The Purple Book and the future of New Labour

Labour must guard against becoming a conservative force, stuck in the world of 1994 rather than 2011

In 1959, in the wake of Labour's third successive general election defeat, Hugh Gaitskell launched his bid to reform the old Clause IV of the party's constitution. Labour must adapt, he said, 'to be in touch always with ordinary people to avoid becoming small cliques of isolated, doctrine-ridden fanatics, out of touch, with the main stream of social life in our time'.

While Gaitskell's attempt to change Clause IV was unsuccessful, his speech captured well the essence of the party's revisionist tradition - that is, the belief that while values remain constant, the means to attain them must be kept constantly under review in the light of changes in society.

The notion that, as Gaitskell put it, the party should not, "wave the banners of a bygone age" was precisely the argument that Labour's revisionists of the 1980s and 1990s - Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown - made to the party and which set it back on the road to electability.

Without revisionism, Labour might have ceased to exist, clinging to what Kinnock famously denounced in his 1986 conference speech as policies that are 'out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs'.

The case for the continuing relevance of New Labour - with its insistence on the necessity of separating means from ends - hinges on its proponents' acceptance of this place within the revisionist tradition. As the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander argues in the forthcoming issue of Progress magazine, New Labour was "composed of positions, personnel and policies". The personnel have changed and the policies for the 1990s are not going to be the solutions to the problems in the 2010s. But the positions - a determination to prioritise credibility on the economy, to stick to the centre-ground, and a willingness to take bold steps on issues like crime and antisocial behaviour - are ones we reject at great cost.

But New Labour, too, must itself guard against becoming a conservative force, stuck in the world of 1994 rather than 2011. Indeed, Labour's revisionists have made this error before.

Writing in the aftermath of Labour's fourth general election defeat in 1992, the historian David Marquand noted that, 'the values embodied in the ... social democratic middle way - a combination of personal freedom and social justice; of individual fulfilment and public purpose - are as compelling as they always were. But ... the instruments through which the revisionist social democrats of the 1960s and 1970s tried to realise their values broke in the hands of the governments which relied upon them.'

For many, this would be an apt description of New Labour's final years in government. And the solution that Marquand proposed nearly 20 years ago is as relevant today as it was then: 'If revisionist social democracy is to recover intellectually as well as politically, if it is to serve as a governing philosophy after an election as well as providing a platform from which to fight one, it must itself be revised.'

It is as a first contribution to what we hope will be a much-needed new chapter in the story of Labour's revisionist tradition that, alongside Biteback publishing, Progress today publishes The Purple Book.

The book rests on a belief that we need a 'revising of New Labour' and that this requires four things. First, a willingness, in the words of Ed Miliband, to escape the 'false choices' around Labour's electoral strategy. Second, an honest account of New Labour's period in office and its lessons. Third, a willingness to confront the division within the left on the role of the state. And, finally, the development of new policies - guided by the principle of redistributing power - to confront the new challenges facing Britain over the next decade. Crucially, these must be explicitly based on a recognition of the need to restore the public's shattered faith in the ability of the state and the market to widen opportunity, demand responsibility, and strengthen communities.

Comparisons have been made between The Purple Book and The Orange Book. Both attempt to revive a tradition from our respective parties' history that we believe has relevance for the future. But while The Orange Book attempted to revive economic liberalism, The Purple Book attempts no such thing - this has, after all, never been part a central part of Labour's story. We, instead, attempt to revive Labour's decentralising tradition of participation, self-government and "moral reform".

It is the tradition of those such as the Levellers and Thomas Paine who fought and argued for a widening of political rights; of the ethical socialism of RH Tawney and the guild socialism of GDH Cole; of the cooperative movement, Robert Owen, the Rochdale Pioneers and William Morris; of the self-organisation ethos by which the working class built the early trade union movement, the friendly societies and other institutions that reflected their belief in self-help; and the municipal "gas-and-water socialism" of the interwar years.

However diverse this tradition, there is a common thread running through it. Resting on the principles of participation and self-government, it challenges the approach that says that Labour's role should be to win elections, seize the commanding heights of the state and use power to redistribute resources from the few to the many.

Instead, the decentralist tradition requires the left to "create new centres of governance, power and wealth creation, as an alternative to both the centralised state and the private sector". This should be the guiding objective of a future Labour government, and the narrative with which the party describes its mission. The Purple Book begins to set out how.

Robert Philpot is the director of Progress.

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum