The Purple Book: a Progressive Future for Labour

These colours don't run.

The Purple Book: a ProgressiveFuture for Labour
Edited by Robert Philpot
Biteback, 320pp, £9.99

Reassessing New Labour: Market, State and Society Under Blair and Brown
Edited by Patrick Diamond and Michael Kenny
Wiley-Blackwell/Political Quarterly, 220pp, £17.99

The fightback got off to a slow start. Labour wasted weeks on a leadership election that could have been over in half the time. A year of near-silence followed as the opposition front bench waited for reports from a plethora of policy reviews, rather than risk advancing ideas of their own. Most surprisingly, there has been very little freelance advice from the party's political and intellectual elite. The charitable interpretation of their reticence is that they were waiting to have something worthwhile to say. On the evidence of two volumes of essays - The Purple Book and Reassessing New Labour - that was not always the case.

Neither book is held together by a consistent view of Labour's ideological foundations. There are recurring themes - most notably references to the previous government's failure to recognise the concerns of those on whom it depended and the unpopularity of what its critics called "top-down" government. Some contributors exhibit an almost mystical belief in the often-advocated but never-defined notion of "renewal". Yet there is no agreement, in either volume, about the reasons for Labour's defeat.

In The Purple Book, Peter Mandelson suggests that "we lost not because of our record but because voters were not convinced that we were the right choice for the future". But Douglas Alexander has enough courage and common sense to admit that the Blair and Brown administrations made fundamental mistakes: "anxieties about the past" - by which he means fear of the extremism that had already been defeated - made Labour "move from being market phobic to being market enthusiasts", as well as overtly "relaxed about the super-rich". He also cites the national minimum wage as evidence that "regulation" is an essential weapon in the social democrat's armoury. The minimum wage, however, is a product of the "heavy-handed centralist approach" that many other contributors to The Purple Book excoriate.

Much of that volume is a reiteration of Third Way orthodoxy as interpreted by the Progress think tank. Alexander is a happy exception to that rule. Tristram Hunt - in a sentence that should be added to the Labour constitution - is another. He sets out one of the precepts on which the party's policy should be based. "In choosing freedom," Hunt writes, "we reject the false dichotomy between freedom and equality." That assertion contains the assumption too obvious to demand explanation - that greater equality is the basic aim of social democracy. He goes on to explain the importance of positive freedom - "freedom to" as well as "freedom from". As Tony Crosland said, "Until we are truly equal we will not be truly free."

Alexander and Hunt provide a welcome antidote to Robert Philpot's introduction to The Purple Book. Philpot, director of Progress, quotes R H Tawney on the failures of the 1931 Labour government. Comparing what happened then with events 80 years later is wholly fatuous, except in one particular - the size of the defeat. But then, it seems the mechanics of victory and defeat are all that Philpot wants to examine. Much of his essay does no more than draw attention to the result of polling on public attitudes. The implication is that Labour's main task is to discover what it must do and say in order to return to power. In fact, Labour's future depends on its success in reviving its reputation as a party of principle. One of the reasons it lost last year was the suspicion that all it believed in was opinion polls.

No doubt Philpot will argue that he was only setting the political scene, yet he explains that the title The Purple Book is meant to focus readers' attention on the politically ambivalent constituencies that the party must win to regain office. Let us hope that Labour's soi-disant philosophers will soon run out of colours and turn to real ideas instead. One day it will be necessary to focus our attention on which way the political wind blows. Now, there is an absolute need to develop new Labour policy, as distinct from revising social-democratic ideology. If all that that amounts to is calculating the preferences of voters in marginal seats, the party is doomed.

Peter Kellner, in Reassessing New Labour, deals almost exclusively with opinion polls. As numbers are his trade, he can hardly be blamed for that. But comparing his essay with the work of other writers in this collection shows how dangerous it is to base policy on calculations rather than convictions. Kellner says, no doubt correctly, that "general rises in taxation will continue to be unpopular". However, that has to be set against Paul Gregg's chapter on "New Labour and Inequality", which concludes that "the obsession with not raising income tax rates, which are strongly progressive, meant that tax income was increased through highly regressive stealth taxes", negating much of the reduction in inequality that tax credits and benefit reform had achieved.

Most of the contributors to Reassessing New Labour exhibit an admirable ability to deal with the issues of the moment without appearing to be more interested in fashion than in feasibility. Gillian Duffy - Gordon Brown's Rochdale nemesis - is quoted as often as R H Tawney. Guy Lodge and Rick Muir offer a remedy for dissatisfaction with national politics and national politicians that is obvious yet novel. What they call the "equity and diversity conundrum" can be solved by guaranteeing a national level of minimum public services and allowing localities, if they choose, to improve on it. That requires the Labour leadership to abandon the metropolitan myth that "English municipal authorities are generally poor in service delivery". At last, someone has made it plain that striking a proper balance between local autonomy and equity depends on the rehabilitation of local government.

It is this sort of clear and bold analysis - not influenced by attempts to justify the unjustifiable or the unthinking acceptance of Third Way shibboleths - that makes Reassessing New Labour much the superior book of these two. Take John Denham and Tim Horton on welfare. "The wholesale move away from support for earned entitlement towards means testing," Denham writes, "gradually eroded the sense that playing to the rules was rewarded." Horton's essay, "Solidarity Lost?", defends universalism in stronger language: "Nothing could be worse for the long-term interests of the poorest than taking middle-class households out of the benefits and services they rely on." The result is "sink services".
It would be unreasonable to expect these two books of essays to be of universally high quality. For the debate to go on, we must accept
that some interventions will add very little to our understanding of the task that lies ahead. In his foreword to Reassessing New Labour, James Purnell tells us that "the content is not as important as the message" - a sentiment that hovers somewhere between the meaningless and the absurd. Commenting on another effusion of pretentious nonsense, Ed Miliband, half-jokingly, said: "Let a thousand flowers bloom." Agreed. But, over the next year or two, a great deal of weeding will be necessary.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter