“We’ll win when we become New Labour”

The reforming Tories around David Cameron and George Osborne are determined to pick up where Tony Bl

If the party chatter at Labour conference was all politics - would Gordon survive or would Miliband the Elder step aside for the much-favoured Miliband the Younger? - the Tories are in full wonk mode. "What should we do about the Educational Maintenance Allowance?" is the kind of question they'll be asking over the canapés in Manchester. Or: "How will the pupil premium work?"

Economic policy is at the fore, and it is frankly the area in which the Conservatives have the most work to do. But public service reform runs a close second. The reforming Tories clustered around David Cameron and George Osborne are determined to pick up where Tony Blair left off. Many of these bright young things are undisguised admirers of Blair, but they think he was too slow in seeing that real reform in the public sector means giving power away, rather than setting targets from the centre. The reason Blair had "scars on his back" from trying to reshape the public services is that he fell into the trap of attempting to run schools and hospitals from his sofa in Downing Street. So his first parliamentary term was wasted.

Heirs to Blair

The new Conservative/old Blairite mission is to use consumer choice to produce better, fairer public services. The idea is to create what the New Labour academic Julian Le Grand has called "quasi-markets" - but then rig these markets in favour of the poor. Labour made a start in both health and education, with foundation hospitals and academy schools. But then Blair ran out of road. Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, wants to give choice to parents over which school to send their children to, with money following the pupil wherever he or she goes. But crucially, he also plans to weight the choice in favour of the least advantaged by giving them a "pupil premium". Parents will also be able to use the money to set up their own schools, although few are expected to do so. The National Curriculum will be slimmed down. Head teachers will get much more power over pay and rations.

Tory education policy is an example of undiluted Blairism. It chimes perfectly with Cameron's calls for a "radical redistribution of power" and with the call in Leading from the Front, a new pamphlet from Demos, for more discretion and power to be given to front-line public servants. Conservative plans to give local councils greater authority are another part of the drive for more diversity, competition and accountability.

Three years ago, one of Cameron's inner circle said to me: "We'll win when we become New Labour, and Labour ceases to be New Labour." On education, both demands have been met. Labour still talks the language of reform here, but is back to tinkering from the centre. On these pages, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, has said he doesn't need think tanks to work out that there is a "false choice between heavy-handed statism which does not respect individual choices and a so-called progressive liberalism that sees the state as the enemy of individual freedom". But this is the minister who made cooking classes mandatory in every school, and even gave his own recipe suggestions (shepherd's pie and apple crumble); the minister who, in July, made home-school agreements compulsory; the minister who wants state checks on parents giving the neighbours' kids a lift to Scout meetings.

The Tories have ring-fenced spending on the National Health Service - instead of education, which would make more sense - and have opposed many Labour reforms aimed at giving more power to patients. They appear willing to give up some of Labour's hard-won ground to GPs on out-
of-hours working.

Luddite on health

The politics of this are obvious. As part of the detoxification of the Tory brand, it was vital to be seen as a friend of the NHS. Tory high command knows the media would love to run "Tories to privatise health service" stories. The Tories know, too, that they will have to fight the teachers' unions to get their education reforms through, and have calculated that they can't afford to fight the health unions at the same time. They don't want a war on two fronts.

But they are now in danger of losing some political credibility. While Lansley blows kisses at the doctors, the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, is pushing ahead with reform. As well as giving patients the right to choose their own GP, he is driving individual budgets for social care and shifting resources into preventative health.

It is a reflection of the weird, refractive nature of current politics that the Conservatives are Blairite on education and Luddite on health, while Labour is regressing on schools reform but still heroically wrestling with the NHS.

When the Tories win next year, they will need a true moderniser in health care: someone with impeccable reformist credentials, a reputation for strong departmental management and a willingness to fight the trade unions. How about Peter Mandelson?

Richard Reeves is director of Demos

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times