Golden Brown

The next Labour leader should learn the lessons of 1992, says Steve Richards.

Even at the end of a long leadership campaign, there is no clear sense that any of the candidates fully understands why Tony Blair and Gordon Brown won three elections, and there has been only a vague attempt to explain what went wrong. Yet until lessons are learned, positive and negative, Labour will struggle to win again. A key to Labour's victories after its calamitous defeat in 1992 was Brown's determined, ruthlessly disciplined development of an economic policy. It commanded wide support (for a time) and gave him space to increase public spending while redistributing fairly extensively.

As shadow chancellor in the early 1990s, Brown faced a nightmarish dilemma: voters did not want Labour to spend any more of their money and yet the decrepit public services were in need of huge investment. It has become fashionable to attack Brown for having been too dependent on tax receipts from the financial services industry to fund the increases in spending. But politicians, especially Labour ones, function in tiny amounts of space most of the time, and if anyone cares to look back at the public and media mood in the mid-1990s, few would argue that there was an alternative route. Nonetheless, by 2002, Brown was in a strong enough position to propose openly a tax rise to pay for big increases in spending on the National Health Service. This formed the centrepiece of the most popular Budget since polling began, even winning the backing of a majority of Conservative voters.

Brown's career peaked before his overwhelming desire to replace Blair led him to make some terrible misjudgements. But, for ten years, from 1992 to 2002, he was the biggest figure in British politics.

It is strange, therefore, that in the retelling of New Labour history, only passing reference is made to economic policy, and this is invariably done out of context. So Blair's memoirs refer fleetingly to the increased investment in public services as if it were a policy as peripheral as opening a new chip shop in Southend. In Peter Mandelson's account, the economy barely features until he gets to the dramas of the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Labour ministers came and went, more interested in pouring poison into the ears of influential columnists about "reform", and the importance of remaining New Labour, than they were in advancing economic policy. (What was a Blairite economic policy? Actually, Blair answered that question in the postscript to his memoirs. It is the same as George Osborne's, which does not get the new Labour leader very far.)

Contrary to current mythology, Brown was more ambitious than Blair in what he sought to achieve in policy. And he shared with Blair an instinct that Britain was a centre-right country, but had a unique way of coping with it. His public narrative was apolitical. He spoke of Britishness, prudence, purpose, fairness and consensus - who could possibly be against any of this? Behind the narrative, he was taxing stealthily, targeting help on poorer areas and over time vastly increasing public spending. Only after the policies were implemented did he put the case for them; look in vain for arguments about increases in spending in 1997.

By 2005, Brown was retrospectively hailing increases that he did not argue for in advance. Working on the assumption that the British media would not report such arguments fairly, he adopted words and phrases that the Tory-supporting newspapers could not oppose. Crucially, he did not put the case for the 2002 tax increases during the 2001 election. It is true that he refused to rule out National Insurance increases - resisting pressure from some timid Blairites to do so - but that was as far as he went. Similarly, the decision to increase taxes on high earners was made only after the 2005 election. During that campaign, which culminated in Labour's third victory, he pledged not to increase income-tax rates.

The tax factor

The new Labour leader and shadow chancellor will face challenges similar to those that Brown confronted in 1992, and while it has become orthodox to cast the former PM as a disaster, the next Labour generation can learn much from him - especially his days in opposition. Consider that, for newspaper support, Labour can rely only on the Daily Mirror: hostility towards the party is similar to that of the early 1990s. Consider, too, the media consensus that any move to the left of David Cameron is a lurch back to the vote-losing ways of the 1980s. The papers are not as influential as they were, but their power to shape opinion remains significant.

Meanwhile, the new leader will face a coalition that has a political strategy as much as an economic one. Cameron and Osborne hope to propose tax cuts at the next election. They note that Margaret Thatcher won landslides, with little over 40 per cent of the vote, using a tax-cutting strategy. They might not be in a position to make such a move, but what if they are?

During the contest, most of the leadership candidates put the argument for higher taxes rather than spending cuts. There is a strong case for such a balance. But can Labour win an election on such a basis, and without the support of most newspapers? The question that Brown had no choice but to address in 1992 is back.

Steve Richards's book "Whatever It Takes" is published by Fourth Estate (£14.99). His series "The Brown Years" is running for another two Tuesdays at 9am on BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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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