The rise and fall of New Labour

The architect of the Third Way argues that although the Blair-Brown years may not have been the new

The era of Labour hegemony is over. How should we assess its legacy? It is conventional these days to disparage Labour's record in government over the past 13 years. Even sympathetic observers argue that little of substance has been achieved. For the more determined critics, Labour in power - Labour as New Labour - has been more than a disappointment; it has been a disaster. The party led an onslaught on civil liberties, betrayed leftist ideals, failed to make any impact on inequality and, worst of all, embarked upon a calamitous war in Iraq. New Labour had promised a "new dawn", and many feel betrayed.

I have some sympathy with these criticisms. Yet it is possible, nevertheless, to mount a robust defence of many of Labour's core policies. And a balanced assessment is needed if the party is to chart an effective path in the future. A realistic starting point for doing so is to compare Labour's period in government with those of its sister parties in other countries over roughly the same period - Bill Clinton and the Democrats in the US, Lionel Jospin's Socialists in France and Germany's SPD, led by Gerhard Schröder.

Labour managed to stay in power longer than any of these - longer, indeed, than any other left-of-centre party in recent times, including those in Scandinavia. The ideological changes associated with the invention of the term "New Labour" were a large part of the reason for this electoral success. "New Labour" was not an empty soundbite designed to disguise a vacuum where policies should have been.

From the outset, the architects of New Labour offered a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-centre politics was needed, coupled with a clear policy agenda. In outline, this diagnosis ran as follows: the values of the left - solidarity, a commitment to reducing inequality and protecting the vulnerable, and a belief in the role of active government - remained intact, but the policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of profound changes going on in the wider world. Such changes included intensifying globalisation, the development of a post-industrial or service economy and, in an information age, the emergence of a more voluble and combative citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process that intensified with the advent of the internet).

Most of Labour's policy prescriptions followed from this analysis. The era of Keynesian demand management, linked to state direction of economic enterprise, was over. A different relationship of government to business had to be established, recognising the vital role of enterprise in wealth creation and the limits of state power. No country, however large and powerful, could control that marketplace: hence the "prawn cocktail offensive" that Labour launched in the mid-1990s to woo the City of London.

The expansion of the service economy went hand in hand with the shrinking of the working class, once the bastion of Labour support. Henceforth, to win elections, a left-of-centre party had to reach a much wider set of voters, including those who had never endorsed it in the past. Labour could no longer represent sectional class interests alone. In Tony Blair - not a Labour tribalist by any description - the party seemed to have found the perfect leader to help it further this aim.

Labour's policies evolved during its years in government. However, some core ideas remained the same. Economic prosperity, in a global­ised marketplace, had to take primacy as the precondition of effective social policy. An increasingly prosperous economy would generate the resources to fund public investment, dispensing with the need to raise taxes. Labour sought to break away from its previous predilection for tax-and-spend. "Prudence" was Gordon Brown's watchword as chancellor. Prudent economic management was essential if welfare spending was to rise and social justice to be enhanced.

Here, Labour had to struggle with the disastrous legacy of the Thatcher years. Inequality had increased more steeply in the UK during those years than in any industrial country except for New Zealand (which had also followed Thatcher-style policies). The welfare system was run-down, so investment in public services, coupled with reforms designed to make them more flexible and more responsive to the needs of their users, became a guiding principle. Labour was to be the party not of the big state, but of the intelligent state.

A further important strand of New Labour policy was its refusal to allow any issues to be "owned" by the right. The task, rather, was to provide left-of-centre solutions to them. This strategy became the focus of attacks by critics worried about its implications for civil liberties, but was vital to Labour's longevity in power. Social democrats fell from power in other countries because of their failure to do the same. In the past, the left had tried to explain away, rather than confront directly, questions having to do with crime, social disorder, migration and cultural identity - as if the concerns citizens had about such issues were misplaced or irrelevant. It was assumed, for example, that most crime resulted from inequality, and that once inequality was reduced, crime would inevitably decline. Without denying the connection, New Labour took a different view. Tony Blair's 1997 manifesto pledge "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" was not just a slogan; it was adopted as a principle of policy.

It might seem a long way from these concerns to New Labour's emphasis on the need for an activist foreign policy. But it is not. Because of globalisation, domestic and foreign policy now overlap each other far more than previously. Britain faces no visible threat of invasion, but must be prepared to assume an active role in the wider world. Interventionism becomes necessary doctrine when national sovereignty has lost much of its meaning and where there are universal humanitarian concerns that override local interests. Transnational terrorism, itself a creature of globalisation, is a threat far greater than the more localised forms of terrorism prevalent in the past.

How far did these strategies and policies bear fruit? Labour's record is distinctly patchy, but it would be hard to deny that it has had far more impact than did any of the other centre-left governments mentioned above. The UK enjoyed ten years of unbroken economic growth, not to be dismissed as simply based on a housing and credit bubble. That growth took place alongside the introduction of a national minimum wage. Large-scale investment was made in public services and significant reform was achieved in the areas of health and education.

Wage and income inequality was contained, though not significantly reduced. The position of the poor, however, improved substantially. Targets to reduce child poverty were not met, but before the recession 600,000 children were raised out of relative poverty; measured against an absolute standard, the number is about twice that figure.

The New Deal, Sure Start and tax credit policies have all had their difficulties, but have mostly proved their worth. Even the much-derided PFI has worked, at least when measured against public procurement. Devolution of power to Scotland and Wales has largely been successful, and what looks like a lasting peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland. Crime rates have come down substantially in the UK as a whole, and Britain has made a more fruitful adaptation to increasing cultural diversity than most other European countries.

From a party so often seen as illiberal and authoritarian, there were substantial achievements in the opposite direction. Labour signed up to the EU Social Chapter, together with the European Convention on Human Rights, introduced a Freedom of Information Act and endorsed civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Britain is a more liberal and tolerant society than it was, and Labour's policies played a part in this change. In foreign policy, overseas aid was increased well beyond anything preceding Tory governments had managed.

The military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo - where Blair played a crucial role in persuading the Americans to contemplate deploying ground forces - and Sierra Leone were widely regarded as successes. If only he had stopped there! Nothing corroded Blair's re­putation more than his ill-starred decision to become George Bush's main partner in the invasion of Iraq.

Other far-reaching mistakes were made. The experiment with spin and media management during Labour's early years in power backfired and helped to create the impression that New Labour was about presentation rather than policy. Blair did not succeed in integrating Britain more closely into the EU, and some of his closest relationships with other European leaders - notably with the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi - were puzzling.

It was right to argue that Labour should become more business-friendly, and it was also right to recognise the importance of the City to the British economy. But it was a fundamental error to allow the prawn cocktail offensive to evolve into fawning dependence, with the result that the UK was transformed into a kind of gigantic tax haven. The idea that Labour should be "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" not only exacerbated inequalities, but also helped to create a culture of irresponsibility. Bosses protected themselves from the risks they asked their employees to bear.

I don't accept the simplistic idea that New Labour was just a continuation of Thatcherism. Labour's policies involved extensive government intervention in economic life, although mainly on the supply side. And there was a genuine preoccupation with increasing social justice - a notion alien to Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and their guru Milton Friedman. Yet Blair and Brown should have made it much clearer than they did that recognising the virtues of markets is quite different from prostrating oneself before them. Market fundamentalism should have been more explicitly criticised and its limitations exposed. As for proportional representation and wider constitutional reform - surely Labour should have endorsed these as a matter of principle, not as a result of political expediency?

The other parties have had to respond to the agenda that New Labour set. The Tories now endorse gay rights, accept the necessity of reducing poverty, support the Climate Change and Energy Acts that Labour introduced, and will continue most of the labour-market reforms that were made. In propagating the idea of the "big society", the Conservatives are drawing upon the same communitarian traditions that Tony Blair also endorsed. Naturally, they may retreat from these emphases, but at the moment they look genuine.

The global financial crisis, foreseen by very few, seems to have put an end to the world that helped to shape New Labour. Suddenly, everything has gone into juddering reverse: Keynesianism and government economic intervention are back. No one denies that we should seek to regulate the financial markets that once seemed so omni­potent. A tax on world financial transactions, previously dismissed as unrealistic, is now on the cards. It is, after all, possible to elevate the tax rates of the rich.

Meanwhile, there is talk among all the main parties of a return to an active industrial policy and of a renaissance of manufacturing. Climate change and other environmental risks, which Labour did little to confront until late on, are now at the heart of mainstream political concerns. Planning, for years in the shadows, is once more on the agenda, as are severe public spending cuts - the very opposite of the bold, expanding social investment on which New Labour policy was built. Fiscal prudence has ceded place to huge borrowing and very large accumulated debt.

New Labour as such is dead, and it is time to abandon the term. Yet some of the core social and economic trends to which it was a response still obtain, and significant portions of its policy framework remain relevant. In the future, Labour will still need to attract mainstream, affluent voters, against the background of a changing political culture in which the electronic media play a growing role. While it makes eminent sense to aim to reduce the dominance of the financial sector in the economy and encourage a renaissance in manufacturing, the UK will continue to be a post-industrial economy, with service- and knowledge-based occupations dominant.

Welfare reform will loom as large as ever, even more so when efficient spending will be a priority. The problem of sustaining progressive policies on immigration and multiculturalism without losing voter appeal will remain, as will that of how to reduce citizens' anxieties about crime. So, too, will that of finding an appropriate balance between civil liberties, on the one hand, and protecting the country against the threat posed by international terrorism on the other. Keynes is back in fashion, but there can be no return to Keynesian demand management as practised between 1945 and 1979. The challenge ahead of us is to preserve and enhance the flexibility and creativity that markets engender, while turning these qualities to long-term, socially desirable goals.

Fundamental rethinking is needed and a fresh set of policies has to be created. The key problem for Labour out of power will be to minimise the internal squabbling that afflicts so many parties, especially on the left, following an election defeat. Ideological reconstruction could have a decisive role here. The starting point should be to redefine the role of the public sphere.

“Blairites", it could be said, leaned more towards the market than "Brownites", who were keener on the state. However, the public sphere is distinguishable both from markets and from the state, and can be used as a platform for reconstructing each. Labour can be seen to be groping towards such an insight with its attempts, in the wake of the financial crisis, to reintroduce the idea of mutualism to political debate. These rather primitive efforts should be developed further and applied to the task of constructing a form of responsible capitalism, coupled to a sophisticated approach to issues of sustainability.

Anthony Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics and a Labour peer.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain