as the public, throwing criticism and demands at the vested interests that still hamper social and economic progress.
Labour’s enduring ambitions for fairness need reiterating urgently. A sense of fight, urgency, and hunger to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few must now be Gordon Brown’s course of action.
The first iteration of New Labour was right for its time. When politics is easy and your opponents are on the run, ‘triangulating’ is a simple task, where political terrain can be captured because the public are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.
When politics is tough and the Opposition attempting to grab territory, then classic triangulating devices are less likely to succeed.
Instead, New Labour 2.0 needs an entirely different approach. Gordon Brown should take advantage of Cameron’s attempts to appear centrist, deploying some well targeted propositions that would stretch his coalition-building efforts beyond breaking point. Wedge issues that resonate with robust Labour values need to pierce Conservative vulnerability in a bold and agenda-capturing manner.
Self-contained and requiring minimal explanation, we need clear Labour ideas that say exactly what they do on the tin and that the Tories would be loathe to be seen opposing. And there is no shortage of potential policy measures.
For example, hypothecating revenue from pockets of privilege and directing resource into fairer, more popular causes was a hallmark of the first version of New Labour’s pledge card; taking resources from the assisted places scheme to cut class sizes; the windfall on privatised utility profits for the New Deal; cutting NHS red tape to reduce waiting lists. New Labour 2.0 should apply this core strategy afresh.
A windfall levy on excessive energy company profits would be a good start but only if the resources are explicitly ring-fenced for easing the pain on the vast majority of the population aggrieved at their rising bills. Suspending the 5 per cent VAT on fuel bills would go down well. Clear, straightforward, fair and New Labour 2.0.
Take another example: how better to show the public Labour is on their side than a £200 cut in council tax bills? This could be achieved if a modest 10p ‘community payback levy’ were introduced on individual earnings above £250,000 a year – asking the super-rich to pay something back to society by relieving the burden on the vast majority of households.
New Labour’s fundamentals need to be preserved; fighting for fair play and fair rewards for hard work and enterprise. Social justice and economic efficiency are compatible, and any renewed version of New Labour needs to sustain that delicate balance.
A progressive centre-left approach has enduring appeal especially in protecting working people from the excesses of market failure. The government is right to encourage a thriving financial services industry, but simultaneously it must act to restrain excessive profiteering and irresponsibility by those in positions of power.
There are ample examples of reckless hedging and short-selling, banking excesses leaving householders in mortgage jeopardy, where a progressive government should be seen standing up on the side of ordinary people and shaping a well-balanced, well-regulated economic environment.
While the Tories are fixated on 'detoxifying' their brand, toning down their fundamental reputation, for Labour the focus must be to rejuvenate its brand, toning up the core component of fairness, finding fresh definition and edge to sharpen the message and rediscover Labour's campaigning characteristics.
The public are not dogmatically Conservative or Labour – they want a strong lead from whichever party offers the fairest solutions in difficult times. The government’s operating system needs updating for contemporary circumstances, weeding out obsolete constraints and offering new functional appeal based on its core strengths.
New Labour’s original vigour can be distilled and reapplied, disentangled from the risk-averse establishment mindset, with a bold emphasis on fairness and change winning respect once again. This is the new software that Labour now requires.
Chris Leslie is director of the New Local Government Network. He was MP for Shipley between 1997 and 2005 and a minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs