Time for an honest appraisal

The former Labour MP and minister responds to a <a href="http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/200

Let me begin with the areas of common ground. Like Neal and John, I want to see a future world that is more equal, sustainable and democratic. I agree the current economic crisis represents an appalling market failure and that new approaches are needed both nationally and globally.

Like them I believe in decentralisation so that citizens and local communities can exert more control over their own lives. And I, too, am a pluralist who believes that Labour can learn from – and should work with - other progressive forces on the big challenges we face.

My disagreement with John and Neal arises from our different analyses of the past 12 years.

This is not to say that I think everything that has happened since 1997 has been perfect – of course not.

I wish we had been bolder in seeking to close the gap between rich and poor. I wish we had made housing a priority from day one. And I wish we had built on our excellent first term democratic reforms to decentralise power in a more thorough and comprehensive fashion. Indeed recent events once again make the case for a different way of doing politics.

Neal and John’s NS article devotes a paltry 37 words to the advances and achievements of the past 12 years and dismisses Labour’s response to the current economic crisis as “business as usual”.

Since 1997 we have seen a sustained strategy to tackle poverty especially in childhood and old age.

As they acknowledge, we have seen massive additional public investment in schools and the NHS. The UK is now a beacon of best practice in international aid and development. Labour has challenged prejudice and discrimination – with a string of progressive legal changes including Civil Partnerships. I could go on.

The terms of political debate have been shifted leftwards so that even the Tories now feel they have to say they will match Labour’s spending plans on schools and the NHS and that they support achieving the UN 0.7 per cent aid target.

Measures to promote equal opportunity and challenge prejudice have been consistently opposed by the Tories – yet now diversity is seen as a test of being a “Cameron Conservative”. Progressives should surely celebrate this as a real achievement.

This brings me to my second fundamental disagreement with John and Neal. I do believe that Labour’s policies are very different to the Tories’. Take the present crisis – had the UK followed George Osborne’s advice we would be in a far worse position than we are and it would be the poorest, most vulnerable communities that would suffer the most.

Clearly, there is massive public disenchantment with party politics and politicians and the renewal of progressive politics is not only about what happens to the Labour Party. However, reform and renewal of the party itself is as important as engaging with social movements - events of the past few days demonstrate this very powerfully. Labour ignores the need for renewal at its peril.

I am a big fan of social movements and have always been involved in them alongside my Labour activism.

People involved in parties often underestimate the importance of civil society – but there is a danger of going too far the other way.

NGOs rightly take on governments and political parties but their solutions need to be subject to challenge too.

There are difficult and complex policy challenges – take the example of Energy Policy. Social movements like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have long campaigned against nuclear energy. Like many others I have changed my mind on this and see nuclear alongside renewables as an important part of the solution to our long term energy needs.

A vibrant progressive politics has to have the ability to engage with these important issues. Yes, let’s celebrate mass participation in NGOs but let’s also engage, argue and challenge.

An oft-repeated charge made again by Neal and John is that New Labour is “market fundamentalist”. I think this is over the top and does not bear close scrutiny.

There are fair criticisms – for example that New Labour allowed City excess to get out of hand or that public service reforms have relied too much on choice as a lever for improvement.

It is a big leap from here to the charge of market fundamentalism. Yes, New Labour has always supported a dynamic private sector and will continue to do so. However, since 1997 Labour has rightly intervened in the market across a wide range of social and economic issues including the minimum wage, maternity & paternity rights, trade union recognition and tougher equalities legislation.

In the public services there has been a mix of approaches – for example Foundation Hospitals and Trust Schools draw upon the mutualism of the Co Op movement.

As we approach the next General Election it is crucial that Labour has a mature, constructive debate about what we can offer in our next manifesto. A starting point must surely be an honest appraisal of the past 12 years. That means people like me acknowledging the failures and the weaknesses alongside the achievements and successes. I hope Neal and John will feel able to be more positive about what has been achieved. I suspect that when it comes to the policies needed to address the challenges of tomorrow we may well agree more than we disagree!