Wanted: new-thinking pioneers

The intellectuals whose thinking underpinned Labour's return to office in 1997 have moved on. Where

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What if people who want to see this government re-elected could see beyond the horrors of the past few weeks (the 10p tax-rate fiasco, the crumbling poll ratings, Labour's pitiful "anti-toff" campaign in Crewe and Nantwich, the growing triumphalism of the Conservative Party) and look at the wider political horizon? What would they find there?

The truth is that they would see a landscape largely barren of ideas. This is the true state of progressive opinion today. It is difficult to think of a single academic, writer or intellectual who is fully signed up to the Labour project as it exists in 2008. In fact, it is difficult to describe it as a project at all.

This is odd, because Labour's recovery under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was founded on a solid intellectual bedrock. The philosophy of the New Labour project, once described as the Third Way, is sometimes written off as an empty shell, but this is unfair. Even its most eloquent detractors recognised the attraction of its message. In his 2001 book Against the Third Way, the Trotskyist Alex Callinicos, then professor of politics at York University, wrote: "The attraction of the Third Way lies in the promise it offers of escaping the dead ends we have inherited from the past. Confronted with the unpalatable alternatives of Stalinism and Thatcherism, who wouldn't prefer a third way?" Who indeed? Not the generation of young politicians which now dominates British politics. Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Balls and David Miliband all grew to adulthood between the miners' strike of 1984 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. All three major parties practise a form of Third Way politics. Despite its apparent collapse, the politics of the 21st century will be built from the rubble of New Labour.

Callinicos has argued that Labour under Tony Blair was never a genuine alternative for the left. Instead, New Labour became an essentially right-wing, neoliberalist exercise, outstripping even its Tory predecessors in its fervour for the private sector. The columnist George Monbiot made a similar point on Tuesday in the Guardian when he argued that the present government was the most right-wing since the war.

Like it or not, however, New Labour was always as much an intellectual concept as it was an electoral strategy. It emerged from left-wing think tanks, the pages of publications such as Marxism Today and New Left Review and, to a certain extent, from the ashes of the Social Democratic Party. For a time it appeared to offer a genuine alternative to traditional socialism.

In the early days, intellectuals of the Third Way put themselves at the service of New Labour. Roger Liddle, a founder of the SDP and the author, with Peter Mandelson, of The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? (1996), became a special adviser on European affairs to the new prime minister, Blair. Geoff Mulgan, a founder of the think tank Demos, became director of the government's Strategy Unit and later head of policy in the prime minister's office.

Hugely influential was the New Statesman contributor Professor Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics, whose 1994 book Beyond Left and Right is often seen as the founding text of the Third Way. Although Giddens never worked for the government, his thinking influenced those formulating New Labour policy.

Another important figure, Matthew Taylor, went from the Labour Party to work as director of the Institute for Public Policy Research before becoming chief adviser on strategy to the prime minister in 2003.

Interestingly, each of the figures above has retreated from direct involvement in the political sphere. Although some important New Labour thinkers, such as David Miliband and Andrew Adonis have gone on to become ministers and retain a role in the post-Blair world, most have not. Liddle now works on European issues for the international think tank Policy Network. Mulgan, perhaps the single most important intellectual figure in New Labour's history, left No 10 in 2004. He now leads the Young Foundation, an organisation based in east London, which attempts to put new political ideas into action on the ground, free from the restrictions of central government. Taylor has become the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, which he has turned into a forum for new ideas very much independent from his old political masters. Of the younger generation of New Labour intellectuals, Patrick Diamond, who worked in Blair's policy unit, now works as director of policy and strategy at the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

Recent publications by these New Labour thinkers suggest that they are no longer entirely focused on domestic policy. Diamond's Shifting Alliances (2008) examines Britain's increasingly troubled relationship with Europe and America, while Mulgan's Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government (2006) hoovers up examples from around the globe through a thousand years of political history.

Intellectual rebirth

The present occupant of No 10 Downing Street would be proud to describe himself as an intellectual. At the same time, his three closest political allies - Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander - are all quite capable of knocking off a political pamphlet for a think tank. But, crucially, they have yet to establish themselves as pioneers of new thinking. In the present political climate, even exceptional behind-the-scenes strategists such as Dan Corry, the present head of the No 10 Policy Unit, or Nick Pearce, Brown's strategy adviser, are in no position to think in the long term.

Those who left the heart of government may be better placed in this regard. It is as well not to be too conspiratorial about these things, but many of the Blair-era intellectuals continue to work closely together. For instance, Giddens, Diamond and Liddle are the co-authors of Global Europe, Social Europe (2006). Giddens and Diamond also co-wrote The New Egalitarianism (2005). All three are associated with Policy Network, on whose board they all serve, alongside the Blairite former cabinet ministers Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn.

There are signs of intellectual rebirth on the left, mostly driven by the women who lead the left-wing think tanks, as Richard Reeves has pointed out in these pages. Catherine Fieschi at Demos is a genuinely independent thinker, Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim at IPPR have both worked in government and Ann Rossiter at the Social Market Foundation is pure New Labour. But none could be described as a Brownite, and they have not been driving the Labour policy agenda.

As the anniversary of Brown's coronation as Labour leader approaches, murmurs of a challenger grow in volume. Charles Clarke has denied he will stand as a stalking-horse candidate, despite his criticism of the government's direction from the back benches. The website Politicalbetting has reported that Alan Milburn is planning a leadership bid after Crewe and Nantwich, when the Prime Minister is likely to be at his weakest. Whether or not this is true, the machinery and personnel remain in place to continue the intellectual tradition of the Third Way.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?